In a Dream‘Flights, in the night’ sings Nancy Whang conspiratorially during a quiet portal in the impressively detailed “A Place Called Space” that opens The Juan Maclean’s third album proper. Nothing sums up Whang and Maclean’s manifesto quite as perfectly as that line. Alluding to a retro glamour which no longer exists and a promise of a decadent and clandestine other world where the only light is artificial and strobing. This line, better still if it were morphed into a song title, could have been uttered on any number of Donna Summer’s tracks which featured on her most essential, electronic and nocturnal albums made between 1977- 1979 and produced by Giorgio Moroder. As if to hammer this point home Whang has simultaneously released an EP under her own name which is a collection of Casablanca records cover versions, it includes a faithful interpretation of Summer’s slippery and melancholic “Working the Midnight Shift”. “In A Dream” is a record that may wear its influences heavily on its sleeve but the cluster of magnificent songs and the vocal dynamics honed between the two prevents it from falling into a potentially deep hole of nostalgia and tribute.

If their 2005 debut album was an accurate record of the post-electro clash, nihilistic and disco-damaged DFA early days and the follow up and homage of sorts to British synth pop and handbag house then this record is where the pair decide to reach back even further. There has always been a vivid and brattish clutch of songs that have been hard to ignore in The Juan Maclean’s back catalogue, screaming and shouting for attention and not fully formed. “In A Dream” has eliminated these kinds of distractions and is all the better for it; Nancy Whang is afforded full vocals on six of the nine tracks here and is having a ball in the process. Her voice is not that of a disco diva although frequently this is precisely what the sonics would appear to dictate. It has a flat and disinterested quality and still, somehow, considerable charisma, and Whang can interchange between dismal, withering betrayal and a warm optimism that dominates for example the gradually unfurling and uplifting ten minute closing track “The Sun Will Never Set on Our Love”. Tellingly this is their first album to feature just Nancy Whang as the cover artist, overshadowing a metallic bust of a physically absent Maclean.

You Were a Runaway” has a choppy and to-the-point Grace Jones type pop structure. “Running Back To You” with its gorgeously padding synth swirls and reference to Imagination’s slinking 1980 hit “Body Talk” is the album’s only mid-tempo song and sees Whang softened but not entirely submissive. “Love Stops Here”, which may have the album’s strongest melody, puts Maclean upfront and sounds like a very good LCD Soundsystem song with washes of New Order guitar along with Whang’s glorious ‘do do do’ refrain popping up for the very last moments. “I’ve Waited for so Long” is a tight and confrontational “Don’t You Want Me”- styled trade-off between the two vocalists. It borrows the bassline from Cerrone’s “Supernature” but like so much of the material here the duo detail and layer the soundscape to the point where it isn’t pilfering but perfecting a sound that is, within the confines of this album, completely theirs.

Two of the most complete and satisfying songs, the aforementioned Moroder-indebted “A Place Called Space” and the penultimate track “A Simple Design”, both featuring a dominant Whang vocal, see The Juan Maclean finally solidify an effortless and endearing personality. Since “Less Than Human” the couple have spent a decade attempting to gel in a way that allows them both to share the lead, a hard feat indeed as Whang is not just a ‘front woman’ and neither is Maclean an invisible producer in the mould of, say, Goldfrapp. With Maclean cast in the role of an outsider and a muted and occasional vocalist to boot, you feel that he is now happier to concentrate on perfecting the world that surrounds the two and less inclined to push his voice to the front in a way that has read as self-conscious before. It is impossible to imagine him for example delivering the stand-off line ‘time after time, when what you’re hoping to find is not a simple design but a headache!’ from “A Simple Design” with the same brutish gusto as Whang does. Both roles are of equal importance and “A Place Called Space” sees The Juan Maclean arrive at their ultimate destination; confident, possessed and prepared to share it with us. We should think ourselves lucky.

