Lianne La Havas was apparently a dead ringer for the Mercury Award last year, right up until that moment when alt-J waltzed in with their bizarre math-rock and stole her thunder. She probably doesn’t mind that much (or at least one hopes she doesn’t), because the crazily talented Londoner writes the kind of music that will probably be around for a lot longer than many of the other nominees. A fiery intersection of soul, jazz, folk and alternative rock, the exceptional Ms La Havas was sold to me initially in early 2012 by The Guardian, who true to their name are usually the gatekeepers of good taste, and later by a number of other female singers, including this one. Their praises ran the full gamut from ‘she’s like a post-millennial Nick Drake’ to ‘She’s the next Corinne Bailey Rae‘, both of which are actually glowing endorsements, but also fall very short of the spectrum she sometimes fits into. Like many of the our generation, La Havas comes from everywhere, has listened to everything and seems generally beholden to nobody. Usually that kind of background results in art that is not only excitingly fractured and reassembled, but also difficult to appreciate in its newly incarnated whole. By contrast, La Havas appears to be fully in control of the various demons and angels inside her head, vocal cords and hands. And she won the iTunes Album of the Year after all that anyway, which she probably sold a stack more record, too. Take that, indie nerds.
La Havas has released six singles from her debut. Is Your Love Big Enough?, and true to my ability to pick the opposite of a winner when it comes to SEO, I’m going with none of them today. ‘Tease Me’, nestled in the back end of the record, doesn’t have the bombast of ‘Forget’, which sounds like a hundred banshees exploding in a chorus, or ‘Lost And Found’, which you have probably heard if you like real music. But it really struck me when I heard it one evening after putting on her record and sitting down to read The New Yorker (because that’s what being an aspiring aesthete is all about) over some beer that someone left at our house. La Havas rarely makes for background music anyway; her writing consistently jumps out of the box and twists and turns in such a way that it’s not changes in volume or style that will get you, but rather quick shifts in key or excursions into blue note chords that seem effortless but are definitely not that natural. The main refrain to ‘Tease Me’ is full of these, and I really couldn’t concentrate on reading any more once I’d heard it played through. La Havas barely raises her voice and has only a warm-bodied Stratocaster humming away for company, yet she opens a Pandora’s box with this song. There are shades of Joni Mitchell, but also of some of the great moody jazz sirens of years past.
The guitar voicing of ‘Tease Me’ suggests at once cool jazz, the brooding foreword to an alt-folk song in the style of Jeff buckley, and something else, too. It’s inviting yet uncomfortable, a dichotomy reinforced by La Havas herself, who journeys into the nether regions of what seems to be a modal key signature (Miles Davis was one of the first popular practitioners of this in the fifties) to pull out simmering phrases that sound occasionally bluesy and Middle Eastern, often in the same breath. Combined with her unique timbre and ability to trill between a number of notes at once, La Havas fills the entire track with sound despite having a limited number of sources from which to pull them. And that chorus refrain and those chords, my God. They’re way too smart for me to try and decode with some level of authority, but they make me shiver. She can do that with just a single change or turnaround, and this is but one song on an album that’s full of them. What a great one.
Lianne La Havas – ‘Tease Me’