By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
Berlin is gray, drizzly. Paris was clear-skied, beautiful. Fresh off a flight from the French capital to the German capital, Englishman Jamie Lidell has just set his bags down in his hotel room and is off in search of some lunch. Over a dodgy mobile phone connection as he walks the familiar strasses and platzes, the 34-year-old Lidell is personable and engaging, his dry wit coming through during our initial pleasantries. But there's a noticeably melancholy twinge to his voice.
"You've caught me in a bit of a blue mood," he admits. It's the first time in quite a while that he's set foot in Berlin — his home city for nine years, and where his latest album, Jim, was conceived, written, and partially recorded. "It dawned on me that I don't have a house here anymore, so I'm really a visitor here and psychologically it's very strange. It's just like splittin' up with an old girlfriend or something and going to visit them later and going, 'Well, I still have thoughts for you, but not love.' I don't wanna get really boozy, because I've been off the booze for a couple of months, just kind of a personal mission of mine, but the way it is outside and the way I feel right now, this is the perfect fucking moment."
On its surface, Jim, Lidell's third (and best) solo album since debuting in 2000 with Muddlin Gear, couldn't be more the opposite of the singer's current mood. It's sunny, upbeat, warm, groovealicious — full of hip-shake and shoe-shimmy. Its well-appointed opener, "Another Day," is classic Motown. Its piano, tambourine, horns, woodwinds, and gospel-inflected female backing "woah-ohh-ohhhhhs" shuffle and strut together like perfectly synchronized dance moves. "Little Bit of Feel Good" gets down and dirtier, bringing in some wah-guitar chops, talk-box, and clavinet. "Figured Me Out" is a booty-moving slice of post-Jamiroquai synth-funk. And fuzzed-out Mod-pop ripper "Hurricane" achieves in three minutes the kind of righteous rock-soul synthesis Lenny Kravitz has failed to nail in nearly two decades of trying.
Dig a little deeper, though, and most of the tunes are wistful and blue at their core. Love songs nearly one and all, they speak to worry, doubt, and miscommunication rather than everlasting bliss. "I used to scream when a whisper would do ... now I'm letting silence do the talking," goes a line in "Another Day." The bright, bouncy R&B of "Where D'You Go," meanwhile, cloaks misery: "That's why I cry/Gonna hafta get along without you."
Throughout, Lidell sells his sentiments passionately and earnestly with a voice that's buttery gold, belting and crooning like he's possessed by a litany of soul legends. Some like to term it "blue-eyed soul," describing a Caucasian who pours it out like Stevie, Otis, or the Reverend Al (Green, not Sharpton). Others don't beat around the bush: A writer for SF Weekly recently called Lidell "the blackest-singing white man since Rick Astley." To my ears, he sounds more like Daryl Hall than anyone else.
"I haven't got quite as good a haircut as him; I can't quite afford it," Lidell deadpans. "If I move to Los Angeles, I might be able to get it on. Well, me and Daryl, I guess we could be mates. I was always quite a fan of 'Maneater'; that was quite all right. What else is good ... 'I Can't Go for That,' of course. Music like that is just pure nostalgia. I think it just kind of transforms the world around you a little bit, like a sonic perfume. It's kind of intoxicating, it does something, it leaves an indelible mark ... or at least a semipermanent stain."
Lidell is seriously considering moving to L.A. — part of Jim was recorded there. Being a man without a home is clearly unsettling, but the singer is in the middle of a few other transitions. As a songwriter, he has learned to hone his craft; unlike the more haphazard, spontaneous approach he took with previous albums, for Jim he wrote and rewrote all the songs before ever hitting the recording studio. And now he's performing with a live band backing him, as opposed to the past six years or so, when he took the stage as a one-man band with his samplers, sequencers, that magic voice, and a penchant for improvisation.
He insists he's not really a "band guy" and worries that having to stay mostly true to his arrangements so as not to confuse his bandmates could lead to the dreaded "jukebox ritual" night after night. Still, Lidell explains he could do justice to the rich, organic nature of the new material only by performing it with other musicians, and he's trying to make the best of it.
"It's a chance to bring something new and fresh to it, really make the songs come alive again and grow," he says, audibly munching on something. "A good, well-written song is a really strange, powerful thing because it can handle all kinds of mutations and somehow remain recognizable through it all — like a really strong face that you can see through the crowd, even if it's got a disguise. So with the band, I've been enjoying the process of dressing them up and seeing how far I can push them before people lose sight of their character."