We’ve gotten used to hearing Cleo Sol’s voice pretty regularly over the last two years or so with three recent SAULT albums and now two Little Simz albums. Nobody is saying she’s not got an incredible voice. It’s a given. Like knowing how to make a cup of tea. Everyone knows.
But what about a Cleo Sol solo album? Well here is the answer to that question in a poorly constructed and disappointment filled sentence. Mother starts strong, but after an hour of the same sedate pace, unadventurous production and bland instrumentation, I was done. Sure I appreciate a Stevie Wonder meets Minnie Riperton meets Sugababes borderline sentimental piano soul-ballad as much as the next guy, but a whole album of them?
Mother sounds less like an album than one of the ‘live at home’ performances we have become accustomed to from the likes of KEXP and Tiny Desk over the last year and half. There are different expectations in such a scenario. You’re not going to get the full blown live performance – it’s going to be relaxed and there are going to limitations due to the domestic location, the songs will sound similar because there isn’t the room for 17 guitars or a gospel choir, everyone will probably be sitting down. You get the picture. But you’re also not going to get the same experience as an album – the instruments and singers are going to sound exactly like they sound, there won’t be anything superfluous or layered on after the recording. This is an album though and I’m crying out for something beyond bass, piano/electric piano, guitar, drums/percussion and some backing vocals.
There’s merit in the musicianship or the gentle and timeless sound Cleo and her band are making. It’s lovely, but the overall result is dull. It’s like a soporific lettuce to a flopsy bunny (that’s right, I went there Beatrix Potter fans). Maybe I’m missing something? Maybe all this is the point? But it just doesn’t do it for me. Perhaps if it was 20 minutes shorter I’d be swayed more to the positive. For me though, Mother would be hugely improved with some variety – a different arrangement, something electronic, a step up in tempo in a couple of places for example.
That was perhaps a bit harsh – there is some variety near the end. The downside is that the timeless sound veers dangerously towards cheesy. ‘23’ has a cinematic quality, but of a regrettable film-musical that should have stayed in provincial theatre where it belonged. There is a hint of auto-tune effect on ‘One Day’. ‘Music’ begins with the most Minnie Riperton-esque moment of the album, then just over half way through turns into an almost completely different song with a latin-ballroom dancing beat plus 1960s film theme crooner strings. I’m half expecting a bow-tied Andy Williams or Matt Monro to make a feature. Several songs on the album share this two-for-one characteristic and it will surprise you to see only 12 tracks have played when you reach the end over an hour later.
Ok so I’ve got that out of my system – let’s take a look at some of Mother’s plus points. If you’re looking for something like Motown, yet calm, then Mother will hit that note perfectly for you. I guess it’s comforting too, like, you might imagine, the titular mother. I mentioned a strong start but on reflection this is limited to just the two songs in ‘Promises’ and ‘Sunshine’. After the earlier passage of trial and error, ‘Spirit’ gets the timeless and cinematic balance right for a joyous end to the album. ‘Heart Full of Love’ is painfully on the nose but you have to admire the sentiment – if it was about you, you’d be well chuffed.
It’s been said of Little Dragon that their best work has come about when recording with others. And, on the basis of Mother, those Little Simz and SAULT albums, the same is true of Cleo Sol. I hoped to like this album more, and almost feel bad because it seems like it means a lot to her. But at an eye watering (and inexplicable) £38 for a vinyl copy, I’m sad to say it’s best avoided.
Words by James Spearing.