Tuesday, April 30, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1256: Nilufer Yanya

I’ve bought 15 albums released in 2019 so far, but this is the first one I’ve reviewed.

Disc 1256 is… Miss Universe
Artist: Nilufer Yanya

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? I believe this is intended to look like an early webpage, with the pixelated graphics, grey background and awkward photo inserts. Someone should have told Nilufer that the reason we don’t have webpages like this anymore is because they looked terrible. As it stands, it makes me wonder if she has a MySpace page.

How I Came to Know It: I read a review of the record and checked out a couple of the songs. It wasn’t my usual thing but it sounded pretty good so I took a chance.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one Nilufer Yanya album, so there can be no stacking up.

Ratings:  3 stars

For the second straight review I have encountered an album that I admire critically but isn’t a great match for me. Nilufer Yanya’s “Miss Universe” is the impressive full-length debut from a British pop singer who has a bright future ahead of her.

“Miss Universe” is a brave album that pushes the edge of modern pop music, including sizeable helpings of both hip hop sass and seventies Motown. The songs tend to be mid-tempo yet they have a groove that makes you want to dance. These are party songs for later in the party. You’re either swaying over by the speaker or chilling on the couch watching stage smoke swirl when this comes on.

That sensibility is aided heavily by Yanya’s sultry club-style voice. She has great phrasing, coming in with tension and urgency at the right times, and giving the club beats equal time to catch your attention. It isn’t my usual style for a vocalist, but she does it well and keeps it interesting.

The record has a LOT of production and plenty going on in every arrangement from the first notes. Ordinarily this lush production would bother me, and it certainly interferes with my usual habit of listening to the lyrics. Here it all works well, with a good balance between vocals and music, where the hooks are equally likely to be a synthesizer, a bass guitar or Yanya repeating some line over either. There is even jazz saxophone on “Melt” and to my surprise I kind of liked it.

The more I listened to it, the more I liked it, aided by the fact that there is a lot to unpack musically. My ear had lots of places to explore. Yanya’s vocals have a surface tension quality to them, popping out of her with equal parts force and fluidity. All in all, this should be a winner.

And yet…I’m going to surprise myself and part with this record. I’d like to blame it on the fact that it has 17 tracks, and that certainly doesn’t help. 17 tracks is at least three too many, and five of them are short skits or song fragments. This includes several goofy routines where Yanya pretends to be a phone tree computer voice for a mythical help phoneline called “WWAY Health”. Neither these nor the other snippets add an inordinate amount of length to the record (a tasteful 51 minutes), but they don’t add anything of value either. Maybe they are intended as a framing device, but I found Yanya’s unique style does a fine job of that on its own.

A better criticism is the vibe I get that in addition to "late night party" this record has that background feel of an uncomfortable dinner party. It has the energy needed to keep the mood up, but not any striking melodies or moments that distract you from the table conversation. I want my music to be a little more distracting.

But most of all, I think this is just a case of a record that is very good, but just not being my thing.  There are a couple of great tracks – notably the frenetic “In Your Head” and the clever deconstruction of church music built into “The Unordained” and even the songs I like less I still admire. I just don’t think this sound is my jam, and I’m not going to play it enough to justify the shelf space.

That said, Yanya has a fresh new sound that speaks of a promising career to come and I fully expect to regret my decision. For now, though, I’m going to move on.

Best tracks: In Your Head, Angels, The Unordained, Heavyweight Champion of the Year

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