London-based soul singer Michael Kiwanuka possesses the indelible vocal chops that nearly guarantee a large and deserved audience. He is a terrific singer, recalling by turns Al Green, Otis Redding and even Harry Belafonte. On his full-length debut “Home Again,” Kiwanuka’s handsome, homespun tenor is the anchor for a collection of eclectic tunes that restlessly but effectively touch on folk, jazz and R&B. Best of all, in an era where over-the-top vocal exertions have become de rigueur in popular music, Kiwanuka is a master class in subtlety, consistently trusting his instincts and instrument in a manner reminiscent of past masters who understood that less is often more.
The opening track, “Tell Me a Tale,” finds the band in early Van Morrison mode, dexterously winding through a complex arrangement dotted with strings and woodwinds over a compelling jazz shuffle. Meanwhile, the lovely “Rest” lopes mournfully along, like an update of the Penn/Moman classic “Dark End of The Street.” The Brill Building-style, ersatz doo-wop of “Bones” reveals yet another side of Kiwanuka’s talent.
Kiwanuka is an artist who could sound good singing the phone book. If there’s a criticism to be leveled against “Home Again,” it’s that it occasionally sounds like that’s exactly what he’s doing. While a general theme of spiritual searching is discernible throughout the record, it too often suffers from lyrics that are generic. On the gratingly repetitive title track, he sings “home again” over and over without ever specifying where he might find this sanctuary. Is it heaven? Is it his house? Kiwanuka oozes talent, but in order to measure up fully to the idols he so easily evokes, he’ll need to think more deeply about what he actually wants to say.
“Tell Me a Tale,” “Rest,” “Bones”