One of my favourite Russian proverbs (I’ve got to make some use of my high school Russian somehow) is ‘God loves a trinity’. Which basically means that the big man would most likely be down with Look Around The Corner, being as it’s a collaboration between three very special musical entities: Alice Russell, Quantic and The Combo Barbaro. That’s a fantastic singer, a hugely talented producer/arranger/guitar player and a band of South American musical legends, respectively, coming together to make something very special indeed.
If you’re in the unfortunate position of not being familiar with any of the members of this troupe, here’s a quick résumé. Quantic’s a prolific producer from England who’s got more fingers in more musical pies than ?uestlove. One of his earliest projects was the Quantic Soul Orchestra, which occasionally featured a young singer called Alice Russell. Five years, and more than a few albums and excursions into reggae, trip hop and funk later, he moved to Colombia. Inspired by the surroundings, he made his finest album yet, Tradition in Transition, with a band of South American legends that he called The Combo Barbaro. It was a brilliant record: evocative, powerful, beautiful, a homage to Colombia and its music.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Alice Russell was establishing herself as one of the UK’s finest soul singers, actually, one of Europe’s finest singers, period. A petite blonde blessed with a voice that can stop you dead in your tracks. Schooled in gospel, she does soul, she does funk, she does electronica and she does it all with a grace, charm and skill that has enchanted audiences all around the world.
So news that Quantic and Russell would finally be collaborating for an album, backed by the Combo Barbaro, was music to these ears. And thankfully, it’s a record that’s everything you’d hope for and more. As soon as the title track kicks things off, you simply know that you’re in for a treat. “Look Around The Corner” is an epic, Rotary Connection style soul number, full of soaring vocals, majestic strings, tight guitar licks, a wall of harmonies and one kick-ass tune. Actually there’s about four tunes wrapped up in this monster, but that’s not really relevant. It’s huge; that’s all that matters.
All three parties are at the top of their game – Russell is in complete control of her formidable voice, Quantic is in the most verdant part of his career, and the Combo Barbaro? Well, they’ve been dope for years. The result is a triumph. Like Tradition in Transition, it works because it seamlessly integrates the various styles and talents of the various musicians and weaves them into a harmonious whole.
It’s soul with a Latin tinge, or it’s a Latin soul album, whatever you want to call it, it’s fantastic. There’s a swing and a swagger here that wasn’t present in Tradition in Transition. Much of that comes from Russell, but in general the mood is more upbeat. This is party music, music to be played out loud, shared with others and to dance to. This is most evident on “Boogaloo 33” and “Magdalena” but almost every tune comes with a nagging hook that will get you humming if you’re at your desk and shaking your hips if you’re out and about.
But if there’s one song on this fine album that encapsulates its appeal, it’s the fantastic cover of “I’ll Keep My Light In My Window.” It’s not often you can take a song that Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross made famous and make it your own, but that’s what the various talents on display have done here. In no small part thanks to the mad skills of Alfredito Linares. Without exception, every track he’s featured on is magic. No exaggeration. The sound of his piano transports you straight to a bar in South America, someplace where the music is hot, the dancing is hotter and the vibe is off the hook. He doesn’t quite steal the show (that’s impossible when Russell’s around) but man, his tinkling of the ivories is a joy to hear.
When the whole of the Combo Barbaro are given a chance to show off their chops on the instrumentals–like “Road to Islay” and “Una Tarde En Mariquita”–they do exactly that. These tracks may be intended to serve as a break between the more full-throttled vocal numbers but they’re decidedly more killer than filler.
But the star of the show is Alice Russell. Russell has always impressed with the sheer force of her voice, but it’s her delicacy here that shines through. There’s not a note out of place, a vocal that stretches too far or is too dramatic.
But Look Around The Corner isn’t about one person. It’s a resounding success precisely because it’s a true ensemble record, a genuine collaboration between musicians. This record works because it’s Quantic and Alice Russell with the Combo Barbaro writing songs and making music together – there’s no question of there being a backing band or headline artist, just a group of very talented people coming together to produce some very, very good music. Individually, they’ve all been making some of the best music in their niches for years. Now it’s time for them to shine together.