Underexposed Albums #8: Nicolette – Now Is Early (1992)

Underexposed Albums is a series devoted to uncovering albums lost, neglected, or forgotten by the wider music community. Albums must have fewer than 5000 listeners on last.fm to qualify.

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Last.fm listeners as of 29th November 2016: 3,608

No Government (2:09)
Dove Song (4:55)
Single Minded (Vocal) 3:12
I Woke Up (5:46)
Waking Up (Remix) 4:55
O Si Nene (5:56)
It’s Only To Be Expected (5:38)
Wicked Mathematics (4:09)
A Single Ring (2:09)

Some albums are destined to become totemic. Bjork’s Debut is such a totem. Experimental yet accessible, it’s heralded as a fulcrum moment where electronic music crossed over with radio-friendly female singer pop, and – gosh! – instigated by a powerfully creative woman too. But what if, in appraising her wilful magpieing of early 90s club culture in the UK, we missed something which was already there?

Nicolette is the performing name of Nicolette Suwoton, who is probably best known for her guest vocals on two tracks on Massive Attack’s 1994 album Protection, ‘Sly’ and ‘Three’. But her involvement with Massive Attack came about after they heard, and were suitably impressed by, her Debut, 1992’s Now Is Early. She didn’t start out with the Bristol posse, but the protojungle breakbeat sounds coming out of Hackney in the early 1990s from the Shut Up And Dance stable, a band-cum-label-cum-management team consisting of Philip ‘PJ’ Johnson and Carl ‘Smiley’ Hyman, which released a clutch of singles of their own dealing in staggeringly brazen sample-heavy breakbeat, alongside some by The Ragga Twins and Rum & Black. Their sound was arrived at almost by accident, as they started out experimenting with Brit-rap, but with the breakbeats sped-up to match the dance environment of the East London soundsystems. But within PJ and Smiley’s stable Nicolette’s releases stand out, thanks to her Billie Holliday-like voice, and the strange dynamic it throws up when placed over the breakbeat that was PJ and Smiley’s meat and drink.

As such, Nicolette’s record lifted off its immediate dancefloor environment and has aged very well. Her voice stops the music from descending into drum-and-bass muscle flexing, but at the same time the instrumentals are hard enough so that it doesn’t slip into insipid acid jazz. Nicolette’s partnership with SUAD wasn’t a fluke; she also contributed vocals to ‘Extork’ on Plaid’s Not For Threes album (to which Bjork also contributed, on ‘Lillith’). The album opener ‘No Government’ has a shuffling percussive start, sampled from Lou Donaldson, not dissimilar from how ‘Human Behaviour’ barrels open the doors to Bjork’s Debut. She sings ‘if everybody knew what they wanted/there’d be nothing, nothing left/people would do what they wanted/and there’d be no government’, an ostensibly anarchic sentiment shot through with doubt by Nicolette’s wavering voice. Amidst the white heat of the anti-authority slogans of the rave counterculture (Shut Up And Dance’s first record was called ‘Dance Before The Police Come’) it strikes a cooler, more considered tone.

She is one of the few English singers whose voice sags with lived experiences – when she adopts the classic blues opening on ‘I Woke Up’ to her ‘north of London town’ setting, listening to her neighbours having sex next door, she is eminently believable, and yet all is shot through with a childlike innocence. That song is one of a handful which, like ‘No Government’, are closer to Massive Attack style downtempo, with woodblock percussion and a see-saw bass which precipitates with menace, occasionally punctuated by a synthesiser stab. Then, at the halfway point of the album, the breadth of sounds on it are writ large when ‘I Woke Up’ is followed by ‘Waking Up’, where she declares ‘I’d like to wake you up/I’d like to eat you up’ and in a swirl of delicate Quincy Jones samples, the sound is lush, inviting, communal, dancey. Get involved!

Beyond Bjork, a more sensible point of reference might be Neneh Cherry, who released her second album Homebrew in 1992 as well. But that is coloured by a Bristolian inclination towards a jazzier, smoother sound. ‘Waking Up’ has the benefit of Nicolette’s voice mingling comfortably with the backing elements, but on some of the album’s tracks, her stylings are a clash with the protojungle ammunition from PJ and Smiley. This isn’t unsuccessful; in fact, Nicolette’s ability to inflect each note is a match for a broader sense of discohesion. ‘Is this a mysterious way?’ she asks on ‘Dove Song’, before it lurches into dark territory, with a fraught sample of someone breathing, dub keyboards and sub-bass. On ‘O Si Nene’, amidst a backdrop of Janet Jackson laughs, acid squelches, and deep, whistling synths, she sounds almost dumb to her surroundings.  ‘Don’t try to go back to that room’, she warns, with the thousand yard stare of someone who’s peered into Super Hans’ hurt locker. On these songs, melody is minimal and it is percussion and effects which propels the song in its stead. Nicolette’s vocal melody doesn’t work around any core, and, as a listener (not as a dancer, admittedly) you’re emotionally subject to her little darts and melismas. ‘Wicked Mathematics’, for example, has an 8-bit style riff which anchors her vocal line much more securely, and lacks the same tension. Not that it’s a bad song, though the maths analogy in the lyrics occasionally lags. In this writer’s opinion, the most perfectly put together of tracks in this mould is ‘It’s Only To Be Expected’. The percussion is knitted together from different sources with an impressive variation in timbre and solid meta-beat constructed from them. There are sung verses with classical swoops, and spoken word choruses with an understated yet penetrated deep synth sample. A motley collection, but greater than the sum of its parts.

