Island – 14th July
If you put your band on hiatus, go bald and release a solo album, the you are officially being ambitious. You are putting yourself in a special a category of musicians attempting to transition from front man to big man. You’re following in the footsteps of fellow folically-challenged singers Sting, Peter Gabriel and David Gilmour. And when, decades ago, that meant making a Dad Rock album or going to the studio with some ‘world musicians’, it now, apparently, means crafting a feel-good summer album for the whole family. Let me explain…
Some time in the mid-00s, a hip-hop lovin’ North Londoner called Jack Steadman made some advanced-level beats and put them on the most cutting-edge music sharing platform of the era, Soundclick. But soon, as was the danger being a middle class white male in the mid-00s, an indie guitar project called Bombay Bicycle Club soon sprung up and got in the way of Steadman pursuing his beat-making destiny. But now, with the band going on hiatus last year, it’s time for the return of Crouch End’s answer to J Dilla.
First and foremost, this is an album with its roots deep in the hip-hop culture of sampling. You get no bonus points for recognising the Grant Green sample in track #3, ‘Grant Green’. You certainly get some points, however, for recognising the harp sample on ‘Somebody New’ (a track featuring UK singer Elli Ingram) as one present in Stead-songs released nearly 10 years ago. Let’s just say that someone is going to spend a lot of time putting this thing up on whosampled.com.
This electronic, sample-based approach to music-making shouldn’t really come as a surprise. If you know where to look, elements of God First were there to see in much of Steadman’s work with Bombay Bicycle Club. Who could forget the chilled electro vibes on the second half of 2009 single, ‘Magnet’, his relaxed drum loops and sub-bass outro jam providing the perfect counterpoint to the frenetic angst of the first half of the song. For a more recent example, take his sample of a Lata Mangeshkar Bollywood tune which provided the skeleton around which ‘Feel’ (from So Long, See You Whenever) was built.
Second to understanding this album is that it’s full of sunny summer bangers. Incredible vocal performances from perennial hook-supplier BJ The Chicago Kid and soul powerhouse Charles Bradley set the celebratory tone in the first half of the album, before the second half kicks off with an incredible double-feature from De La soul and Horace Andy. De La Soul provide their idiosyncratically feel-good flows before roots legend Horace Andy’s silver-toned hook tells us “you can be my girl”. It’s some sizzling summer stuff from as eclectic a mix of musicians as you’ll find.
It ain’t all feats-on-beats, though. Some tracks are all Steadman, and wouldn’t go amiss on the last half of BBC’s last album So Long, See You Whenever. It’s got to be said that these are perhaps the least memorable, but they’re in no way bad songs. ‘Magic’, for example, is a catchy tune reminiscent of the XX, with some skillful electronic production doing nothing to get in the way of the vulnerable vocals. It’s a masterclass in tasteful use of reverb and clean-cutting composition.
God First is a solid first album from someone who has the experience of four band albums behind them. Steadman famously took over more and more of the production of Bombay as the project went on, and all that practice is apparent here. He has also nailed his guest artists, picking and choosing favourites based on the qualities of the vocalist, not the size of their social media followings.
It may not be as exciting, club-ready or down ‘n’ dirty as one might have hoped after listening to hours of self-released bedroom tracks from a decade ago, but if Steadman wants to be a successful solo artist with popular appeal, then that’s probably a good thing.
Buy: Mr Jukes – God First