Jonathan Emile: Spaces-in-Between review – Steve Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
It’s perhaps a measure of an artist who can go from Hip Hop and Rap to Roots without blinking. Legendary Bay-C did similar with his move from Dancehall to Roots/MENA-inspired music on Holy Temple. So, enter stage left Jonathan Emile – who just made this musical transition perfectly.
Spaces-in-Between, released by MindPeaceLove and Tuff Gong International, is quite the departure from Emile’s previous work, which was heavy on the Hip Hop and RnB. But that’s not to say this latest project doesn’t encompass those genres, either. Because Spaces-in-Between showcases this artist’s musical eclecticism beautifully. It also serves as a potted history of Jamaican music.
The album opens with Keep On Fighting, marking it as Roots, but in a completely stripped back manner. An acoustic guitar choppily skanks from the off, and continues to do so. And that’s it. There’s no other instrumentation. But this almost ‘preamble’ to the main album serves two important purposes. Firstly, its lyrical and thematic content acts as an introduction to the broader messages of record. And secondly, the track is solely about displaying Emile’s voice. He has an extremely rich tenor, which effortlessly flips into a falsetto. There’s something rural, almost religious Mento, about his performance on Keep On Fighting. The pared-back back singers, that merely come in for the chorus, accentuate this. But as quickly as it began, it’s over.
To immediately keep the listener on their toes, Emile takes us a million miles away from rural Jamaica and straight into old skool Dancehall with Savanna. There’s not an Afrobeats percussion line in sight, as he takes the listener back to the genre’s sound system heyday. The track is almost an embellished tribute to the likes of Sugar Minott. The sparse instrumentation centres around an 808 on a winding, 10-beat, two bar beamed riff. It uses the traditional device of working from the root down to the fifth. You infrequently catch guitars skanking just out of earshot and the drums are on a one drop. But the use of reverb and distortion is heavy, hinting at Savanna’s late 70s/early 80s influences. And Emile’s vocal is pure Toasting, showing his versatility as a performer.
Next up is Canopy. It instantly puts you in mind of late 60s reggae, where Roots’ musical devices were coming out of their infancy. But Emile mixes these up somewhat, with interesting variations. The keys are on a proper bubble pattern, but both left and right lines are in the treble clef. This is emphasised by the right line’s often intricate, improvised syncopation. Skanking guitars and a one drop are there, and the bass is on a double time part-walk, with that close-to-the-neck deepness reminiscent of Marley. Call and response backing vocals along with some chanted sections all add to that summery, late 60’s Jamaican vibe. But Emile can’t help but add some singjay/rap in for good measure. Glorious.
Emptiness moves us straight into Dub. It’s a driving, “Scratch”-like experience with some highly complex instrumentation. The rapid-fire percussion projects the track along at a blistering speed; you almost feel the skank line desperately trying to keep up. The use of a synth hook makes this incessant propulsion all the more marked. But it’s Emile’s vocal which truly stands out. It shows him equally at home in a high baritone, tenor and falsetto range, along with singjay, and his whole performance gives the feeling of improvisation. Mr Perry would be proud.
We then have More Than You Know featuring the gorgeous vocals of Ezra Lewis. It’s a curiously appealing tribute to that 90’s Reggae-Pop sound made prominent by Shaggy, Aswad and Inner Circle. The basic Roots devices are there, but the track is pure fusion. The opening Hip Hop, distorted kick riff nods to where this is going. It’s catchy, Poppy and heavily layered vocal arrangement is endemic of the era it’s paying tribute to – where the artists were more important than the music itself. Emile’s switching between vocal and half-singjay, half rap sits perfectly with Lewis’ complex embellishment of the melody. And the two combined transport you back to a time when climate change, Trump and Amazon were the stuff of science fiction (or horror, depending on your viewpoint).
