Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Album Review: Noisettes Wild Young Hearts

In the pantheon of black girl rock, Noisettes frontwoman Shingai Shoniwa stands out with a style all her own. She’s got the avant-funkiness of predecessors Grace Jones and Betty Davis, the badass gospel growl of originator Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the electro-dub weirdness of contemporaries Janelle Monae and Santigold. But what sets Shoniwa apart is her ability to effortlessly meld all these influences while carving out a distinctive rock and roll sound that defies categorization.

The Zimbabwe-born, London-bred singer/bassist is something of a rarity in the indie world. She’s a sista who shreds, shakes, and shimmies with equal parts punk abandon and soulful bravada. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition, but one that Shoniwa deftly navigates with an explosive voice that is at once raw, theatrical, and oozing with charisma.

She’s already been dubbed an it-girl in the UK, which makes sense considering she has all the makings of a star. Right down to the exotic-sounding name, striking looks, and colorful back story complete with childhood circus arts classes, a single mother who was a social worker/music promoter, and a brief stint as a burlesque dancer.

But she’s more than just a quirky Brit with a bouffant-fro. She’s the very heart of the Noisettes, bolding leading the band into next-big-thing territory alongside guitarist Dan Smith and drummer Jamie Morrison. The three came together after meeting in art school and cut their teeth playing warehouses and punk squats throughout London.

In 2007 they released
What’s the Time Mr. Wolf, a promising, if uneven, debut featuring a frenzy of stripped-down garage-rock. Now after years spent toiling in the underground, Shoniwa has declared “Indie is boring, dead and over.” Ready for a musical makeover, the band signed with Island Def Jam and hooked up with producer Jim Abbiss (Adele, Arctic Monkeys).

The result is
Wild Young Hearts, a pitch-perfect collection of buzzing guitars, retro soul, and electro-disco beats. The band playfully experiments with just about everything on here and while the DIY grit of their early days may be gone, in its place is a fuller, more expansive sound. It may not win over indie-punk purists, it’s pretty much my dream album with everything I love all rolled into one.

The album kicks off with the stellar title track “Wild Young Hearts.” It’s a jaunty slice of 60’s girl-group pop anchored by Shoniwa’s powerful vocals and punctuated with handclaps, sing-along harmonies, and wall of sound reverb. “
Never Forget You” treads a similar path, with Shoniwa sweetly cooing to an old flame Ronnie Spector-style over sweeping strings and vintage melodies.

The group completely switches gears on “
Don’t Upset the Rhythm”. The track thumps with a steady dance-rock tempo as Shoniwa commands listeners “Go baby, go baby, go.” The party continues on “Saturday Night,” which builds slowly before erupting into throbbing drums and new wave synths. Elsewhere, they get downright folky on acoustic numbers like the To Kill a Mockingbird-inspired”Atticus”.

The album may admittedly frustrate some listeners with its constant genre-hopping and newly-minted britpop sheen. But for the rest of us, the album feels less like opportunistic cherry-picking and more like a band continuing to evolve and explore new sounds. Wild Young Things proves the Noisettes are more than just another indie band. And my new hero Shingai Shoniwa once again proves that black girls rock.

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