FINLEY QUAYE / “The Emperor”
I don’t remember anymore how I first heard of Finley Quaye but I do remember the first time I heard his debut album, Maverick A Strike. I put it on expecting not much at all. I’d heard he was supposed to be unusual or something but I know how that story usually ends. But instead of my half-bored lack of positive expectations being confirmed, I received a lovely jolt. That first album was wonderful – inventive, unusual, expressive…I was hooked. I decided right then to pay attention to whatever Finley did next. That was back in ’97. It’s ten years later and Finley’s discography is now three albums deep. The first two of the three—1997’s Maverick A Strike and 2000’s Vanguard—are quite similar...and quite good. On both, Finley impresses with his poise, his versatility and most of all with his free-wheeling compositional improvisation. I know the words composition and improvisation virtually contradict each other, but what I mean is Finley’s songs rarely have the common verse / chorus / verse structure of ordinary pop tunes; instead, they seem to develop in loops or spirals. Rather than going from here to there, Finley’s songs circle around and around a given theme or vibe. The value of his songs is in his unusual vocal stylings and in the contrast he creates between the sonic textures of the various instruments. Even a quick listen will tell you that Finley loves the electro-boom of deep bass tones but he also likes to balance the heaviness of the bass with lighter acoustic sounds. (Check the harp on “British Air Rage” to see what I mean.) I’ve seen some reviewers refer to Finley as a reggae artist. I think that’s inaccurate. Finley’s spoken bits do have hints of that loping Jamaican enunciation we all know and love, and, Finley does sometimes make references to Babylon and Jah. But other than a dub-sounding tune here and an almost-skanking piece there, Finley’s style is too diverse and just plain wild to be considered reggae. So how would I categorize his music? I can’t say for sure, except that his first two records sound to me like large urban downtowns look: there’s a unifying theme—all that concrete and steel—but at the same time, there is something different happening everywhere you look. There’s graffiti and luxury stores; homeless people and wide expanses of glass; folk walking everywhere and cars waiting at lights. People say the damndest things downtown and in all sorts of languages. You just never know. Three years after Vanguard, Finley dropped his third full-length release, Much More Than Love, and I found myself deeply disappointed. Gone was the seemingly effortless inventiveness, the whip-smart wordplay, the spiritualism and the sarcasm. In its place we get overly sincere guitar-driven power pop. Where Finley seemed before to be alternately chuckling at or ranting against the madness of modern life in his small piece of our sometimes bizarre and out-of-control planet, now he seemed to be…I don’t know…head over heels in love or something? I don’t have anything against love songs (both of his first two albums feature quite good ones, actually), but these were ordinary, even clichéd, love songs. Listening to the endlessly surprising thoughts Finley kept coming up with for those first two albums I would’ve considered cliché a fault beyond his reach. What the hell happened? I still don’t have a definitive answer to that question. I do have a theory though. Finley remains virtually unknown here in the US, but in the UK his first album sold very well, delivering multi-platinum sales, a couple of hit singles and media notoriety. The requisite paparazzi run-ins, pharmaceutical issues and re-hab visits followed. The second album (which I happen to like just as much as the first, if not more) was a disappointment in the only way that seems to actually matter, that being in terms of sales. So maybe, just maybe, Finley’s third album about-face was an attempt to right his listing ship – commercially, I mean. On the other hand, it could also have been something like Meshell’s Bitter, an artistically honest attempt to record something dramatically different. The fourth album, I think, will tell us which of those options is more accurate. Then again, maybe there isn’t going to be a fourth album. It’s been five long years. Come on, Finley my man…where you at?! Songs from Maverick A Strike (550 Music/Sony - 1997):
“It’s Great When We’re Together” – All-weather romance set to dub. “When you shine, you brighten up my day.”
“Even After All” – Sometimes a gentle protest song is as effective as a loud one. “Even after all the murdering…you know I love you.”
“Maverick A Strike” – Ghana meets Brixton; jumping African percussion over deep-rumbling Jamaican bass. “If it ain’t of optimism, I will pay no attention.”Songs from Vanguard (Epic/Sony - 2000):
“Broadcast” – The first words of the new album: “White leather / Mongoose / Any weather / Turn it loose / Monkey / From the suburbs… / Broadcast.” I thought, “What the eff?!” Then I turned it up.
“The Emperor” – This one gives me the impression that Finley is one of those lunatic conspiracy theorists. At the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s right. “What they know, they have corrupted / What they do know, they’ve devoured.”
“British Air Rage” – Since 2000, I’ve been calling this song “British Air Raid.” I guess I was assuming. “Tell me your psalms and I’ll tell you mine.”
“Hey Now” – Off-rhythm percussion drops, wandering flutes and obscure Biblical references close the second album on an evocative note. “I should make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know I.”Songs from Much More Than Love (Epic/Sony - 2003):
“Dice” – The only song I really liked from this disappointing effort. “You roll the dice and swear your love’s for me.” That’s folk-techie genius Beth Orton on background vocals.
“This Is How I Feel” – If I’d never heard “Great When We’re Together” I’d probably like this one more. “You’re gonna fly when you get older.”—Mtume ya Salaam
Everytime I hear Finley Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the obvious. Everytime I hear Finley, I like him. My problem is I just don’t remember to listen to him, to put his music in immediate rotation. As far as what Mtume perceives as a fall off between the second and the third album, well, undoubtedly it had less to do with Finley’s talent and a whole more to do with social pressure drops. Sometimes it be hard to hold on to what we got once what we got becomes something a lot of people want a piece of. Requests become demands and eventually entrapments. Especially when money and cache and a bit of fame are involved. I don’t know for sure but I can guess. Just from the way my man Finley sounds, brer probably was just articulating what he was feeling and then as a result of his “success” Finley’s environment drastically changed. Fish out of water no longer can swim. Maybe grow lungs and survive on land but no longer have that beauty of motion in water. Ya know? On the first two records I hear a brother just singing his insides. Simple songs. Basic music tracks. It’s mostly the sound and the sentiments honestly sung that attract me. Like listening to a close cousin talk about day-to-day stuff—the cousin who has a way with words, a twinkle in his eye, a sly sense of humor and tons of charm but he’s also generally a ne’er-do-well; over the long haul, one obstacle or two or three obstacles always be eventually obstructing his path. And nobody knows how to help him. I remember being in some little café I don’t frequent. Niceness music was playing. It had a Bob feel but it wasn’t Bob. The vibes were really, really attractive. I had to know. I asked the young lady behind the counter and when she said the name, the syllables didn’t compute. I mean, I don’t claim to have heard everything in the world but I got a lot of references in my mental Roladex. If I hear something I like a lot and have not at least heard of the artist, well, I’m usually really, really intrigued. So I ask the woman to repeat the name cause I didn’t catch it. She reach down and pull up the album. It was your boy, Finley Quaye. And not just that, it was a CD I had in my collection. I was ashamed of myself. For some reason I had not picked up on the music even though I already owned a copy of it. Finley Quaye can be like that. There is nothing spectacular happening so you could easily overlook him. But this is some really warm, human music from the heart. Don’t be like me. If this is your first time hearing it, listen closely. Give it time. Play it again. It’s deep, deeper than its quiet surface seems. Much deeper. And, BTW, we’ve featured a Finley song before and gave some of his background. I even dropped the short version of the café story. I almost forgot to mention it. ;>) —Kalamu ya Salaam P.S. Finley’s My Space page announces new album soon come. Looking forward….
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