Meanwhile, Liberation featuring Chanda T. Holmes is a departure from the rest of the album so far. Emile transports us via his previous work into an almost Trip-Hop location. The beamed arrangement of the distorted kick coupled with the hi hats and snare are pure Hip Hop, as is the simple piano line that repeats throughout. But the focus of the bass on the first and second beats of the bar, and the synth string’s almost orchestral arrangement just out of earshot, hark back to the Funky Soul of the 70s. This element is then enhanced by Holmes’ Gospel-like, heavily embellished vocal, which builds to a crescendo. Then add in the elongated, delayed Dub reverb and Emile’s chant like-vocal, which often overshoots note pitch intentionally and you have a sum of the song’s parts, which equals Trip-Hop.
Spaces-in-Between then moves into the unsettling Babylon Is Falling – 3.0. And Emile returns to the Hip Hop sensibilities that launched his career. Although, again, nothing is that straightforward, as the composition and arrangement are fascinating. The usual Roots guitar device of a skank is replicated at times by the backing vocals, along with a Hammond organ doing a bubble rhythm on and off. Funky Soul electric guitars whine in the background, while the percussion focuses on the up and offbeats. This is in contrast to the bass, which is back on the first and second beats. Emile flips between a soulful vocal and his first foray into pure rap of the album; the Gospel backing vocals finish this off. Overall, the track is distinctly Neo Soul, albeit with a Roots twist. Superb.
After covering many of Roots derivative genres, Rock and Come Over sees Emile travelling into the musical future, almost. It’s a perfect fit into the Revival movement, in terms of its musical experimentation and fusion. The chord progressions, from the major root, to the minor third, then major fourth and fifth, give an otherworldly feel. A Hammond organ is back, treading a skanky bubble rhythm along with the guitars. The one drop is there, but not heavily emphasised. Meanwhile the bass alternates between starting on the off of the up beats, and the downs; its pitch also varies. This musical ambiguity only adds to the Revival feel, as do the frequent breaks. This is topped off with another rousing, Soul-esque vocal arrangement, with an especially impressive improvised section from Emile and chanted elements making a reappearance.
In a juxtaposition to the previous track, Try a Likkle More is a likkle purer in its Roots and Dub sensibilities. It’s a textbook live performance piece: uncomplicated while cleverly scored, the Roots devices share centre stage with the vocals, of which the chorus’ melody is irritatingly catchy. The bridge is an instant crowd-chanter, as are Emile’s calls of “reach out and tell someone you love them”. The whole package is modern Roots perfection. Classy work.
Spaces-in-Between finishes with Moses, and the album does a full circle to where it began. Stripped back, with just a guitar and harmonica, Emile takes us to the rural origins of Roots. But the composition and arrangement are far more American than Jamaican, leaning towards Folk-Gospel. And it’s perhaps this and the album’s opening track which showcase Emile’s voice at his finest: controlled, full of purposeful intonation, syllable emphasis and gliding between a tenor and falsetto unflinchingly, without effort. It’s a moving end to an album that covers so many aspects of Roots, often in a complex and intelligent way. Yet its when Emile strips away everything else that he is, perhaps, at his most powerful.
It’s a lyrically and thematically potent album, too. Emile covers much ground on Spaces-in-Between. From the rousing preamble of Keep On Fighting, to the modern social justice anthem Liberation, he doesn’t shy away from tackling society’s most pressing issues. There are so many stand-out moments, but perhaps Babylon Is Falling has to be his finest hour. “We need our seed to grow against the grain”, he chants, as he narrates how the system is crashing down around itself, and that it’s an opportunity we need to seize. But it’s his rap which is truly impressive, not least his rhythmical skill but also what he’s saying: “we neglect the fact that all democracies are built on slavery”. It’s an angry, pointed yet purposeful message built into an equally impressive musical backdrop.
Spaces-in-Between is one of those projects that grows more and more impressive the more you listen to it. Musically bold and expansive, Emile has delivered a journey through the ages of Roots-based music. Everything is stellar in quality, from the composition, arrangement, production and engineering to his exceptionally skilled vocal performances. But moreover, it’s the thought that’s gone into the album’s construction which is first class, showing an artist not merely producing music, but a complete experience. It stands as a majestic point in this man’s career. Fantastic. Jonathan Emile Spaces-in-Between review by Steve Topple (14th February 2020)