Omar first came to my attention via the Lenny Henry starring “brit-com” entitled Chef, with its theme song “Serious Profession” performed entirely by Omar. During the early to mid aughts,exploring Omar’s then very hard to find import albums on CD was like hunting for buried treasure. Thanks to my online friend Jeremiah,a lot more exposure to Omar’s music came my way a decade ago. What I noticed about Omar’s music was that,very different from American neo soul very much based in live instrumental hip-hop beats,Omar’s variety of the music concentrated heavily on ornate arrangements.
Born Omar Lye-Fook in London in 1968,he grew up in Canterbury,Kent. He was classically trained trumpet,piano and percussion at two separate conservatories in London and Manchester. He worked as a computer programmer for Microsoft before pursuing music full time. His first single and album There’s Nothing Like This became his first chart hit. And established him as a founding father of neo soul. Over the years his sound swelled to incorporate elements of Brazilian jazz,dance hall reggae and cinematic funk. On the latter end,one of my favorite songs from him is 2000’s “To The Top” from his album Best By Far.
A swinging mix of hollow percussion and piano walk down introduce the song. This kicks off into a sea of strings and melodic flute harmonies before Omar himself begins duetting with his swelling backup vocals. This represents the chorus of the song,for all intents and purposes. The refrains of the song find Omar’s lead and backup vocals playing more call and response to a shuffling,funky snare drum and piano. There are two repeating chorus/refrain bars of this song. On the final chorus before the song fades,Omar’s lead and back-round vocals become the full focus of the song over the instrumentation.
Omar does something that really gets to me musically on “To The Top”. Most neo soul/proto neo soul male artists who hailed as “the next Marvin Gaye” in the beginning. And truth be told,Omar’s style of arrangement and love of backup vocals singing lead is straight out of the Gaye school of cinematic funky soul on this particular song. What Omar does is brings in the heavy funk. As with most neo soul,its lacking in any synthesized electronics. What it does have is less of a stripped down sound,and more emphasis on orchestral production. That makes Omar one of the funkiest neo soulers of his generation.
Filed under 2000, arrangement, backing vocals, cinematic funk, cinematic soul, drums, flute, funky soul, Neo Soul, Omar Lye-Fook, percussion, piano, strings, UK Funk
Now I realize that these days eight years doesn’t seem to be a very long time to record a new album-what with litigation/money being such an overriding concern even more than it ever was-and it was always a huge concern. Omar Fook is a figure little known in the US. One important reason for that is there was no anti disco movement across the pond. So funk,soul and related dance music’s of all sorts continued to evolve on the underground dance circuit unencumbered during the new wave and alternative eras. Omar was on the ground floor at the beginning of the 90’s-right up there with American figures such as D’Angelo and Terence Trent D’Arby (whom I consider American for all intents and purposes). Still it been eight years since his previous album Sing (If You Want It). And Omar’s albums have a tendency to go out of print extremely quickly. So I thought I’d review this new album of his while it was new and attainable.
“Simplify” opens the album with a wonderfully harmonized vocal melody before going into a elaborate mix of cosmic synthesizer washes and Moog bass riffs. The title song has a slower,crawling groove punctuated by a low horn with some woodwinds and other orchestration lightly sprinkled in with,of course Omar as always singing behind,around-anything but with the beat in his strong,soulful and jazzy vocal style. “Come On Speak To Me” has a similar idea mixing a little samba into the rhythmic stew. On “I Can Listen” there’s a polished,orchestrated soul/pop with a prominent Motown flavor with heavy back round vocals (from Omar himself of course) on the bridge. On the potent blend of scratch and boogaloo “Bully”,with its conscious rejection of gun violence and “**** War,Make Love”,a wonderfully fluid example of dance/funk both call for world peace on the local and the broader level.
“Eeni Meeni Myno Mo” and “Ordinary Day” both have that strong Brazilian flavor to them-again both with strong melodies. The break heavy “Treat You” with Soul II Soul’s Caron Wheeler and “High Heels” both point to the main important attribute of this album: it’s by far the heaviest funk Omar has ever made. While the majority of his albums featured him experiment with different genres within his coherent production sound,this album experiments with the funk groove to see how much vitality and splendor the music can have when harmonically and melodically taken in different directions. The fact that Stewart Zander of Jamiroquai,a band who devoted themselves to the same funk based development process,is on this record speaks volumes about Omars mode of intent. I can only hope that Omar delivers his next album a little sooner than this one came because this in a way is the culmination of his entire (and somewhat unheard in some areas of the world) music journey, one which soul/funk musicians of any sort would be wise to pay a lot of attention to.
Originally Posted On June 28th,2013
Link to original review here*