Summary

An age ago, major labels signed artists knowing it would take three, four, or even five records before she or he matured sufficiently to build a a dedicated audience. Some labels even signed "prestige artists," those who wouldn't necessarily make boatloads of cash, but their presence on one's roster would attract those who would. These days, the expectations for someone to deliver out of the gate are ridiculous. Michael Kiwanuka is the promising British singer/songwriter who won the BBC Sound of 2012 poll. Home Again is his full-length debut. From the front cover you can see -- then hear -- how everything about this album and Kiwanuka's image is laser-focused on the retro pop and soul vibe that saturates his country's music scene. The Bees' Paul Butler produced all but one track here. A throwback approach is his signature and, considering what Polydor wanted, may actually seem warranted given Kiwanuka's wise-beyond-his-years singing voice and songwriting style. There are very bright moments in this mesh of organic sounds (that are occasionally embellished -- very slightly -- by Moogs). Kiwanuka and Butler play an astonishing array of instruments here, and are ably assisted by select session players elsewhere. Standouts include the opening "Tell Me a Tale," the set's strongest cut. Kiwanuka's voice resembles Terry Callier's closely enough to warrant Butler virtually aping Charles Stepney's production style. "Bones," with its combination of doo wop backing chorus, brushed hi-hats, and jazzy guitar vamp, finds Kiwanuka in fine yet contrasting world-weary voice. The blues in "Worry Walks Beside Me" are underscored by a shimmering B-3 just behind a hazy electric guitar and stacked backing vocals. The title track commences with a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, but a Rhodes piano, multi-tracked cellos, and even a doubling of Kiwanuka's vocal brings us into contemporary indie terrain. But there are problems. Butler's attempt at making a record sound vintage paints by the numbers so carefully that he never gets below a song's surface -- despite the emotional intensity in Kiwanuka's voice. Also, while Kiwanuka is extremely talented, his songwriting needs work; some tunes are weighed down by clunky melodic or clumsy lyric turns. Despite difficulties, Home Again is a promising debut by an artist who will no doubt deliver big if developed properly. ~ Thom Jurek