Josephine BBC review

Al Fox 2012-10-05

Often, the term ‘timeless’ only really functions in hindsight. But occasionally, something comes to the fore that transcends any concept of now, then or otherwise.

One such example is the debut album for 29-year-old Manchester native Josephine Oniyama – or, for recording purposes, just plain Josephine. She manages the rare feat of creating something both novel and nostalgic, yet with an identity entirely its own.

A mere couple of bars into Portrait, and a pretty clear statement is delivered: the voice is very much the leader here, and everything else follows obediently. Vocally, Josephine is old beyond her years, possessing a rich, classical tone normally reserved for ancient, crackling vinyl. Even her cut-glass pronunciation has a peculiar Miss Jean Brodie quality to it, yet somehow offers a tender, inviting attribute concurrently.

The refined production builds around her, with playful folksiness and flecks of warm, accessible jazz. The subtle references to her West African heritage are pleasing too: the joyfully plonky percussion cheekily peeking out from under the neo-soul surface on Original Love, or the skeletal, breathy beats of I Think It Was Love. But for the most part, Manchester is a more palpable reference, the unaffected scent of northern soul permeating every note.

What A Day, in contrast, steps furthest from the niche Portrait works hard to carve, displaying an Amy Macdonald-style, demi-country twang. But it’s very much a one-off visit, and beyond that, it’s hard to hear anything other than Josephine on Josephine’s terms.

Tonally, it’s a leisurely, dignified collection, yet stretches to little over half an hour. That makes for an effective listen – where Portrait sets itself up to be a relaxing, protracted affair, the musical box melancholy of House of Mirrors provides a charming conclusion. And it doesn’t leave you feeling short-changed; moreover, it piques curiosity for Josephine’s next chapter.

A pigeonhole-obsessed media will have a hard time finding any fitting sound-alikes in today’s market, and such a mature, elegant guise will have many scratching their heads. But by and large, that’s probably testament to what a unique prospect Josephine is.