Nao, February 15 ep (Little Tokyo Recordings, 05/01/2015)
Sophomore release from the London-based singer/writer/producer, released on her own Little Tokyo Recordings label.
Nao is another in a line of new artists putting modern production touches over largely 80s-indebted r&b workouts. Her voice, much like AlunaGeorge’s Aluna Francis, inhabits a perky, helium-fueled upper register – yes, there will be pitch shifting, but it doesn’t get too distracting. While not a thundering, break the glass diva á la Mary J. or a soft, come hither crooner like Sade, her voice slinks in, around, and through a groove, still commanding attention through weight of charisma.
The arrangements here walk a fine line between the poppier, hook-laden dance music of AG and Disclosure and the more esoteric, narcotic r&b of artists like Kelela, SZA and Jessy Lanza. There’s lots going on in these tracks including, notable to these two ears, the use of “natural” instrumentation in the mix (check the Sade-meets-Rick James bass line in “Golden”); more recently, the province of neo-soul revivalists. Each song clocks in at a very radio friendly run time, but there are open spaces throughout which leave room for interpretation – whether live or via remix – that make them more than merely ear candy.
Highlights include the transmogrified Zapp/Roger electrofunk (complete with what sounds like electric cowbell!) of “Inside/Outside” and the psychedelic soul of Prince-infused “Apple Cherry” (the name alone…). For my money, though, the gold to mine from this particular vein is found in lighter tracks, including lovely ballad “It’s You” and, er, “Golden”.