Honestly, James, I feel like picking a Blind Taste Test for you is a bit like picking a Christmas present for my mum. Like my mum’s taste in home decor, your music taste is so eclectic it can be disorientating.
I feel like I know the basic ingredients of what you like but I also know that, just when I think I’ve found the perfect gift (yes, mum, I’m talking about you as much as James here) you’ll find something about it that puts you off.
So. To Ibeyi’s Ash. Am I confident that you’ll love it? Absolutely not. But I do know that, in its influences, its inflections, and in the things it’s gone on to influence itself, plenty of those basic ingredients are there. I hope you’ll love it. I really do.
It’s only a relatively recent discovery for me – Lockdown 1, to precise. I discovered both albums by these French-Cuban sisters at the same time, and was bowled over by their mix of R&B, Jazz, and World Music influences and their ability to make this all meld so beautifully into one. I went with Ash because I think it is the more dynamic and exciting of the two, but if you like this make sure you check the debut out as well.
We haven’t had the best run with BTTs so far. Is this the one to turn the tide?
You’re right Fran, our track record of Blind Taste Tests isn’t brilliant. At least this time it’s not something I have any negative ideas about before I’ve started (see Radiohead). I’ve never heard of Ibeyi and your description above is the sum total of everything I know about them. So I hit play with an open mind.
It’s probably a cliché to say that twin sisters have some sixth sense between them that allows them to create that extra beauty in their harmonies. Clichés aside, it’s clear very quickly that these sisters do have something special when their vocals are combined. Their melding ability that you mention is also immediately clear. ‘I Carried This For Years’ mixes baroque choral harmonies with minimal R&B beats. I’m wowed by their creativity already. This is not going to be an ordinary album.
‘Away Away’ begins in a similar fashion, although with a more relaxed groove. There’s probably a name for the technique of deliberately obvious use of autotune that they use here. I don’t know what that word is, but I’m not a fan. There I go finding something to put me off. I’m willing to let it slide, for now, because the other sounds going on are much more promising. It’s a really catchy and enticing song overall.
Next is ‘Deathless’ which brings with it a Kamasi Washington feature (I’m guessing on saxophone) which gets an approval from me. There are glimpses in the sisters’ vocals of familiar things, but they’re so fleeting I’m yet to be able to pin down what they remind me of. ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ is more traditional pop-R&B, as is the intriguingly titled ‘No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms’. It’s got quotes from a Michelle Obama speech in it which makes what they’re saying difficult to argue with. But I’m not sure what exactly it is they’re saying.
‘Valé’ follows and I’m beginning to wonder where the genre melding excitement of the album’s opening went. I was expecting much more variety and experimentation by this mid-point. ‘Waves’ brings back some of the exciting vocals and unexpected approach with only a keyboard accompanying which lets the singers shine. ‘Transmission/Michaelion’ steps this up with even more layers of vocals. It’s super simple and this is clearly where Ibeyi excel, certainly on this album. After a spoken word section in Spanish, the instrumentation builds and I’m hearing the world music you mentioned Fran. It’s the longest track on the album and it allows for symphony-sized ambition, almost working in movements like classical music does.
Then all of a sudden ‘Me Voy’ takes us off in a different direction. We’ve kept the Spanish language, the auto-tune is back and there is a dembow/reggaeton style beat. In the right setting I could enjoy this. Within the context of the album it’s thrown me a little too much. Three slow songs end Ash and while they’re not bad, I’m willing them to pick up some pace so I can get to the end and start all over again. In my hastened and auto-tune distracted mind I’m sure to be missing some subtle goodness here.
So to the verdict. On first listen there were definitely some wow moments and I think there will definitely be more to like once I spend more time with this album. It veers between simplicity and huge production and it deserves digging into more in order to reveal everything it has to offer. I will make sure I listen to more of their music, as you recommended.
Words by Fran Slater and James Spearing