Rhian Benson – Hands Clean | Album Review

Ghanian MOBO Award-winning singer/songwriter Rhian Benson has taken eight years to release her brand new album, Hands Clean – the follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut album, Gold Coast (2003). A lot has happened in those eight years – music has evolved, cycles have come and gone and come again – and while others had already resigned to remembering Benson as a “one album wonder,” the eternal question on many lips was whether Benson still had that certain something she blessed us with on Gold Coast to be able to command an audience in 2011. Hands Clean goes a long way in answering all those questions and more.

While the electronic production on Hands Clean will throw Rhian Benson’s traditional fans off at first, the music of the new album is not inferior to that of Gold Coast; it is just totally different and we must applaud Ms. Benson for being able to take this leap. It would seemingly be so easy for Benson to make another album in the same vein as Gold Coast – it would have been a good album, probably well-received and positively more open to mainstream success – but thankfully, she’s chosen to test herself and challenge her listener.

The music on Hands Clean is more creative exploration than groundbreaking but essentially pushes the envelope – and even if it’s only Benson’s boundaries that are being pushed and expanded, the results are some pretty amazing music from the Ghanaian singer/songwriter on her sophomore effort.

Danish production duo Jonas Rendbo and Daniel Fridell introduce Benson to this exciting world of electronic music filled with heavy percussion, dreamy synths, MPC magic, head-bopping basslines and all that goodness, however if put in the wrong hands, the inclusion of electronic music could and has crippled many a career so it was always going to be interesting to hear what Benson, Rendbo and Fridell could conjure up on a full-length.

Rhian Benson’s vocals are still as sultry and commanding as ever. Her songwriting abilities have clearly not diminished over the years but rather blossomed into words and songs that are showered with experience, authority and an ability to introspect without ever losing her listener.

The album’s opening track, ‘This Feels Like Home,’ sees the soulful vocals of Rhian Benson pitted against the bass-heavy and keyboard-tinged electronic grooves of Rendbo and Fridell and the results are heavenly, for the lack of a better word, with any and all doubters of Benson’s new and left-field musical direction certainly in for a pleasant surprise as soon as they hit the play button on this album.

Rhian Benson – “This Feels Like Home”:

The magic and chemistry between Benson, Rendbo and Fridell certainly don’t stop there and on what is my personal favourite song on Hands Clean – the slow-tempo high pitched keyboard-driven ‘Can’t Sleep, Won’t Sleep’ which is backed by celestial violin and musical arrangements – Rhian Benson shows just why she’s often held in the highest echelons of British R&B/Soul music. Her commanding vocals dictate the pace of the song from start to finish and not even for a second does the glorious instrumentation of the song overwhelm or overshadow her.

Other songs that stand out for me on Hands Clean are the mid-tempo funkadelic dance track ‘L’Amour Fou,’ which is laced with hard-hitting thumpy synthetic sounds reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s 1986 Control LP and sees Benson in Electro-Pop territory but never as a fish out of water as she rides this wave beautifully, along with the infectiously groovy and soulful up-tempo Latin American influenced ‘Rewind’ which is backed by divine acoustic and electric guitars, funky percussion and horn arrangements.

There are some songs that fans of Gold Coast will love, such as the well-crafted piano and violin driven ballad ‘Afraid To Love Again’ sprinkled with the slightest of electro drum licks, the organic sounding reggae-tinged up-tempo ‘Wide Open Spaces’ backed by the most enjoyable adlibs and backing vocals and the catchy mid-tempo guitar-driven ‘Sign Your Name,’ laced with lush African drum patterns which, by design I am sure, rest as the final three songs on the Hands Clean LP.

Rhian Benson – “Afraid To Love Again”:

As with much experimental music, not all of the songs on Hands Clean come out exceptionally or even particularly well. ‘1’ seems like a song that should work in theory but the reality of this futuristic, synth-heavy, dreamy production is that it demands a vocal showing to tame it – and instead gets a timid attempt at spoken-word from Benson.

The album’s second single, the Jonas-featured ‘Be’, is neither coming nor going on any of the verses, where Benson sounds rather uncharacteristically bland. Benson does try to add some ‘umph’ to the record on the choruses but not enough to keep it exciting and Rendbo and Fridell, as if to say that they can hear the song going into a place of nothingness, try to inject some urgency into the song’s second stanza via some pacey drum kicks at the two-minute mark – but to no avail in the long run. The minute and a half instrumental solo at the end of the song stands as the highlight of ‘Be’.

All in all, Hands Clean marks a great comeback for Rhian Benson and, in as much as she embraces a new direction in her music with this overall progressive album, she also shows that she hasn’t forgotten about the traditional sound that got her in our minds’ eyes in the first place, which is refreshing to know and refreshing for her fans to hear.

I don’t know if this 12-track album is the one that will define modern soul music as it set out to do but what I do know is that Hands Clean is an exceptional body of work that Benson can be proud of and her fans will certainly enjoy. The eight-year long wait must have been excruciating but with the release of Hands Clean, Rhian Benson proves to be worth the wait.

Hands Clean is out now through Icarus Music.

Purchase: Rhian Benson – Hands Clean [iTunes US // iTunes UK]

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