The summer themes continue with cool music, alternative soul in particular. Alt soul may be an outdated notion nowadays, considering that traditional soul music is so fragmented as to be almost on the fringe. I’m ingrained to think of any soul music from England as alternative.
Despite that, the kind icy alt soul from Americans like Nite Jewl and the British variety from Jessie Ware can be traced to a new movement nearly a decade or so earlier with artists like Amel Larrieux and Goapele Mohlabane. They mixed an alt-folk-rock sensibility into R&B, as if to apply MLK’s Dream to music.
The Americans seemed more passionate in their deliveries than their European counterparts, but the cool veneer was always there as a rule. Goapele appeared around the turn of the century emerging from the neo soul genre. Early on, she distinguished herself from the rest of the neo soul crowd by developing a dreamy style not usually associated with R&B. This approach might not be suprising for an Oakland based artist, after all with ultra liberal San Francisco nearby, some innovation is bound to rub off. While not quite the lost black Cocteau Twin, Goapele stands firmly in a line of black artists who have helped expand envelope of what’s expected of black artists in America.
In many ways she along with Amel Larrieux furthered the new age psychedelic melancholy established by Maxwell on Embra. It was a new estehic for black music (outside of Prince) and lent Goapele’s Break of Dawn a kind of grown up sophistication.
With plenty of mid-tempo tracks, Break of Dawn could still manage to be funky as on “Money” with its syncopated organ rhythm. “Milk and Honey” with it’s almost up tempo beat begs for dance remix treatment.
Break of Dawn is by no means a dance album, despite it’s clever mid tempo funk. An old school ballad like “Tears on My Pillow” might seem out of place on such a chill album, but Goapele’s voice conveys passion and cool in equal measure to balance out even the most emotional material. When Break of Dawn gets close to dance music, Goapele lays on the chill and charm.
When Break of Dawn was released, I wondered if this type of soul music was doomed to a limited niche audience. It was as if Goapele’s stylistic reach and diverse approach to the material (which she wrote) was too much for Americans who were told by big record labels that R&B and soul artists had to conform to certain stereotypes of booty chasing and bouncy bass lines.
Some of that might have been true back then, which might explain why American artists like Goapele do so well in overseas. Although her third LP, Break of Dawn was the first officially distributed international release. It’s quite possible that she could have helped influenced the British wave that gave us everything from Lianne La Havas to Jessie Ware and to some extent the lesser exposed American equivalent with artists like Nite Jewel.