❉ Throwing blues, gospel and nu-soul into the mix, ‘Zinc’ is a remarkable debut album from a major talent and an obvious future star.
“Rough Old Town is a cry from the heart, with a beautiful, ghostly choral bridge in this song which makes it sound unlike anything you would normally find in this R&B/nu-soul genre, and its tough, honest lyrics are reminiscent of Erykah Badu’s The Other Side of the Tracks. It’s the album’s standout track”
Who’s your favourite Katie/Katy/Caiti? Katie Holmes? Katy Price? Katy Manning? I like KT Tunstall because of her old-fashioned, MCC-style cricketing initials; similarly, I dislike KT Hopkins on the basis that she is the essence of pure evil.
Australia is well represented by Cait Blanchett, and many, many others (that obviously I haven’t got time to name here), but my current favourite Australian Caiti is Darwin’s neo/Nu-Soul hope Caiti Baker, whose debut album Zinc has just been released in the UK this month.
The realisation of the album has been a long and troublesome road. Health problems have left the uber-talented Ms Baker behind schedule in what will obviously be a sky-rocketing career trajectory. The singer herself says that she spent four years “drifting between sleep and consciousness” whilst suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. She was estranged from her blues singer father for a very long time, but upon reconciliation he gave her a ‘sample library’ of six hundred riffs, intros and assorted musical bridges he had put together and many of these have found their way into the intricate and complex song constructions on this fine album.
Baker’s (I’m sounding like The Self-Righteous Brothers here: “If Baker switched off my Sky Sports…”) influences are myriad, with blues, gospel and nu-soul thrown into the mix. It blends perfectly, but sounds incredibly American, and unless I’m missing something there doesn’t seem to be any specifically Australian influences on her music or lyrical subject matter.
Such cultural amnesia didn’t hurt the career of Iggy Azalea, but it always seems like an opportunity missed when a non-American chooses Americana wholesale, rather than adding a home country flavour to an appropriated form. Like any number of French or East-European rappers you see on YouTube, or Korean boy bands or even Paul Shane singing the actual Righteous Brothers You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling (now that’s what you call MUSIC), it’s possible to re-sell coals to Newcastle if you’re talented enough.
Zinc opens with the excellent and haunting Believer. If like me, you’re still traumatised by the horrible semantic implications of Justin Bieber’s appropriation of this fine common noun (especially in his desecration of the Anne Frank Museum’s visitors’ book), you’ll find some solace in Caiti Baker’s take on the word.
There are shades of Beyoncé and Erykah Badu in Believer (with an added trip-hop beat for extra sultriness), and all through the album the themes of hurt, regret, escape and a nameless fear of the unknown:
Take your warmest electricity
Use it to cool the night;
Be careful as you wade
Don’t you stray far from your light
Track two I Won’t Sleep is influenced by New Orleans blues and also has a distinctly country feel, but it’s Could it Be Nerves where all of Caiti Baker’s influences come together to create a truly beautiful song.
Hank Williams-style guitars mix together with ethereal siren song as Baker sings about liking “the idea of being in love with you” to an unknown lover, but the song’s high point is the remarkable portrayal of inner torment and the search for inner peace. I may have been influenced too much by the wonderful BBC 4 documentary on the The Bell Jar, but there are shades of Sylvia in:
Why do I feel like this?
Why do the clouds roll in heavy?
Why do I feel like this?
I’m unsettled by the weather
By the sudden rise in temperature
Rough Old Town is another cry from the heart, and chronicles a desire to escape the feeling of being trapped by her lover and her home city. There’s a beautiful, ghostly choral bridge in this song which makes it sound unlike anything you would normally find in this R&B/nu-soul genre, and its tough, honest lyrics are reminiscent of Erykah Badu’s (brilliant) The Other Side of the Tracks as Baker’s song narrator is trapped by circumstance:
If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t know what to do
Because I keep running away from this old town
But you just bring me back, you just keep bringing me back;
I don’t want to live in this old town no more –
I love you but I don’t want to live this life.
It’s the album’s standout track.
The album is not all doom and gloom – although the evidence seems to suggest otherwise – and Baker manages to pull off the Abba trick of marrying Joy Division lyrics as counterpoint to some fairly jaunty R&B.
Thursday is another tremendous song which manages to combine biblical allusion with more Sylvia Plath-like gravitas, all wrapped up with a sprightly use of (almost) iambic pentameter:
Crushed and broken, heavy weights drop like rainfall,
Fake and hazy in the distance I call;
Bring me air, bring me water, bring me hope –
Someone say the right thing in the middle
of this bad….(joke)
Different and A Different Outro are pleasant enough and propel the album along to the lovely Dreamers (“Oh I would let all dreamers dream again”) and the splendid I Got That which is very reminiscent of Prince’s Kiss with its sparse, choppy, funky guitar sounds, and Baker uses the song to add an ironic and playful twist to the angst portrayed in the nine songs previous:
I am the finest beyond
The best in the arena
I got fire, I am lift
Don’t need no smoke machina!
It’s a clever little song with a nod to Shelley’s Ozymandias.
The album’s closer Wolf had me hoping that this would be THE Australian song, with Wolf Blass and Wolf Creek (I’m still scared by that film) coming to mind, but no. The song has a complex arrangement of all sorts of musical influences and – maybe – there’s just a suggestion of aboriginal didgeridoo in the measured beat of its intro (Kate Bush’s The Dreaming definitely came to mind on my first listen). Baker’s lyrics express a basic sadness and unhappiness about the world around her:
How do you know that I’m not the one that made you cry?
All I ever hear about is
‘Once Upon a Time’/They lived happily ever after..
There’s no escaping this one: this is a downbeat song, and a strange choice to end such a deceptively commercial album, but I’ve always loved miserable so I thought it both fitting and almost perfect.
So, Zinc is a remarkable debut album from a major talent and an obvious future star, and highly recommended. The production and arrangements by Michael Hohnen are superb and spotting the genres and influences covered by the albums many and varying styles is a pleasure in itself.
❉ Caiti Baker – ‘Zinc’ was released in the UK, August 24th 2018 on MVKA. Souncloud: https://soundcloud.com/caiti-baker/
❉ Stephen Porter has written for Esquire, Back Pass and a host of other publications. He is also a “humble but brilliant” Head of English in a large Northern secondary school.