It was 1984 and I was fresh out of college. My turntable rumbled with Van Halen, The Scorpions, The Cars, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Husker Du, Prince, and Springsteen. At that point, my concession to the "softer side" might have consisted of an Orleans record, and maybe some Culture Club, records that came from my fiance's collection. Toleration was the key word there (and honestly, that went both ways).
Yeah, sure…I already owned those Chuck Mangione records, but it wasn't like I pulled them out for general listening when the guys came over to drink, grill, and annoy the neighbors. They were 'secret.'
But then Sade made her entrance. It was tough to avoid Diamond Life's "Smooth Operator," and even tougher to avoid the realization that her voice had entranced me. Peer pressure be damned, because I loved this stuff. Sade just might have been my first 'jazz' singer (sure, the material was really closer to R&B, but you get the idea). It's nice to be able to look back at that point in time, seeing my younger self breaking away from peer pressure-induced listening stereotypes. Also great to witness the expansion of my ear's palette.
Of course, a direct line is easily drawn between that era and this new Somi release, but it's not quite that simple. It's not just that I came to appreciate a different kind of female voice. It was more that my musical brain parts had some new data to store and to contemplate. The voice? Yes. But also: the sultry arrangements, the mood-enhancing saxophone, the slinky rhythms. Sade's music was all of that and an opportunity to explore new sonic worlds.
If The Rains Come First has just too many great moments for a full enumeration, but my favorite tunes include "Wallflower Blues," with its rippling percussion, supple bassline, and easy sway between pop and jazz; the emotion-laden "Be Careful, Be Kind," (the use of the two-note device during the chorus gets to me every time); "Changing Inspiration," a more pop-oriented vocal workout; and "Rising," a track that features some terrific interactions between percussion and piano. Also not to be missed is "Enganjyani," which features the great Hugh Masekela on trumpet. Credit must also be given to producers Michael Olatuja and Michele Locatelli. They share writing credits on several songs and also perform on many (Olatuja takes on bass and keyboard duties for the entire album while Locatelli adds some shimmering guitar to "Be Careful, Be Kind"). Advice: pay attention any time you see those names mentioned.
I don't know that this album will launch Somi to Sade-level heights of fame (does anybody get there anymore?), but my ears tell me she deserves it. The musical reach of the compositions is refreshing (from jazz to funk to Afro-pop and back) and her vocals (reminding me in may ways of Cassandra Wilson) and instinct for melody are beyond gorgeous. It's the kind of record that reveals more upon subsequent listens — always a good sign for me.
The end of the year is approaching, and this album is making a strong case for my top 10. Go ahead, think of it as an opportunity.