Jamie Lidell – Compass | Album Review

From time to time I’ve found myself wondering why Jamie Lidell is not more of a household name. With some catchy-yet-credible singles under his belt, and an impressive retro voice you would think he’d have at least garnered the type of attention bestowed on his namesake and less-vocally-talented Jazz counterpart Jamie Cullum.

Looking like a science geek who harbours a kinky secret, one wouldn’t expect that kind of voice to come out of Lidell. And it’s a vocal style peculiar to English soul boys; from Jay Kay, Lewis Taylor and erstwhile Artful Dodger collaborator Robbie Craig to a pre-pop/rock Jamie Scott and more recently Mamas Gun lead singer, Andy Platts. Lidell’s voice however is possibly the most authentically soulful out of the lot, which should be riposte enough to those music journos who have rather unfairly labelled his sound as affected.

On his previous two records, 2005’s Multiply and 2008’s Jim by his own admission – and as observed by critics – Lidell purposefully moved away from Electronica, his former base to focus on material that would best showcase his voice. He succeeded too; the production on both Jim and Multiply sounded convincingly vintage without being gimmicky or over-done.

On his latest effort, Compass, Jamie experiments with different soundscapes which doesn’t leave so much room for his voice to take centre stage this time. In fact it’s just another instrument in the mix. Sometimes Lidell’s vocals are deliberately distorted, slowed down to a sinister growl. On other occasions he doesn’t quite hit the correct note… and that’s all right. It just makes it all the more raw and vulnerable as is probably intended.

Jamie admits that he has undergone an especially trying time emotionally in the two years since his last release and the weight of that is felt in his vocal delivery and the generally darker tone of Compass. Lidell recruits the likes of Beck, Nikki Costa and the ever-delightful Feist to realise his sonic dream for this album and the results are…well, odd to say the least.

In truth, although it’s very different in style and texture to his last two records, Compass often suffers from the same fate as its predecessors in that there are a few gems on offer amidst well-intentioned but not altogether brilliant tracks. Jamie has established himself as a dab hand at replicating ’60s soul but it’s the ’70s Parliament Funkadelic-influenced numbers that are his piece de resistance. Those of us still waiting for that classic, wall-to-wall funk Jamie Lidell album might do so in vain, however. Once again, he merely tantalises us with the funk and considering Compass is a fair bit longer than his last two solo projects, the dearth is all the more noticeable; as is the fluctuating song quality.

There is a distinct lack of the instant sing-a-long, radio friendly numbers such as ‘Another Day’, ‘Multiply’ and ‘Green Light’ – which in itself does not preclude enjoyment of the album. Nonetheless Compass demands a lot of patience from the listener. The title track for example ticks all the right boxes of an epic song with folk-ish ambition, even managing a memorable refrain. Still, it doesn’t exactly set my world alight.

Lidell constantly keeps us guessing on this record; some tracks start off with no indication of where they are heading (‘Gypsy Blood’ ‘I Can Love Again’ ‘It’s A Kiss’) before comprehensively redeeming themselves half way through.

Others such as ‘You Are Waking’, ‘Coma Chameleon’ and ‘The Ring’ leave me with the sensation of being roughed up in the street by a couple of pranksters; no permanent damage has been done but by the end I’m none the wiser as to what has just happened and need a moment to recover my bearings.

Whilst one would think the element of surprise should keep things exciting, it’s actually quite exhausting; disconcerting even. In this regards Compass doesn’t quite live up to my high hopes. With the presence of guest artists such as Feist I anticipated a consistently palatable (read: melodic, not necessarily conventional) listening experience.

Yet when Lidell gets it right, he really gets it right. Compass is off to a strong start with ‘Completely Exposed’ (Jamie never sounding better), the slightly unhinged but appealing ‘Your Sweet Boom’ before the standard begins to flag following the fantastic funk ballad ‘She Needs Me’ (more like this please, Mr Lidell, I implore you) and ‘I Wanna Be Your Telephone’ then returns to form somewhere in the middle, only to trail off as the record ambles to a finish. Ironically one of the final tracks is called ‘Big Drift’, which adequately sums up the last portion of the album.

After several spins of Compass I have come to the conclusion that Lidell is the ideal artist for a ‘Best of…’ compilation. His albums might not satisfy in their entirety but a choice selection of his most inspired work would make for great listening.

In any case, Lidell’s genuine attitude towards his craft is admirable and herein lies his appeal; an unassailable desire to keep making decent, interesting music. His endeavour is so earnest that one can’t help but wish him well.

–Tola Ositelu

Compass is out now via Warp Records. jamielidell.com