Graded on a Curve: Skinshape,
Umoja

Will Dorey, a London-based (by way of Swanage, UK) multi-instrumentalist and singer, commenced activities under the name Skinshape in the mid-’00s and has subsequently issued five full-lengths and four singles (one a split) on vinyl. Across those releases, he’s cultivated a generally trip-hoppy approach, infusing it with cinematic and psychedelic elements, and on Umoja, his latest on Lewis Recordings, excursions into World Music and Afrobeat in particular. Across this set, Dorey settles into grooves that’re unperturbed but too hearty to fit the descriptor of laidback, though it’s sure to be a fine listen during the upcoming warmer months. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital June 19.

The musical neighborhood where Will Dorey resides isn’t exactly underpopulated, but a perusal of his back catalog reveals him to be one of the more consistent practitioners of what we’ll succinctly call post- trip-hop. Less tersely, he blends aspects of old-school funk, soul, and of course, hip-hop (rhythms, not rappers) with touches of rock, often psychedelic in comportment. There are also nods to reggae, folk, jazz and even retro pop.

What I especially dig is how Dorey hasn’t gotten too refined as his discography has grown, and I say that as someone who felt a lot of early trip-hop fell victim to exactly this problem. Instead, Skinshape has maintained an appealing largeness in the rhythmic department as the ambitiousness has spread outward. While 2014’s Skinshape is likeable with the rudiments in place, it still hit the ear like a debut. But on each successive record, Oracolo (2015), Life & Love (’17), and Filoxiny (’18), ingredients were added to the recipe without ever drifting away from the project’s impetus.

This is derived from Dorey’s guitar playing and the singing (oftentimes his voice but just as regularly guest artists as the demands of individual tracks entail) alongside the punch of the rhythm. Another constant (and this relates back to the issue of refinement) is a preference for embodying classic sounds rather than striving for the cutting edge, though there is no mistaking that Skinshape is a contemporary endeavor.

Still, there have been adjustments in the creative trajectory. Life & Love ended nicely with an arrangement for strings, a ball which Filoxiny grabbed and ran with to satisfying results. But for Umoja, this element gets set aside as those African rhythms are spotlighted, and right away in opener “Sua Alma,” together with Dorey’s fluid guitar lines and the horn infusions of Alex White on tenor, Dougal Caston on alto, and Adam Chatterton on trumpet (with the arrangements by Jon Moody).

The track’s other dominant characteristic is the vocals of Portuguese singer D’Alma (aka Nezare Sousa Coutinho), who brings an air of the sultry in her native language to this cut and to side two’s opener “Amigos e Inimigos.” Altogether, “Sua Alma” isn’t likely to be mistaken for a cut found on a comp of top-flight ’70s African gems, but partly through the Ghanaian percussion, played on the album by Abass Dodoo, Isaac Tagoe, Nii Boye Owoo, and Sly Tagoe, it gets into the ballpark.

“In the End” follows, unwinding in sharp contrast, largely due to the drum machine rhythm and Dorey’s singing, which carries over the ambiance of downtrodden ‘70s pop that was heard on Filoxiny’s single “I Don’t Care.” But the soukous guitar is prominent in the mix and segues nicely into the vaguely Meters-like Afrobeat action of “Afande.”

Featuring Idd Aziz of Kenya singing in Swahili, it serves as the first in a solid African combo punch. The second is “Kaurou,” which (like half the record) has Malcolm Catto of the Heliocentrics on drums and benefits from vocals in the Wolof language by Senegalese singer Modou Touré. And yet, both cuts, similar to “Sua Alma,” avoid sounding like attempts to merely replicate the continent’s prime stuff, an absence that’s reinforced by the drifting psych guitar instrumental sweetness of side one’s closer “Azon De Ma Gnin.”

There’s a tropical quality to that selection that helps to situate this record as quite suitable for play while lounging outdoors in the heat, a facet the uptempo “Amigos e Inimigos” extends as D’Alma’s vocals return. “Sun,” which has Dorey singing lyrics he says are about someone who loves hot weather (I didn’t discover this fact until after drawing my own seasonal conclusions, I swear) is imbued with the maracas-like drum machine action heard earlier during “In the End,” and is a more stripped-back affair (Dorey calls it a bedroom production with horns added).

It comes off a little like an ’80s-’90s Brit pop auteur channeling Rhymin’ Simon, and while that might not read as all that swank on paper, it’s more than alright in the air and in the ear. But with that said, it’s cuts like “Sudan,” with the return of Aziz, that really puts Umoja into the special category, and even more so “Dourlé,” with Touré singing in both Wolof and Soninké as the contents stretch out to over six minutes.

“Lehin Ti Aye Ba Iku” is the closer, an instrumental with guitar similarities to “Azon De Ma Gnin,” though the piece is a far more rhythmically layered proposition. What’s missing here other than Filoxiny’s strings? Well, as the African influences get prioritized, it becomes much more difficult to pinpoint Skinshape as a post-trip-hop/ DJ Shadow-styled affair, but it’s not like fans of the earlier stuff are going to feel shortchanged. Concisely, Umoja holds some of the finest music Will Dorey’s assembled yet.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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