Kele - The Boxer
Abbas Ali 25/06/2010
28-year old Kelechukwu "Kele" Rowland Okereke is a man who has mastered the fine art of dividing opinions, if nothing else. The black, gay, posh-sounding lead singer has caused many a stir with his outspoken opinions over the past five years since his 'previous' band Bloc Party released Silent Alarm, their highly-praised debut album.
Over the course of three records the band went from Wire / Gang of Four influenced guitar-oriented songs to gradually flirting more and more with dance influences, until Intimacy, album number three in 2008, after which the band announced a hiatus last year. Meanwhile, Kele, keen to continue working, and follow musical ideas of his own that appear increasingly divergent with the rest of the band, began work on a solo record, resulting in The Boxer.
On first impressions, it's clearly the work of someone undergoing a conscious reinvention of themselves, starting over and doing some spring cleaning of their heart and soul. Opener 'Walk Tall' defines this, with its refrain, “I don't know if you've been told / but this starts now walk tall walk tall”. Having recently confirmed rumours about his sexuality, and clearly been doing some working out in the gym, it's clear this is an album about fresh starts and renewal. It may be sad for BP fans, but it sounds more and more with each note of this album, and each public statement from the singer, that his former band is a thing of the past.
Exploring this new dance oriented sound as part his voyage of self discovery yields varying results. In 'On The Lam', Kele's speeded up voice sounds like a girl's, making for what sounds like a female-vocal lead Basement Jaxx number, neither what you'd expect, nor good enough to be what it's trying to. 'Tenderoni', the album's big single, with its Wiley-inspired squelchy bassline, is a clear attempt at producing a crossover hit with mainstream appeal, prompting the question: who is Kele's music now aimed at? Skinny male indie fans in their twenties or 12 -year old girls who like pop and commercial house tunes?
The Boxer occasionally nods in the direction of the latter, but it's still a fair way from being a pop record, as the substantial song writing and compositional skills that made Kele a success in the past clearly haven't deserted him. Songs like 'Rise', a song about a friend's recovery from drug addiction, remind you of his ability to verbalise emotions and experiences in his lyrics. Lines like “you are stronger than you think”, of course tie into the overarching themes of the record, which is hopeful, forward looking, and positive. The song misjudges a lurch in the direction of US house in the middle eight, where a black female soul singer suddenly joins in, and then promptly disappears, hinting at the unevenness of the record overall, though.
The Bloc Party of old is in there somewhere too, on songs like, 'Unholy Thoughts', which could easily be lifted from any of the band's records with its angular guitar work and of course the singer's at times squeaky voice. I must admit, those distinctive, yelping, posh vocals and their capacity to annoy are something that I've never quite been able to get over or understand the appeal of, and for me personally obscure my enjoyment of the record, though given Kele's success, I'm clearly in a minority.
Overall, then, this is a record which is artistically a success in places, but that's on the understanding that the listener must enjoy the kind of music that Kele is listening to these days, and for Bloc Party fans who prefer indie guitars to house beats, this may be a problem. In addition to that, connoisseurs of the source material, may find Kele's handling of it at times naive. On its own terms, though, it's a respectable debut, which hints at better things to come without ever truly excelling.