Lady Blackbird – Black Acid Soul
(Foundation Music/BMG. Album Review by John Bungey)
She’s always had the voice – a soulful instrument that combines the drama of Tina Turner with the bluesy blur of Amy Winehouse – and she has the presence. But although Marley Munroe began singing big glossy R&B in 2003 and tried out alt. rock the LA-based singer struggled to find her tribe.
Time for another rethink: Black Acid Soul recasts Munroe as Lady Blackbird. With producer Chris Seefried she has stripped away the backing, foregrounded her voice and embraced soul-jazz (and adding a posh honorific to your new name never seems to hurt – from Lady Day to Lady Gaga). A trickle of singles and hyper-stylised videos last year won praise, with Gilles Peterson calling her “the Grace Jones of jazz”. Now the long-delayed debut album is here and the hype is largely justified: Black Acid Soul is a potent record that, without sounding self-consciously retro, harks back to an era before AutoTune and Pro Tools.
Munroe is a decent songwriter herself but Black Acid Soul mostly comprises Sixties tunes once performed by Nina Simone, Tim Hardin, Irma Thomas and others.
Some, like Sam Cooke’s sparsely arranged Lost and Lookin’ and Simone’s civil rights anthem Blackbird, need little reworking to suit the album’s spare, haunting mood. Blackbird builds over pulsing bowed bass – no percussion – and a sprinkling of piano notes from Deron Johnson (he played on Miles Davis’s swansong Doo Bop, but don’t hold that against him). Simone’s authority is tough to emulate but this version comes close.
The biggest production, with strings and a choir, is Beware the Stranger. Here a funky dancefloor-filler by The Voices of East Harlem is slowed down and filled with dramatic menace. Song choices are far from obvious – Collage is a strong tune from the 1969 debut album of the rock band James Gang, who once featured guitar-wrangler Joe Walsh. Fix It is a ballad built around the two chords underpinning – take your pick – Bill Evans’s Peace Piece or Miles Davis’s Flamenco Sketches. Perversely perhaps, the darkly atmospheric title track is the only one without a lead vocal; instead a gospel choir emerges from a psychedelic stew of arco bass, simmering strings and low-budget electric organ.
OK, it’s a little early for albums of the year but Lady Blackbird will make the running. Last year the singer told The Voice that she wanted to make music that was about more than “bubblegum and bullshit”; on Black Acid Soul she has done just that.
Black Acid Soul is released on 3 September 2021.