“Black and White EP – Natalie Duncan

4 stars (out of 5)

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Black and White TitleWell, it’s been a while but it’s great to finally hear some new material from Natalie Duncan. I’m guessing that the last couple of years haven’t been a bundle of laughs; after the superb debut album, “Devil in Me”, the hype which surrounded her can’t have been easy to deal with. You can call this an inspired guess if you like, but I have a strong impression that what Natalie really cares about is making music and the music business hoop-la surrounding it is something she can happily live without. Anyway, following her split with the Verve label last year she’s had the chance to do her own thing and the “Black and White” EP is her first commercial release in over two years.

The blindingly obvious difference between “Devil in Me” and the new EP is that the traditional instruments and production techniques used by Joe Henry on the album have been replaced by more contemporary electronic techniques, resulting in a very different overall sound, where the distinct voices of the instruments are often blurred by heavy reverb to create an almost ambient background for Natalie’s vocals to cut through.

The title track opens with mournful keyboard chords (harmonium, maybe) leading into sampled backing vocals (more of those later) and builds up steadily with straightforward percussion and very heavy bass as a story of style over substance unfolds (‘They’re gonna love you in black and white’). “Oh my God” has a lo-fi feel using retro samples and surface noise effects to create a backdrop vocal samples pitched up and down to form part of the overall arrangement with Natalie’s voice thrown further back in the mix, becoming just another part of the arrangement; very atmospheric.

Elysium” begins with conventional instruments; the long, melancholy keyboard chords and a detuned guitar and what sounds like a heavily-reverbed steel pan. There’s also some more huge, rumbling bass. The theme of pitch-changed samples runs through this song as well, as a counterpoint to the close-miked lead vocal. It’s a very personal song, particularly in the double-time middle section and is simultaneously disturbing and uplifting.

Ripples” opens with percussion samples and steel pan again, and that familiar vibrant bass which you feel rather than hear. It’s another bitter-sweet relationship song which is probably best summed-up in a line from the coda: ‘Holding on to an empty hand, the world moves past us as we stand.’ It’s another haunting performance.

It’s difficult to say if this is a new direction for Natalie Duncan or if it’s a period of experimentation; either way, the combination of trip-hop samples and ambience with twentieth-first century percussion and sampling techniques works really well with the songs on this EP. Whether her flawless voice is front and centre or being warped as part of the backing track, these four tracks show that the songwriting is still of the highest quality and, despite a couple of years out of the limelight, Natalie Duncan is still a prodigious talent and any new material she releases is worth listening to. Welcome back.

“Black and White” is out now on Spotify.