Compass Jamie Lidell (Warp) The Wonder-voiced crooner employs his guest stars like a selector roll.

Soul Subscriber: Lidell plays his good taste like an instrument.

According to a 2008 Pitchfork interview, Jamie Lidell listens to a wide variety of tunes: Prince, Sly Stone, the Congos, Arthur Russell, Can, Serge Gainsbourg, Sun Ra. The English techno-head-cum-soul-crooner is a consummate aesthete, and at his best he draws carefully from his tastes, tying the bow on those elements with his very real, very genuine Stevie Wonder pipes. What’s emerged is smart throwback R&B, squishy keyboards and all. On Compass, his latest, that can mean sparseness: Take crafty tracks like “Enough’s Enough,” which inhabits a sort of post-punk funk, combining bass and drums, a flute and keyboard hook, and some Jimmy Castor-worthy Latin percussion. His approach can also mean epicness—like Parliament epic, as on “The Ring,” which comes with hand-claps, wet (maybe even distorted) keyboards, a tambourine-and-vocals breakdown, a simple piano melody, a kazoo-like backdrop, and fat—fat—highhats. And it can yield oddness—a sort of Tom Waits-like eccentricity, as on “Big Drift,” which twangs and lurches away with a few soaring vocal sidesteps, and would be much better if Lidell didn’t try to affect his best smoker’s voice, which, for the record, sounds less like Waits’, more like, say, Steven Tyler’s. But for the most part, Lidell’s lungs perform admirably. Indeed, even Compass’ more adventurous songs would be sort of lost without them. When Lidell goes for franticness, like on “You Are Waking”—which, by the way, lands somewhere between Prince and Fugazi—his vocals find the right amount of aggression. Here, I have to bring up Cody ChesnuTT, who took that horrible turn with the Roots a few years back. Where that band wanted to groove, ChesnuTT—whose voice, and, I guess, sensibility, is much weaker than Lidell’s—couldn’t quite sink into the tune (“The Seed,” as you probably remember). While “You Are Waking” and “The Seed” are pretty close to opposites, the comparison feels apt: Some vocalists know where to be. Others don’t. So good is Lidell at the careful art of blending that his marquee ensemble is hardly noticeable. Beck plays some guitar and sings, and also sports a writing and production credit. Feist appears on Compass, too—though thankfully, you’d never know it—as do members of Wilco and Grizzly Bear. In clumsier hands, these players would be featured maybe to move units, maybe to prop up a weak-kneed headliner. Here, though, it’s simply Lidell playing his careful selector roll.

 

VIDEO: Jamie Lidell

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