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Katy B
Honey David Zammitt , May 5th, 2016 07:38

Kathleen Brien finds herself at a juncture. At only 26, there's a lingering sense that she's never quite managed to get into her stride, never realised the potential signaled by that Benga-produced, dubstep-infused cracker of a debut single, 'Katy On A Mission'. Six years on, she stands as a somewhat lonely figure, occupying a strange place on the fringes of pop, caught between "serious music" and the kind of fodder with which Nick Grimshaw routinely soundtracks the nation's breakfasts. In interviews and press releases, the vague notion of the "underground" is trumpeted again and again, as though its mention will somehow add authenticity through repetition. And yet the aim for the woman who worked as a mentor for Ricky Wilson's team on The Voice is, quite clearly, mainstream stardom.

With her third album, The Peckham-born BRIT School alumnus has clearly taken stock of her standing and made a play for the big time. Bringing in a host of big names (there were over 20 songwriters, producers, guest vocalists and musicians involved in its creation), it feels like this is Katy B's grand gesture. A roll of the dice that shoots for both critical and commercial success, its dual goal, however, is ultimately its Achilles heel. While there is music here for both brain and hips, it's all too rare that the two qualities occur simultaneously and Honey gets sidetracked all too often by self-conscious glances at the charts.

But when both forces align, the results can be stunning. There are few pleasures in life more viscerally satisfying than a great pop song. That ineffable space created when another human articulates the essence of an emotion within three, short, sugar-coated minutes can eclipse all else, and Brien has conjured up several of these this time around. Put simply, when it doesn’t veer into the trite or the saccharine, this album is a joy. The album's highlight, the KAYTRANADA-produced title track, with its glossy Quincy Jones-esque arrangement, for example, works not because of its hooks, but for the restraint which is applied to them. Brien’s stadium-sized vocals are held back, creating a sumptuous tension; a tension that is released too freely - too cheaply - on many of the LP’s lower points. Its lyrical subtlety is slyly seductive, all suggestion, standing in contrast to the empty literalism elsewhere.

'Calm Down', a collaboration with IDM elder statesman Four Tet and the pretender to his crown, Floating Points, is another case in point. A bold, 2016 take on UK garage - all keyboard licks shuffling hi-hats – its sophistication doesn’t compromise its sheer catchiness, and it serves as reminder that you don’t need Craig David to make garage. Another standout, 'Heavy', a percussionless, beautifully understated slice of pop-infused grime with London DJ Mr. Mitch at the controls is a melancholy meditation on love and loneliness that again employs restraint as its chief ally and comes off all the better for it.

Sadly, Honey is too frequently dogged by clumsy grasps for mainstream recognition. 'So Far Away', for example, doesn’t even bother with a verse as it clambers for the chorus. It could be anyone singing about anything with its meaningless mantra of, "We’re so far away." Far away, I ask, relative to what? While I’m not expecting Miltonian poetry, this is worse than banal. In an industry underpinned by calculations, it feels somehow even more calculated, more throwaway, than average. 'Who Am I', a collaboration with the aforementioned Mr. David and Major Lazer is another paint-by-numbers affair, built with one eye on the inevitable, stripped-back performance on Radio 1's Live Lounge. "Who am I if you’re not loving me?," it drawls on. "You and me, that's my identity." And so on, ad infinitum. On the upside, I haven't seen our Craig this happy in at least 15 years.

Honey, when it works at least, is the sound of piecing together the night before: a love letter to not making it home, to the Tequila salt still stuck to your hand, to hands brushing under the cover of the smoke machine. Unfortunately, half of the time, it says precisely nothing and if that unquestionable potential is to be realised, Kathleen Brien has to make a choice.