Review: Najwa - Innocent Soul

Monday, June 06, 2011

Najwa Mahiaddin’s Innocent Soul is the kind of album you’d chill to while sipping a cuppa mocha on a rainy day.

Fresh, vibrant and sweet, Najwa stands out from current chaotic local music industry. Instead of jumping on the sweet and sensitive female crooners bandwagon (think Yuna, Zee Avi and Ana Raffali) or taking the pop-alternative band route, Najwa chooses to represent herself as the epitome of a sensual, strong, confident woman that knows what she wants and how to get it. Case in point, her first single, Got To Go. The song might be about being heartbroken, yet she’s ready to spring right back up with a good dose of girl power in tow.

Talking about power, boy, can this lady sing! She might only be 23, but her unique tone and big voice makes you feel like you’re listening to a seasoned soul performer. The girl’s got groove and she ain’t scared to sing her heart out. She may not be a powerhouse (don’t expect her to belt out ala Ledisi) but she sure can sing, and I’m pretty sure that 5 minutes into the album, you’d be hooked till the end.

Track by track review:

The album opens with the retro-flavoured Got To Go. For some reason the guitar plucking reminds me so much of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie. Coincidence, I guess. If you’re one for fun & cheery tunes in the morning (it’s cheery, I swear!), give this song a go.

The second track, Sweet October is really a no brainer. I love you, thank god I found you, I can’t imagine life without you and let’s stay together forever… it’s a formula that has been done a million times but in this case it works perfectly fine and sets the tone for the whole album.
Go ‘Head is one of my favourites. I like how Najwa makes it relatable with the whole delete me from your Blackberry/FB/Twitter thingy. When you’re angry, frustrated and you just want him outta your face, this is exactly how you’d feel. Short of saying pergi mampus ko lah, ko takde pun aku boleh je hidup je.

Jealousy and Monday Blues takes this album to another plateau. These, to me, are the essence of Najwa’s neo-soul. It has the oomph and weight that a soul tune has, and her delivery was spot on. I first heard her perform Jealousy at Michael Buble’s concert (she opened for La Magnifico Buble) and it gave me goosebumps. Good thing the album version is equally fantastic.

Monday Blues comes with an intro called I’ve Got The. I’m not sure if it was recorded live at No Black Tie or if it is engineered in a studio, but it does replicate the ambiance of a bar singer doing her thang amidst the buzzing crowd on a Friday night. I like how the yummy percussion beats make you want to get up and do a sexy dance. It’s smooth and refreshing, a long tea on a hot summer’s day, y’know?

How Long Must I Wait is a ballad that strongly showcases Najwa’s vocal controls. It sounds a little like Najwa doing an Alicia Keys song, which is a double edged sword. The fact that she can write a song that sounds very international is applauded, that she can sing her lungs out is great, but it didn’t feel too original to me. However, it’s still a good tune and apart from the lack of originality, this one is a winner.

I absolutely adore the scatting in Ain’t That A Shame! The song is cute and poppy, with just enough teasing to make hearts flutter. However, the melody doesn’t impress me that much and I think the French-accented dialogue is kinda corny (it would’ve sounded better if she spoke French because let’s get real, no Frenchmen would come up to you and speak English in France, they’re too proud) but hey, that’s just me. It’s such a feel good song any way, I think it’ll be a hit with the listeners.

Innocent Soul reeks of Michael Jackson-y lyrics and the whole composition feels too serabut for this album. There’s India Arie, Mary J. Blige and a dash of melodrama ala Whitney in this tune, and sometimes too much of a good thing is not so good after all. It didn’t do much for me, and I think this is probably my least favourite song.

The final track, Your Love is laid back and cool, although I couldn’t help but conjure the image of India Arie and her guitar, strumming away under a bigass Banyan tree or something to that effect.. Again, it could work for or against her but after Innocent Soul, this is indeed a wonderful welcome.

Praises aside, this new debut album does sound like most debut album – impressive but there’s definitely room for improvement. Najwa’s performance is pretty consistent, but once in a while you hear her slipping away. It’s not surprising, especially when you’re doing a genre that requires smart ad-libbing and emotion plays.

Najwa’s album also falls prey to what I call the Idol Effect. It’s pretty common for new artiste to be influenced by their favourite crooners, I remember how obvious Faizal Tahir’s Aku.Muzik.Kamu was, I was practically playing the Spot-The-Idol as each track unveiled. Lotsa Aerosmith, G&R, even Dewa. But look at where FT is now; he’s developed his own brand of rock that’s truly Faizal Tahir that it’s hard not to sound like him when you’re singing his songs (kesian Azri AF). Not to worry though, I’m sure Najwa will ripen in time.

With practice (which I’m sure she already has aplenty since recording her album), Najwa could easily be the best jazz/soul singer Malaysia has to offer. Already, I see her being at par with veterans of the circuit like Atilia and Noryn Aziz. Heck, I can already see her surpassing Atilia and Noryn Aziz in a few years time. For one, she has age on her side. Let’s hope she stays true to her passion and doesn’t get persuaded by the repackaging/rebranding trend of music conglomerates.

When Malique’s Kau Yang Punya first came out, I was dumbfounded to know that this is the same simple piano-playing girl I used to watch on YouTube years ago. Her voice is the same but somehow it now has the weight and drive of a pro. I love how refined Najwa is in Innocent Soul, and how she’s able to bring the rawness of a soul diva when she performs live. She’s found her mojo and looks like it’s straight up from now for this girl.