Upon hearing “Dawn” for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was the fourth, or fifth album from Emma Donovan & The PutBacks, so seasoned is the sound – and so harmonious is the pairing of the considerable vocal talents of Donovan, with Melbourne funk soul instrumentalists, The PutBacks. While it is apparent that all involved are experienced in their own right, the synergy on their coming together for this, their debut, makes the quality of their sound all the more impressive.
Recorded in a single room for the instruments and a separate vocal booth, The PutBacks play a solid, unfussy, studied groove that is as clean as it is raw, funky, bluesy, cinematic, airy. Donovan’s voice is authoritative yet friendly, gritty, versatile, warm and honest, full of texture and character. Each listen led me to study, listen out more for the detailed intonation and inflection of her voice. It’s certainly an album you listen to intently rather than background music – and the quality of Donovan’s voice is good enough reason to keep returning to this set again and again. In addition, the excellent backing from The PutBacks add punch when required to match her rousing vocal. At other times, they deftly step out of her way so her voice can shine. There is such fine balance to the weight of music versus voice. You’d really only have to wait for the first few bars of this album for it to start to soar. Both the music and Donovan’s voice flex some considerable prowess, yet it is all presented and produced so tastefully and so beautifully timed.
Comprising entirely of original material, with soulful stories of life, loss, ups, downs, reality and redemption, every track here sounds wonderfully classic. A particular highlight of the set, the title track “Dawn”, sounds like a “Fresh” period Sly, musically – sung with such beautiful sweetness and showing Donovan’s considerable control of range. Another highlight “Keep Me In Your Reach” starts out already high in the stratosphere and then somehow builds further into a place I could only best describe as something akin to Mavis Staples sparring with The M.G.’s – truly wonderful stuff – and when it ends it is somehow matched in brilliance by “Come Back To Me”. This soaring build of energy clearly a strength of this outfit as they work together to build a high. The punchy “Black Woman” bursts out of a serious strut; “Voodoo” is a straight-up Curtis style groove with a terrific organ line; first single “Daddy” is a super hip slice of cinematic cool; while the closing “Over Under Away” is a magically timed, percussive groove where everything interlocks so finely, the vocal floating superbly atop, it all finishes so abruptly, yet perfectly, satisfactorily. Each track is handled in a very different style from the last, yet it all segues so wonderfully together. Feisty funk meets Sunday soul, meets urban soul cinema, bluesy ballads and a healthy dose of road trip rock influences. In fact this album would serve very well indeed as a road trip sound track.
A truly remarkable album from Emma Donovan & The PutBacks, and instantly classic from the start to finish. Easily one of the best soul records you will hear this year and timeless enough to sit proudly in your collection for decades to come. Its performance and production show considerable flair, timing and humanity – and indeed another score for Melbourne’s Hope Street Recordings. More of this, please! Time to listen to that title track one more time.
Download the first single, “Daddy” for free here: