Having listened to Norwegian singer songwriter Bernhoft’s new long player Islander for a couple of weeks now, it is important to get this out of the way from the get-go. His follow up to 2008’s Ceramik City Chronicles and 2011’s Solidarity Breaks is not strictly speaking a soul LP, it definitely has it’s soulful elements and it wears its influences firmly on each sleeve with nods from the 80s Pop, Folk, Funk and Soul worlds, but a soul LP it definitely is not.
The LP Kicks off with the uplifting and sprightly Steely Dan influenced Come Around which sees Bernhoft’s insistent falsetto beckoning his pursued muse with a sprightly hook laden chorus. Much like some of the hipper work of Steely Dan or Michael McDonald, there is a definite groove and of all the up-tempo moments on the LP this is the one I have found myself humming with wild abandon.
Wind You Up opens up with handclaps and a human beatbox that has become a mainstay of his recent shows and is a method he previously utilised on his debut solo release. The track finds a more experimental structure than anything else contained on the LP, with a stutter and start approach that just about works alongside the progressive message. It’s a track I rather like though, as it shows an artist willing to take a leap of faith, to play with their own skill set.
The first of the more openly soulful numbers Freedom, heads into Amp Fiddler territory with Bernhoft’s vocals emerging from behind the supportive arrangement, given a slightly slop edge courtesy of the inclusion of some heavy synth work in the chorus. The track slinks and sways itself into your psyche steadily traversing a fine line between soul and pop, with the soulful element just about winning this particular battle.
The pace drops considerably on Don’t Let Me Go an ode to a losing love, which to my ears makes a real stab at building an expansive arrangement a la Willie Mitchell (of Al Green fame), but doesn’t quite achieve this (not many do!!) as the musical backdrop isn’t quite attuned to Bernhoft’s heartfelt and relatable vocals. The addition of some heavy string work would have sent this into solid soul territory.
The influence on Everything Will Be Alright is pure New Power Generation, where the funky backdrop is intertwined with a harmonious chorus with Bernhoft’s vocals registering a few octaves lower. The message is uplifting, and the lyrics extolling the virtue of maintaining a positive viewpoint in spite of the twists and turns of everyday life are admirable and memorable. A track that does everything it intends to!
The most outwardly pop recording on the set One Way Track veers to far down forgettable one way street for me, as the intriguing lyrics are lost in a saccharine fog of 80s style synths and arrangement. Soul ears will probably want to skip this one.
I may be more biased towards the soul end of the spectrum but much better, and the most overt soul groover on the LP is the mid-tempo sway of No Us, No Them the delicious collaboration featuring Philly songstress Jill Scott. Serving us his most relaxed delivery on the LP, Bernhoft’s engaging lower vocal registry shines and is used to perfectly compliment the treacle sweetness of Miss Scott’s whimsical musings. The lyrical content captures the essence of ready insistent love, with the arrangement being lush and warm courtesy of the beautiful tinkering on the Rhodes with the groove being melodic and intoxicating. You’ve probably guessed that for the soul cognoscenti this will be the track of choice.
Esiwalk, another of the strongest tracks on the LP and seemingly one of the most personal, revels in delivering its musical message of walking tall through the trials and tribulations of life through the sparsest of arrangements. The main focus of the track is Bernhoft’s insistent vocals and the backdrop of drums, handclaps and softly laid meandering keys highlight the eloquence of the lyrical content and will leave you wanting more.
The last track on the LP I Believe In All Things You Don’t pretty much treads a similar path to may of the tracks on the LP in that it tries to tread that line between pop and soul. For me this is the blandest track on the LP as it just seems directionless, with neither the vocals or the arrangement taking any risks.
It is evident with his Islander release that Bernhoft has the ability to take risks with his sound and that when he does it is with some success. Whilst not every track hit’s that sweet soul spot I applaud the way he has incorporated a wide palette of musical leanings into this passionate and expressive release.
The problem I have with the LP (and for me it is a problem) is that the real risks are few and far between, and whilst it is likely to shift a number of units, maybe as many as his sophomore set did (some 250,000 and counting) it probably won’t feature in too many ‘Soul chart Best Of’s 2014’, as he rarely fully embraces the soul from the roots. With that said any LP that features a Philly songstress, references Prince, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan and Amp Fiddler will peak the interest of the more discernible soul purveyor, and while it is soul-lite in places, the standout moments definitely require your attention.
Tracks of note include Come Around, Everything Will Be Alright, No Us, No Them and Esiwalk.
Scandinaviansoul.com rating: 3 / 5