LP1In many ways Tahliah Barnett still sounds like many thought the future would in 1995. More sinuous and fragile maybe, but twenty-six year old FKA Twigs is much indebted to the Bristol’s trip-hop takeover in the mid-nineties and in particular Adrian Thaws, AKA Tricky. Along with Massive Attack and Portishead, Tricky defined the period with his doomy and sensual debut album “Maxinquaye” which featured soulfully threatening vocals from his favourite muse Martina Topley-Bird, and it’s this artist who springs to mind more than any other whilst listening Barnett’s vocal abilities. Against the skipping, tapping and whirring percussion noises, sporadic booming bass and hip hop and trap time-signatures, Barnett delivers two variations -- a barely-there, traditional r’n’b fluttering falsetto and a surprisingly clear contralto; a marvellous, devastating contrast frequently exchanged during the same song.

t may not be 1995 anymore and explicit and unimaginative sexuality has replaced mystery and ambiguity and this is what has partly driven what seems an uncommonly insatiable appetite for this young singer who almost constantly remains somewhat hidden in all respects. “LP1” was preceded by two 4-track EPs which have served as an introduction to the singer (none of those tracks are included here) and accompanying each of these songs was a highly stylised video; no-one could tell who this person was though, so obscured by the surreal and vivid images -- a slippery and repeatedly oral Chris Cunningham cum Grace Jones “Corporate Cannibal” body-morphing aesthetic. These portraits proved irresistible and have made FKA Twigs the absolute doyenne of tumblr cool; the hype starts here indeed. Stripped then of these visuals as one is when listening to the 10 tracks here (at the time of writing only one song has visual accompaniment), the overall impact is not always as strong when relying entirely on melodic and sonic ability but a lot of the time it exceeds what has been heard to date such is the strength of the song writing.

Two Weeks” is a massive and masterful song, the highlight of “LP1”, and its straight-out-of-the-box perfection would be an achievement for any artist, new or established. Staccato delivery and clipped annunciation surround the only explicit references to sex, and sexual competitiveness, on the album. ‘I can fuck you better than her…..my thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in’ is an example of this but it’s the reference to ‘pull out that incisor’ and ‘flying like a screaming falcon’ that add another altogether otherworldly layer that so befits what we know of Barnett, a darker and by far more disturbing extreme to go to. “Video Girl”, like “Two Weeks”, is another of the more typically structured and sturdier songs which will have people reeling off names like Brandy, Aaliyah and Tweet -- sweet-voiced r’n’b artists who actively encouraged producer involvement to create music that was bleaker and more experimental than the norm expected at the time within the genre. But “Video Girl” is autobiographical; it references her time as a dancer in music videos by the likes of Jessie J and Kylie Minogue immediately before this album’s release and the subsequent change of hierarchy. ‘Is she the girl that’s from the video?’ leering demand is met with Barnett’s subsequent denial ‘I can’t recognise me’. The second chorus slows down just enough for the listener to think there may be a fault with their copy of the track, as though it’s malfunctioning; it’s a disquieting and magical little trick.

Hours” creaks up slowly like a sticky corrugated shutter, produced by indie female favourite Dev Hynes, and has the best example of this soft / hard vocal dynamic where the later verses become strident demands as opposed to the earlier girly infatuations. “Closer” is sublime Gregorian chamber pop ending with the devastating (I think) ‘all these years in isolation, isolation, isolation’ and “Give Up” sees the singer take the role of forceful encourager and rock.  Pendulum” starts with the clack of a stick being rattled around a cotton wool lined barrel with Barnett sounding as though she may dissolve into the background due to emotional upheaval. It’s one of the songs here, and odd therefore that it’s the sole production by pop god Paul Epworth, that feels pleasant enough but inadequate -- the most surprising thing you could say about Barnett, certainly. But it’s misleading as eventually it becomes somewhat of a centrally-placed heart to the album and its warmth burns through you. “Lights On” and album closer “Kicks” are at the weaker end of “LP1”, both tracks promise something that never fully develops or is reached and it’s here that Barnett is reminiscent of Kelela’s “Cut 4 Me” and the slow jams that appear on her album. Production levels are startlingly high and the vocals are pure r’n’b sweetness but there is a little either in the way or melody or mood here.

“LP1” is a record that at first seems to be somewhat slight considering the heft of everything that surrounds it. I was lucky enough to have this album a good two weeks before it was released and can say that after initially forming an opinion that wasn’t as favourable as this one, it kept drawing me back. It was as though I hadn’t heard all of the tracks yet but had retained enough of a clatter or a buzz or a divine falsetto being slowed down to a stuttering machine that I needed to go back and finish them properly, to give the record a fair chance. It’s only through these repeated listens that some of the tracks here really show themselves; it isn’t a slight record at all, far from it in fact. FKA Twigs debut is wholly impressive and bewitching and stands up as a cohesive and single-minded debut; let it also be known that she also wrote every track here. A brilliant and wholly exciting new talent on the British black music scene, whatever that music may be.

