When ‘You & I’, the debut album from London-born singer Ala.ni, dropped at the beginning of 2016, it sounded like it had fallen through a wormhole from another age.
At a time when the airwaves were so dominated by the squeaky modern club-pop of Sia and Ed Sheeran that even Adele’s piano-led soul sounded positively ancient, here was something that cast its net way back, beyond the ‘80s, ‘70s or ‘60s revivals, to capture a sound so long departed that it sounded strangely fresh.
Packed with soothing songs about doomed romance, the record was largely dismissed as music to cheat on your spouse to. But in a live context, hearing the cooing trill of pre-war sensations such as Judy Garland and Vera Lynn emanating from the lips of a tall, young black woman, her long sinuous arms stretching and grasping out to either side like a time-lapsed willow tree, was a striking experience.
Skip forward four years and Ala.ni’s closely self-harmonised, heavy-lidded style doesn’t sound quite so out of place. In fact, when she first emerged she drew comparisons to the now-stratospheric Billie Eilish. Combine this with an album that incorporates elements of the West Indian dancehall music that soundtracked her youth, plus guest spots from hot Hollywood property Lakeith Stanfield (‘Van P’) and the never-not-busy Iggy Pop (‘La Diplomat’, in full French jazz mode) and you’ve got a big, playlist-straddling release on your hands.
But what might potentially torpedo the album’s chances at world domination is the single most interesting thing about it: this album is largely recorded a cappella, with many of what sound like horn and bass parts in fact being produced by Ala.ni’s own voice. It’s being touted as a wholly a cappella project, but there’s a full string quartet on ‘Hide’ and more than a few real horns to be found elsewhere. Nevertheless, it’s pretty organic and it’s certainly impressive to hear Ala.ni build songs using different vocal tracks, propping up her own impressively powerful voice with huge blocks of backing choruses, wordless scatting and percussive mouth pops.
This is not an easy thing to do though, and the fact that many of these tracks were built up with limited resources while she was on tour means the results occasionally sound sloppy. While opening track ‘Differently’ sounds amazing on first spin, on subsequent listens the way it repeatedly decelerates while trying to get back into rhythm becomes distracting. Elsewhere songs like ‘Papa’ and ‘Le Diplomat’ build beautifully for a few minutes before hitting a self-imposed ceiling where additional instrumentation might have allowed it to climb up to the next level.
Ala.ni is a wonderful songwriter, and many of the melodies she weaves come slinking back into your head long after the album’s relatively brief runtime is over. There are plenty of moments of genius here: the endearing bounce of ‘Shalala’s chorus, the lapping rise and fall of the sly ‘Bitch’, the jaw-dropping powerhouse vocal on ‘Go Away From My Window’. But ‘ACCA’s central conceit sometimes gets in the way of properly enjoying its component songs on their own merits. It’s undeniably interesting, but here’s hoping the clever USP doesn’t lessen the record’s staying power.
Words: Josh Gray
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