The Bjork comparison did not escape Melody Maker, who described Nicolette as her black equivalent at the time Now Is Early was released. The reasons to do so are as tempting as they are facile: female singer, electronic sounds, writes own material. Nevertheless, in comparing the two, it does make you wonder about their divergent paths since the early 90s, with Bjork becoming an international icon, and Nicolette fading into obscurity (though still putting out respectable albums, including The Infinitive which is due to be released before the end of 2016). This is not to diminish Bjork’s singular talent, or her achievements despite coming of age in a decade where the mainstream music press was keen to diminish her work in favour of the male producers she collaborated with. But the question remains – could a ‘black Bjork’ be allowed to exist, to record, to work with who she wished, and be taken as seriously?

Underexposed Albums #7: Dream 2 Science – Dream 2 Science

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Last.fm listeners as of 23rd November 2016: 734

 My Love Turns To Liquid (5:24)
Breathe Deep (5:35)
Mystery Of Love (5:17)
How Do I Love Thee (7:44)
Liquid (4:48)
Dream 2 Science (4:38)

Dream 2 Science is house music for the home. It’s music made in the bedroom, for the bedroom.

The mini-album’s creator is Ben Cenac, aka Cozmo D, formerly the brains behind the electro group Newcleus. A self-confessed free spirit of the house scene, in the late 1980s he recorded the song ‘My Love Turns To Liquid’ as an excuse to show off his wife Yvette’s previously neglected vocal stylings and, with the encouragement and collaboration of his friend Gregg Fore, he extended the theme into a full EP called Dream 2 Science.

Immediately obvious is the closeness out of which the project was created, as ’My Love Turns To Liquid’ is, in effect, a love letter from Cenac to his spouse, and it flows gently like drifts in and out of sleep with a bed-partner. All the necessary deep house boxes are ticked – unobtrusive, open chords, expansive stereo width, a bubbling bass line – but ‘Liquid’ has an unusually dominant vocal, more like R & B in fact, which takes it even further into soulfulness. Cenac had previous with this, as one of his first forays into making house music was with ‘I’m In Love’ for Sha’Lor, which span out of unsuccessful attempts to sell that group as an R & B outfit.

Anyone taken to a higher place by the enigmatic opening chords of Fingers Inc’s ‘Can You Feel It’ will find much to enjoy here. Though they have similarities, including sharing ‘Mystery Of Love’ as a song title, the live vocals distinguish the Dream 2 Science project from Larry Heard, with whom Cenac is frequently compared. Following ‘My Love Turns To Liquid’, ‘Breathe Deep’ has an opening which, with the right amount of overdrive, could have turned into an all-out banger. But it’s a tease, felt-covered, as with the album as a whole, the track is a push-pull of aggressive and laidback elements, all within a safe space of trust between two people.

Cenac commented in an interview with Test Pressing that his way of composing is to find a solid enough bass line, and build it outwards from there. In Cenac’s ‘Mystery Of Love’, the bass and melody lines are near mirror images of each other, just one of many instances on the EP where two musical elements have an intimate relationship. Even the album’s packaging works that way – the sides of the record are listed as ‘this side’ and ‘that side’, rather than ‘side A’ and ‘side B’.

‘That side’ kicks off with ‘Liquid’, a remix of the opening track which shows Cenac open his toolbox to show off the more spacey effects he employed with his earlier electrofuturist projects. ‘How Do I Love Thee’ has that give-and-take of aggressive and sensitive again but less successfully, as the song doesn’t really forge a clear identity for itself in its 8 minute running time. The closing track is called ‘Dream 2 Science’ as well (creating one of those fabled instances where the name of a song, artist and album are all the same), a title Cenac says was his estimate of the ratio involved in producing the album – 2 parts dream to 1 part science. And within that, there is the crux of deep house – using posthuman technology to create otherworldly experiences. The EP departs with the sound of Cenac playing jazzy solos with different keyboard timbres, a nuanced addition to a genre whose use of piano can tend to fall back on stabbed chords and riffs.

When listening to Dream 2 Science, it seems incredible to think that, while it influenced house luminaries like King Britt and Josh Wink, its limited pressing meant it that it slipped under the radar. Buying a copy online would cost you upwards of thirty pounds, until it was rereleased in 2012 by the Dutch imprint Rush Hour recordings. And none of this was the intention: Gregg Fore, Cenac’s collaborator, was badly burned when his distributors in Chicago and Los Angeles tanked. Dream 2 Science never had the wider release it deserved, and Cenac and Fore took an early retirement from the music industry off the back of it. In this age of renewed fetishism for physical media, it’s important to remember just how vexatious the vagaries of its production can be, and how prohibitive it can make accessing someone’s work.