Too much “neo soul” comes up a little short on soul to my ears. Often it is diluted with lite-jazz or slick pop when it is not being derailed by unimaginative hip-hop. Likewise, in the case of old-school soul revivalists, the form is too often treated like a novelty where retro outfits and a vintage mic or two are half the battle. Of course there are exceptions and in the case of Michael Kiwanuka you can just forget the “neo” or “revivalist” parts of those equations and focus on the soul. Michael has cited influences from Bob Dylan to Otis Redding and I think it’s fair to say that his music falls somewhere between the rough-hewn folksiness of early Dylan and the gritty soulfulness of Redding. He does not strut and shout like Redding however but simply lets his songs fall from him like stories polished from many tellings- weighted with weariness but not hopelessness.
Although a relative unknown in the U.S., Michael is kind of a big deal in his native England having won the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll (I hadn’t heard of it either) and, I’m assuming, selling more than a few records. He is the son of Ugandan parents who fled the oppressive and violent Amin regime but grew up in Muswell Hill, North London where he played bass and jazz guitar at school recitals and concerts. He also spent some time as a session guitarist before launching himself as a solo artist, recording a few EP’s and finally his debut album Home Again earlier this year.
This track comes from his first EP but is also included on Home Again and although it is more ornate in its production than many of his songs it is otherwise representative of his output- soulful, warm and familiar but alive with conviction. The rich instrumentation of “Tell Me a Tale” most recalls the jazzy psychedelic soul of Cutis Mayfield, creating a spacey sense of drifting but leaving room for shifts in mood from the tumult of the verses to the tenderness of the chorus. The same is true of Michael’s singing which is dynamic and impassioned but never feels the least bit forced or showy. Hopefully some of the wannabe’s out there will take note.