Only her fifth album in a 17-year career, Baltimore's Ultra Naté has never been in a hurry to put anything out, let alone clichéd R&B or by-the-numbers dance music (even if her upcoming high-octane cover of the Pointer Sisters' Automatic may have the whiff of an album-promoting sop to the mainstream about it, it's still a lot of fun - especially its campy, soft-porn video).
I'm a bit biased, as Ultra has, for me, the most pleasing vocal on earth and I'd probably have snapped up each new release if they'd featured her singing the phonebook, or even Rod Stewart-style sell-out schmaltzfests, but I'd say Grime, Silk, Thunder is a welcome addition to her solid, high-quality output to date.
One thing you can say about this smokily-voiced chanteuse is that she's never been afraid to plough her own furrow, tackling a variety of musical styles, and maybe this is why so many impressively talented musicians have queued up to work with her over the years (D-Influence, Stonebridge, Masters at Work, Nellee Hooper, Blaze, Dajae, Full Intention, Eric Kupper, Mood II Swing, N'Dea Davenport, etc etc).
I'd heard this was to be Ultra's "dancefloor album" (in the same way Madonna's last effort was hers), but, in common with each release from One Woman's Insanity onwards, she wraps her ever-maturing voice around a number of different moods - from the Philly-sounding Getaway (soaring guest vocals from Dajae) to Giorgio Moroder-style retro-disco in Love's the Only Drug. But her always compelling phrasing makes the slower, jazzy Feel Love the stand-out track for me. If you've heard club remixes by the likes of Liquid People, they don't really compare to the much deeper original featured here - it hits the kind of heights I'd hoped for from MAW's Nuyorican Soul project, but - like I said - DEEPER. It also benefits from a clever,feelgood, slightly existential lyric, which, frustratingly, makes one or two others (well, Falling, anyway) seem a bit predictable. And I'm not so sure about the Sly and Robbie-style toasting on Slow Grind, but at least she tries it out. Lethal Shot and Showtime aren't working for me so far, either, but I daresay they'll grow on me, as it often takes me a while to "get" some of her songs. This House is a curious treat - loungey, with interesting, dissonant vocal melodies.
So, as ever, it's a bit of a mixed bag but, also as ever,none the worse for that. Ultra's not resting on her laurels (and I can't wait to hear her perfrom live again, next time she's in London), but she does tip a nod to her first club hits, with a terrific re-working of early single Scandal, which stays true to the spirit of the Basement Boys-produced original, as well as a sexily souped-up, extended cover of her deep house underground smash It's Over Now.
In fact, the inclusion of these, along with Automatic, last year's club hit Love's The Only Drug and dancefloor anthem, Freak On, may make some fans feel over-familiar with it already, but hopefully it'll help her notch up some well-deserved sales. I guess we'll have to wait and see how well Automatic does to see whether Grime... gets more full, off-line releases outside the US. Meanwhile, snap it up on import - you'll get plenty of bang for your buck!