Seasons of My Soul (Atlantic)
Rewind just a couple of years and you couldn't move for all those Amys, Duffys and Adeles, with their sharp-suited horn-sections and modernist revamps of vintage Tamla Motown and 1960s ska. Retro-soul ruled and its reign was fun while it lasted, but the moment has passed. Duffy returns later this month with an excellent new album to find the musical Tardis has already time-shifted to mellower pastures.
This year's hot new female act is Rumer, whose beautifully crafted debut appears to have been beamed in direct from California circa 1971. Born Sarah Joyce (her stage name is a nod to the 1930s author Margaret Rumer Godden, rather than the offspring of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore), the 31-year-old Anglo-Pakistani singer channels the sounds of Carole King, Laura Nyro and, perhaps most obviously, Karen Carpenter.
Like the latter, Rumer's technically flawless voice is humanised by the ingrained ache of vulnerability. She describes herself as "MOR heaven", but that label, and the perky pop-gloss of the album opener Am I Forgiven?, is essentially misleading. The prevailing mood of Seasons of My Soul is troubled, its most compelling feature being the tension between the sweetness of her singing and the darkness of her vision. It's the unflinching expression of her life experiences - her parents' divorce, her mother's death, her struggle to make her music, and what sounds like a series of painful heartbreaks - that elevates Seasons of My Soul from expertly crafted pop-soul to a work of real artistic depth.
These songs, clearly, were written not by committee but from emotional necessity. Delve beneath the polite veneer of Aretha and there's the tale of Rumer's unstable mother "fighting something in her mind that sounds like breaking glass", while her daughter wrestles touchingly with the peer-group pressure of not "having the right shoes".
Rumer's voice is uniquely suited to expressing the "ache in the bones", and although one might argue that she could do with picking up the tempo and accelerating through the gears a little more often, the languid, slow-moving pace perfectly fits the mood. Slow captures the delicious panic of falling in love too fast; Blackbird is forlorn and hymn-like; while the wonderful Thankful, with its broken piano chords and flickering double bass, is the kind of song where time simply takes pause.
Woven into the lush Bacharach-isms are some muted musical colours: bluesy bottleneck guitar, harmonica and mournful viola on the campfire gospel-folk of Healer.
This is an unashamedly autumnal record, all fire-red skies, fog and falling leaves, alive with the delicious chill of the night air.
It's not quite perfect. Coming after the elegiac On My Way Home, the breezy closing cover of Bread's Goodbye Girl - the only time the Carpenters comparison seems cheesy and close to pastiche - sounds gratuitous, the aural equivalent of a marketing box being ticked.
But it's a minor quibble. Seasons of My Soul packs 31 years of life, loss and longing into 40 minutes. It already sounds suspiciously like a classic.
Now hear this:
Rumer follows a fine tradition of female singer-songwriters
The Carpenters – The Carpenters (1971) Rumer name-checks Superstar on Thankful, acknowledging an obvious debt to the 1970s pop confectionists not only in terms of the vocal similarities, but also in the clean, classical instrumental lines. The group’s’ multi-platinum album features not only Superstar but Rainy Days And Mondays, For All We Know and a medley of tunes by another major influence, Burt Bacharach.
Laura Nyro – Stoned Soul Picnic (1997) The soulful yearning and earthy piano playing on Take Me As I Am recalls prime-time Nyro, who combined the solid songwriting tenets of the Brill Building with jazz, gospel and soul touches. Born in the Bronx in 1947, she died of cancer aged 49. This double-CD compilation is a comprehensive overview of her work and an excellent place to start.
Diane Birch – Bible Belt (2010) A more overtly upbeat and somewhat more raw distillation of the 1970s female singer-songwriter oeuvre than Seasons Of My Soul, Bible Belt is the critically acclaimed debut album by this 27-year-old American artist, and sounds like a long-lost cousin to Carole King’s Tapestry.