Review Summary: Not the set of future garage torch songs we were expecting, but impressive nonetheless.
So between How to Dress Well, James Blake, The XX, The Weeknd, and Jamie Woon, do we have a scene yet? All of them are taking '90s R&B as their touchstone, pulling it into shapes more acceptable to rock and electronic audiences, and trying to reverse the genre's trends by establishing the album's dominance over the single.
Or so it seems after hearing the Burial-produced "Night Air", which kicks off this album. It's a great single, simultaneously forward thinking and nostalgic in the same way that the best work of all those aforementioned acts are. Yet it's a bit of a red herring - what follows for the rest of the album still employs a brand of electronic production that skirts around the edges of future garage, but is a much more typical slab of blue eyed soul than the people we thought were his contemporaries. "Lady Luck", the album's other single, is a better indicator of what to expect (and in the context of the album, it actually sounds better than "Night Air", oddly).
The big difference between Woon and Blake, Krell, et al is his voice - be it by design on the part of the others, or confidence on the part of Woon, his voice is pushed right out front in the mix, and his voice isn't distorted, manipulated, or obscured in any way beyond reverb. It's very clear on Mirrorwriting
that he, rather than his production, is the star of the show. It's interesting and impressive, then, that the production still stands out - be it the deep dance bassline and synth chord stabs on "Street", the retro garage keyboard arpeggios on "Shoulda", the shuffling drums on the Seal-esque "Spirits", or the soft soul keyboards and sensitive guitars on "Spiral" (a song that sounds a little like an homage to Bill Withers). The primary aim of the music seems to be from stopping any two songs on the album from sounding the same, and it certainly achieves that, but it also manages to be involving enough to give the album an appeal beyond Woon's vocals.
That's likely to be a vital advantage to quite a few listeners. Woon's voice, while technically very good, may well be a sticking point - it's very smooth and stylish, to the point that some will deride it as too professional and even unemotional. The fact that he attended the BRIT School, a stage school that has also churned out bottom feeders like Adele, Dane Bowers, Katy B, and The Feeling, will only serve as further ammunition for the sceptical (and let's be honest - he's a good-looking guy, and most critics don't like that). Taking that attitude would be missing the point a little, though; regardless of how accurate it is, the reality is that Woon very rarely writes songs that call for the kind of gutbusting, screaming emotional highs that most people think of when they imagine soul. Mystery and resignation reign ahead of longing as the dominant emotions, and both with his production and with his voice, he makes rhythm a fundamental part of everything he does. He's not really making dance music in any tangible way, but it's obvious that he's spent most of his life listening to it.
So it's not what you probably expected. To cite that at a reason to avoid it would be shortsighted in the extreme, though; Jamie Woon has still managed to find a crawl space inbetween genres that stops him from sounding quite like anybody else, and while there, he's pulled together a great record that seems to exist in its own microgenre while still being eerily familiar. Soulful and bluesy in a way that still acknowledges the existence of the various strains of cutting-edge electronic music emanating from the UK, Mirrorwriting
is one of 2011's most assured and confident debuts.