Words: George Holland
On paper, Liverpool seems an odd base of operations for a Maryland-born singer-songwriter. However, Jalen N’Gonda traded the Mid-Atlantic states for the evergreen pastures of Merseyside a few years back and his latest offering is evidence to suggest he feels right at home. Talking About Mary is a timeless 13 minutes of genuine, heartbreaking soul - sprinkled with only the best bits of the 60s rock & roll that put his new home on the map.
N’Gonda takes us on a nostalgia-driven waltz with opener Don’t You Remember. From a sugar-sweet perspective of a lover longing for a return to days gone by, the song is a perfect vehicle to showcase the singer’s talents. It’s a soothing, cinematic composition complete with subtle strings and distant electric organ parts that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Richard Hawley record. The achingly smooth vocal remains understated throughout, save for a goosebump-inducing moment late on; giving us our first taste of the range and sheer power of N'Gonda’s voice.
I Guess That Makes Me a Loser steamrolls in with its marching band drums and thudding basslines. The track rolls along, menacingly cool and echoing the same brand of rhythm and blues found on the Mark Ronson-produced Back to Black. It’s wry, self-deprecating lyrics work to take the edge off, stopping the sleazy track just short of seeming cocksure. It is N'Gonda’s staggering vocal, however, that takes centre stage again. He’s even more confident here, going from punchy, piercing jibes to tender, controlled crooning with ease.
The EP’s penultimate track is it’s most explicitly ‘rock’ song. We Fell out of Love is evidence to suggest that he could turn his hand to almost any genre and have it fit him like a glove. It’s a much heavier, riff-laden tune complete with soaring choruses and a pulsing rhythm section at its core that keeps this roller coaster car on its tracks. The outro here is simply huge. A big widescreen soundtrack to some forgotten 1960s chase sequence.
We end with a lullaby in the form of Holler (When You Call My Name). It’s a stripped back acoustic ballad that shines a spotlight directly on N’Gonda’s voice and cement’s him as a truly special young artist. Though the lyrics here mark the same territory as the EP’s opener - a yearning, nostalgic ballad - the multitude of ways they are delivered vocally is astounding. Each line tugs at a different heartstring, leaving even the most stony-hearted clutching for a tissue. Repeated lines take different meaning depending on what varying degree of heartache he wants you to feel. Though it’s probably a tired comparison, the vocals here are somewhat reminiscent of legendary recordings of the unparalleled Sam Cooke, notably on the record Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963. That’s no small feat for an artist at the beginning of his career.
This early EP is an accomplished and genuine soul/blues record with a voice of a calibre that is seldom seen in contemporary music. Talking About Mary leads us to believe that we’re gonna hear a lot more people talking about Jalen.
Jalen N’Gonda is currently touring the US, but catch him back in the UK in Manchester’s Castle Hotel on November 23rd.