Project Blackbird are a fluid entity who are comfortable sailing in many different waters. They effortlessly weave reggae and ska influences with Indian and Jazz inflections and do it all with a quiet self-confidence. I love a shouty, wonkily recorded band with a raw sound that makes you think that a toddler did the mix, but just because you shower every day doesn’t mean you don’t need to also luxuriate in a bath. If This Is The End is like a limo ride home instead of a Night Bus and it evokes moods and emotions like a log fire on a bitterly cold day or a perfect patch of sunlight finding you when you’re sitting alone reading a book.
From the slow-build – sunrise at dawn – feeling of the title track ‘If This Is The End’, through to closing sunset of ‘Let Love’ we have thirteen, lovingly crafted songs. Using allusion in the lyrics, Project Blackbird conjure up a glorious wonderment for the world and command a gentle anger for its injustices but do it through the lyrical caress of poetry rather than blunt prose. This is true of all but ‘Shake These Trees’ a powerful track that features guest vocalist Lynval Golding from The Specials who duets with singer Ming Nagel and references the murder of George Floyd. Golding’s repeated cry of “I can’t breathe!” is a chilling reminder of a moment in history that will never lose its awful power to shock. Across the album Nagel sings like she is conducting a trust exercise with the music; allowing herself to fall back knowing the arrangements will catch her. Her ability to shift from spoken word to singing is elegant and she combines the laid back charm of singers like Julie London with the half-spoken delivery of Nico, without the accent (although I have just learned the Germans have a word for talk-singing: ‘Sprechgesang’).
The sound of Project Blackbird is borne out of their consummate musicianship. Alan Roberts on guitar can channel the crisp distortion of the best Steely Dan guitarists and can throw out some tuneful runs, as in ‘Baby Giant’, hang back in the song or utilise perfect little chord riffs that bubble up at just the right moment, as in songs like ‘Murmuration’. Jamie Varley on bass is able to do the rare thing of not only staying in lockstep with guest drummer Dave Tidmarsh but also flow around Ming’s tunes, complementing and enhancing them to bring new depth. Jon Read is a musical polymath who brings keyboard skills and backing vocals to the party but, oh my, put a trumpet in this man’s hands and you get the brass equivalent of lead crystal ringing out. Having previously reviewed the single ‘Laissons Cela Entre Nous’ (which was a radio edit) the full version is on display here so everyone can feel the power of that mighty horn introduction. The album also has a great supporting cast of musicians including some deft tabla playing from Hari Trivedi, lush string arrangements from Luke Moore and the aforementioned Lynval Golding, a friend of the band from the fact that Jon Read’s plays live with The Specials.
Every time I listen to this album I appreciate that the ease with which the songs flow belies the intricacy of the arrangements. And like good songs should, we can’t see the legs furiously working under the surface, we just enjoy the glide across the water. I envy any listeners who have synesthesia as I imagine they will bask in some sumptuous purples and fierce azures blazing out from If This Is The End and, with lyrics as powerful as the ones I’ll leave you with, Project Blackbird’s subtle fierceness is powered by a poetic soul.
“muscle, blood, spit, bone – ambition, guilt, breath, brain, imagination, vulnerability, hope
, weakness, rage, trust, pain,
hustle, hatred, love – silence – so much fear, what makes us human? And what makes us unspeakable?”
Review by Paul F Cook