Trouble in ParadiseGrace Jones’ 1981 “Nightclubbing” album had nine tracks and so does La Roux’s second album, five years in the making and named “Trouble in Paradise”.  Besides the stingy number of songs – and don’t try looking for bonus tracks anywhere because you won’t find them --  Grace Jones seems to have made a substantial impact on Brixton local Elly Jackson, aka  La Roux. Apart from the image (androgynous female, indeterminate but presumed sexual orientation, bit scary), Jackson has quite dramatically amended her musical outlook since the Grammy-nominated, metallic synth-pop of her 2009 debut and opted instead for a sweltering and more organic and sensual soundscape a la Jones’ infamous Compass Point sessions. This shift in vision has not been without consequences and has subsequently resulted in the departure of La Roux’s partner in crime Ben Langmaid. If anything quality control has improved since their earlier and hugely successful collaborative work and any fears of Jackson faltering without her presumed contemporary are unfounded here.  

Uptight Downtown” is a pretty opaque chronicle on the Brixton riots, a song that may have sounded more topical if had been released when it was written some three years ago. Not exactly a social comment of any real substance, although you sense this wasn’t the point, it is a mid-tempo and juddering  pop monster that acknowledges its musical heritage as well as moving straight through any on-trend sounds to form its own unique and modern sound. It fades in on a big bass beat before post-Chic Nile Rodgers guitars echo his production on David Bowie’s “Let Dance” and has a horn refrain which is similar to that of Grace Jones’ “I’m Not Perfect”, again a Rodgers production. “Tropical Chancer”, maybe the most fully realised moment here and the track that squarely apes Jones with a rhythm track that is the identical twin of “My Jamaican Guy”, it’s the stuff of summer anthems. There is tremendous delight to be had hearing Jackson lamenting the introduction of her tropical chancer via a dancer in that she doesn’t slip into an American accent as many would and is lyrically inventive and oddly British in its underwhelmed way of story-telling. 

Kiss and Not Tell” skips and clicks and sounds more than anything like the eighties pop-funk boy band Haircut One Hundred with its scratching guitar and staccato energy and boundless joy. It is one of the few instant pleasures here; it’s infectious and naggingly melodic and bowls over on first listen. Other tracks such as the, by turns urgent, and then spacey  Cruel Sexuality”, which will only generate further speculation surrounding the singer’s own sexuality, and the sharp, xylophone and horn-punctured, “Sexotheque” take a bit longer to love but when they hit, they hit hard. This trio of songs are all about sex but they are not at all explicit in their descriptions of lives which are led by carnal cravings; their sensuality is to be found elsewhere. All of these tracks are so lovingly and beautifully crafted and incorporate subtle musical and sonic detours sometimes lasting no more than ten seconds and never sounding like mass-produced, producer-dictated music which is a large part of its engaging and seductive nature.

Silent Partner”, one of only three tracks here that would have also sounded at home on La Roux’s debut, is an attempt at an urgent, episodic dance track. The most uptempo song on “Trouble in Paradise”sounds instantly familiar in that it channels 1977 disco classic “Black is Black”, builds to an “I Feel Love” synth pile-up and, in the last minute or so, eventually turns into The Three Degrees hysterically phrased hit “Givin’ Up, Givin’ In”, another Moroder production. As thrilling as this may sound, it doesn’t quite come together in the way it should and La Roux does not introduce either enough vocal or melodic diversity or intensity to keep the full seven minutes completely interesting and on-track for its duration. A very good four minute song however, which, when stretched out, confirms that there are still some areas which Jackson needs to fully master.

Let Me Down Gently”, another track which in its second half revisits that steely sound from the earlier La Roux signature, does a far more effective job at building tension and momentum and is the album’s real centrepiece – a mournful synth ballad that teases itself slowly with a real majesty. The other ballad “Paradise is You” alludes to the album’s tropical themes and is a hazy, romantic and piano stroked comedown. The sound is fully fleshed out by swirling synths and building harmonies and it’s only on the final track, “The Feeling”, which is the oldest and only weak song here, with its jarringly thin and hollow electronics and return to Jackson’s notably absent falsetto, that the magic comes to an abruptly premature end.

