7/10• When We Were Trespassers
• A Freak A
• Original Love
• I Think It Was Love
• What A Day
• The Last Minute
• Pepper Shaker
• Pray That I Move
• House Of Mirrors Josephine Oniyama supported Jimmy Cliff while still in her teens but it’s only now that the Mancunian is on the brink of her thirties that her career is gaining some long-overdue momentum. Portrait is being touted by many as her debut full-length but it’s actually her second, coming some ten years after her actual entrance, A Smaller Version Of The Real Thing, which spawned a minor radio hit in ‘Bus Of Life’. What is true is that the record follows a pair of EPs released over the past two years (plus another, In The Labyrinth, from 2008 before she dropped her surname), and that the wait has been worth it.
Oniyama’s voice resembles that of Grace Jones, albeit with a greater measure of warmth and humanity: unlike Jones, one feels that Josephine is singing at the listener, rather than imperiously down from above. Moreover, her elegant chamber pop is a world away from Jones’s lascivious dub/disco. From its monochrome artwork through to its resolutely tasteful arrangements (overseen by Leo Abrahams and Jimmy Hogarth, both dab hands at contemporary soul music), Portrait is a classy project. It’s also an album that’s sufficiently tuneful and accessible to emulate the success of fellow twenty-first century AOR practitioner, Rumer.
That isn’t to say that Portrait is a wholly vanilla experience. Like Rumer, Oniyama is aware that ‘adult’ music is at its best when the melodic sweetness is counterbalanced with hints of melancholia and bursts of eccentricity. The album opens strongly with ‘When We Were Trespassers’, perhaps the strangest track among the ten on offer, littered with vaguely sinister lyrical details (“I went past that house today / the one with pictures on the walls of bikers’ skeletons,” “Bring me something bad to look at / now that I’m good”) and beginning with a dolorous blast of accordion. As pop songs go it is deeply odd and very, very good.
‘A Freak A’, from the 2011 EP of the same name, boasts Portrait’s most immediately ear-snagging melody, but its lurching, guitar-driven arrangement skirts round musical clichés. But it’s the title track, a warm, inclusive mid-tempo number that’s blessed with an instantly inviting chorus, that stands out as one to be offered to the Radio 2 Playlist Committee. The stately closer ‘House Of Mirrors’ – assisted by Ed Harcourt on piano – is another highlight, while lead single ‘What A Day’ and the sashaying, bossa-nova style ‘Pepper Shaker’ (reworked from the original In The Labyrinth take) show that Oniyama can handle uptempo numbers just as sure-footedly as she does ballads.
The album’s sole misstep is ‘Original Love’, which sounds like it’s been airlifted in from a Beverley Knight album. The sassy sentiment of the lyrics is a poor match for Oniyama’s voice, while the cheap-sounding, synthetic textures of the music seem at odds with the organic feel of the rest of the album. The running time may only a little over half an hour long but no reasonable listener will feel short-changed. The brevity of Portrait only adds to its sense of self-assured confidence. And that confidence is more than justifiable: Oniyama still feels like a raw talent, and it will be fascinating to see how she develops as a writer and singer over (hopefully) many more albums to come.