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THE SEARCH FOR FINLEY QUAYE

 

Saturday/Sunday, January 13, 2008.

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

I can’t remember how I first heard of Finley Quaye but I do remember the first time I heard his debut album, Maverick A Strike. I put it on, expecting not much at all. I’d heard he was supposed to be unusual or something, but I know how that story usually ends.

 

But instead of my half-bored lack of positive expectations being confirmed, I received a lovely jolt. That first album was wonderful – inventive, unusual and expressive. I was hooked. I decided right then to pay attention to whatever Finley did next.

That was back in 1997. Ten years later and Finley’s discography is now three albums deep. The first two of the three—1997’s Maverick A Strike and 2000’s Vanguard—are quite similar and quite good.


On both, Finley impresses with his poise, his versatility and most of all with his free-wheeling compositional improvisation. I know the words composition and improvisation virtually contradict each other, but what I mean is that Finley’s songs rarely have the common verse / chorus / verse structure of ordinary pop tunes; instead, they seem to develop in loops or spirals. Rather than going from here to there, Finley’s songs circle around and around a given theme or vibe.

The value of his songs is in his unusual vocal styling and in the contrast he creates between the sonic textures of the various instruments. Even a quick listen will tell you that Finley loves the electro-boom of deep bass tones but he also likes to balance the heaviness of the bass with lighter acoustic sounds. Check the harp on “British Air Rage” to see what I mean.

I’ve seen some reviewers refer to Finley as a Reggae artist. I think that’s inaccurate. Finley’s spoken bits do have hints of that loping Jamaican enunciation we all know and love, and, Finley does sometimes make references to Babylon and Jah. But other than a dub-sounding tune here and an almost-skanking piece there, Finley’s style is too diverse and just plain wild to be considered Reggae.

 

So how would I categorize his music? I can’t say for sure, except that his first two records sound to me like large urban downtowns look: there’s a unifying theme—all that concrete and steel—but at the same time, there is something different happening everywhere you look.

 

There are graffiti and luxury stores; homeless people and wide expanses of glass; folk walking everywhere and cars waiting at lights. People say the damndest things downtown and in all sorts of languages. You just never know.

Three years after Vanguard, Finley dropped his third full-length release, Much More Than Love, and I found myself deeply disappointed. Gone was the seemingly effortless inventiveness, the whip-smart wordplay, the spiritualism and the sarcasm.

 

In its place we get overly sincere guitar-driven power pop. Where Finley seemed before to be alternately chuckling at or ranting against the madness of modern life in his small piece of our sometimes bizarre and out-of-control planet, now he seemed to be…I don’t know…head over heels in love or something?

 

I don’t have anything against love songs (both of his first two albums feature quite good ones, actually), but these were ordinary, even clichéd, love songs. Listening to the endlessly surprising thoughts Finley kept coming up with for those first two albums I would’ve considered cliché a fault beyond his reach. What the hell happened?

I still don’t have a definitive answer to that question. I do have a theory though. Finley remains virtually unknown on the other side of the river in America, but in the UK, his first album sold very well; delivering multi-platinum sales, a couple of hit singles and media notoriety.

 

There were the requisite paparazzi run-ins, pharmaceutical issues and rehab visits . The second album, which I happen to like just as much as the first, if not more, was a disappointment in the only way that seems to actually matter - that being in terms of sales.

 

So maybe, just maybe, Finley’s third album about-face was an attempt to get things right commercially, I mean. On the other hand, it could also have been something like Meshell Ndegecello’ ’s Bitter - an artistically honest attempt to record something dramatically different.

The fourth album, I think, will tell us which of those options is more accurate. Then again, maybe there isn’t going to be a fourth album. It’s been five long years. Come on, Finley my man…where you at?


Songs from
Maverick A Strike (550 Music/Sony - 1997):

“It’s Great When We’re Together” – All-weather romance set to dub. “When you shine, you brighten up my day.”

 

“Even After All” – Sometimes a gentle protest song is as effective as a loud one. “Even after all the murdering…you know I love you.”

 

“Maverick A Strike”Ghana meets Brixton; jumping African percussion over deep-rumbling Jamaican bass. “If it ain’t of optimism, I will pay no attention.”


Songs from Vanguard (Epic/Sony - 2000):

“Broadcast” – The first words of the new album: “White leather / Mongoose / Any weather / Turn it loose / Monkey / From the suburbs… / Broadcast.” I thought, “What the eff?!” Then I turned it up.

 

“The Emperor” – This one gives me the impression that Finley is one of those lunatic conspiracy theorists. At the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s right. “What they know, they have corrupted / What they do know, they’ve devoured.”

 

“British Air Rage” – Since 2000, I’ve been calling this song “British Air Raid.” I guess I was assuming. “Tell me your psalms and I’ll tell you mine.”

 

“Hey Now” – Off-rhythm percussion drops, wandering flutes and obscure Biblical references close the second album on an evocative note. “I should make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know I.”  

 

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

 

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