Current prevailing musical styles or trends including trap, EDM or r’n’b pop don’t get a look in here and La Roux’s musical cues end at around 1986 but never once does this result in parody or nostalgic navel-gazing . With not quite every track here being essential it only just misses out on classic status, unlike her heroine Jones’ seminal “Nightclubbing”, which from the get-go contained not one ounce of fat, there is some filler congesting the brief playing time of “Trouble in Paradise”. Possessed and determinedly individual, however, this is still one of the most delightfully uncynical and smart pop albums for some time. La Roux is proving that although she is clearly serious about the potential aims of modern music, she is also having tremendous fun making it – without a doubt the definitive summer release of 2014.

Samson & DelilahVV Brown’s second album opens with two songs that share Madonna titles but aren’t cover versions. “Substitute for Love” and   “Nothing Really Matters” were two of the singles taken from the ultimate Madonna make-over album and mid-career return to form, 1998’s “Ray of Light”. Unhappy with the r’n’b follow up to “Bedtime Stories” (an r’n’b influenced collection itself), Madonna scrapped the entire sessions and hired electrohead, Brit, William Orbit, started calling herself Veronica Electronica and the rest is pop cultural history. Albeit on an entirely different scale, VV Brown has followed Madonna’s lead. About to release her follow up to the successful but underwhelming “Travelling at the Speed of Light” debut, Brown decided the hip hop and r’n’b-dominated follow up, a departure indeed from the nostalgic pop doo-wop of her debut, was not authentic and she walked away from the project and the album was never released.  Two years on and as many career changes later she has returned with eleven angry, desolate and soulful songs set against a unsettling, uncompromising soundtrack and it is a startling reinvention indeed.

Samson & Delilah is released on VV Brown’s own YOY record label so it can assumed that this is what she wants to sound like now with little or no interference from outside parties, and that is remarkable. The aforementioned “Substitute For Love” opens in much the same way as the Madonna track opens “Ray of Light”, gently twinkling notes and ambient synths introduce Brown’s incredible voice which is now several tones lower; a contralto to rival Grace Jones and she sounds magnificent throughout. A dominant all-electronic backing that is somewhere between The Knife circa “Silent Shout” and Massive Attack at their most austere ( think “Sly”) with a mound of sticky dubstep coating the astounding, warrior-like, “Igneous”. It isn’t easy listening and the mood is pitch-black; a couple of songs like the title track can struggle to stand out when the melody is forsaken for a mood but these are minor niggles.

“The Apple”, by some distance the most instant and accessible track here, sounds amazing. Its rolling, funking electro pop assertiveness is magical and Brown has huge fun with the relentless put-downs that lyrically dominate: ‘Don’t testify me, don’t bring me down, don’t hold me captive, you’re not the apple of my eye you see’.  “Nothing Really Matter” is a swirling, sombre and sharp-edged synth  monster which would have sounded at home on Adult’s last album, VV Brown never before having hinted at this unlikely and inspired direction.

“Faith”, track eight of eleven, finally allows a chink of light to spill through and is more lifting sonically and melodically than anything preceding it.  A duet with an uncredited male, it quietly references George Michael and with its theme of rebirth (‘I shake it off as I fall down to the ground, I belly flop into a swimming pool of sound, so you got to have faith’ ) and hope and a melody that will stick for days, it’s one of the strongest and most soulful songs here. “Ghosts”, in which Brown’s vocals spectacularly morph into 80’s singer songwriter Joan Armatrading, continues with similar themes and benefits from some simple but brilliantly constructed vocal effects over a droning organ and tight drum machines.

The album ends with two tracks which bring to mind a singer/songwriter who is now an almost-cliched reference point for artists and music fans alike. I’m loath to point out the similarities in the songwriting between that of the haunting “Knife” and Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” and the foggy, suffocating album closer “Beginning”, which sounds like a lost track from Bush’s “Ninth Wave” concept album which formed the second part of ‘Hounds of Love’. These aren’t parodies though, as is often the case, they are very well crafted compositions from an artist who may or may not be familiar with Bush’s work (I suspect the former) and  to draw such genuine comparisons is a compliment indeed.

“Samson & Delilah” never goes too far, gets too crazy or attention-seeking. The measured and meticulous tone and pacing of this album is a very large part of its success. VV Brown will have her work cut out for her when it comes to the initial promotion of this admittedly difficult album (for such a visual artist she has made the odd decision to hardly feature in the videos for the first two singles) and many will not make the connection between the Marks and Spencer model and former pop star and Brown’s current, definitive form. Twelve months down the line though, and many people will have hopefully been exposed to this album while having no idea who the artist is and it will become so something of a word-of-mouth slow burner. By any standards, this is a heartfelt and bold collection and a testament to VV Brown’s self belief.