I’ve been forcing everyone I know to listen to a band called Sound of Rum over the past six months or so. They’re a London trio, fronted by poet Kate Tempest, and fitting into the genre of rapping jazz spoken-word grooverock that I’ve just invented. Having toured with Le Sac vs Pip a year or so ago, they started to gain a bit of attention on a few different scenes, which was perfectly understandable: their early demos and EPs contained a raw emotion, a simple clarity that was, I thought, absolutely irresistible. Tempest’s heartfelt lyrics were complemented by some delightfully understated guitar and drum work, a phenomenal sense of rhythm, and real knowledge of how to build a song to its climax.
This week the band released their first album, and it’s one of the most disappointing I’ve heard in ages.
Balance begins well, with Tempest’s delivery at its best during opener ‘Rumba’. It’s a slightly more commercial sound than earlier material, but it’s fine: it’s passionate, fierce and funky. The second track, ‘EdWouldBe’, isn’t as striking as it was in its earlier form, which contained a great walking guitar line in the chorus that’s been binned in favour of something more radio-friendly again. But it’s still strong. The signs are promising, at least.
But the album descends. ‘Slow Slow’ is an unusual choice for a lead single. It’s okay. I didn’t like it when I first heard it. Right up until hearing much of the rest of the album, in fact.
Almost exclusively, the new material is weak. It feels unstructured, haphazard, void of anything to hook you in. Tempest’s delivery veers between masterful and breathless. The music simultaneously overcomplicates and makes too many concessions to what’s popular. The production is always thick – sometimes in a good way, sometimes needlessly. The quality bar shoots up and drops down with alarming frequency.
‘Best Intentions’ is a relief. It is, in fact, probably the album’s strongest track. It’s a Tempest classic, adapted from her days as a poet into an absolutely wonderful head-nodding, tightly rhythmic track that – unlike much of the rest of the album – knows when simplicity works. It’s as though she’s at ease with her old material, as well. She’s at her most confident vocally there.
Except for on ‘End Times’, which is one of the most bizarrely catastrophic failures I can imagine. ‘End Times’ has always been my favourite Sound of Rum track. The version I’d been listening to was on a compilation EP a couple of years back. Kate’s passionate vocal track flowed gorgeously between tight rapping, emotional poetic delivery and moments of gorgeously gravelly singing. The guitar rarely moved away from its basic three-chord sequence. The drums maintained a quiet, steady swing beat.
In ‘End Times’ on the album, the guitar is ruined by a horrendous chorus effect, which frankly makes it sound out of tune. The drum beat is straight yet fractured; the track loses its sense of rhythm. And with that, Kate Tempest does too, shouting her lyrics, mistiming them, losing all the intricacy of the original version which conveyed such desperation, such heartache, with such honesty that it was impossible not to be captivated.
Balance isn’t worth dismissing entirely. It’s still an interesting, brave and creative album. But it’s also an immensely flawed one, a record containing far too few error-free tracks. The music has been overcomplicated to an agonising degree, almost as if Sound of Rum didn’t quite understand what made them quite so remarkable in the first place. This isn’t just a band adapting its sound for the radio, or to suit changing attitudes towards music as a whole. It’s a band who have systematically removed the exact elements that made their sound work in the first place, and replaced them with an inconsistent mess of ideas that sounds more like a shaky experiment than the ultra-confident early recordings that I’ve been thrusting into everyone’s ears for all this time.
I was so, so eager to get people listening to Sound of Rum. Even though it’s an admirable effort, I have no enthusiasm to recommend Balance at all.