Labi Siffre :: Give Me Just A Little More Line

You may never have heard the name Labi Siffre before but you’ve definitely heard his music. One of London’s unsung musical heroes, Siffre was born in Hammersmith in 1945 and, between 1970 and 1975, released some of the most expertly mixed blends of funk-jazz-soul-folk you’ll ever experience this side of Bill Withers. In fact, you have heard–consider, first, the fact that the slinky instrumental break from Siffre’s ‘I Got the…’ provided the hook on Eminem’s "My Name Is" (let’s, for the moment, leave to one side the fact that it has also helped shape songs by Primal Scream and Miguel). Next, consider the fact that "It Must Be Love," yes that song everyone thinks Madness wrote, was actually written by the same guy. Here we have a stretch, a spectrum of music-making perhaps unequaled by anyone but those we deem The Greats. See the genre-busting of Curtis Mayfield. See the crossovers of Carole King and Laura Nyro. Before his retirement at the end of the 70’s (and a brief resurgence, post-Madness) Siffre was a master of the same flexibility.

Which of course, made his albums hard to pigeonhole (and perhaps harder to promote). Bill Withers, of course, always had gospel underpinning his acoustic leanings–it was detectable and it had a category. Siffre, oftentimes underpinned his songs with English folk, cabaret, show tunes, a little jazzy Van Morrison, a little Cat Stevens. In 1972, a breezy proto-Paul Weller song like "Cannock Chase" just wasn’t going to fit comfortably on an R&B chart anymore than a Pop Chart (unless said chart was in an already kaleidoscopic musical landscape in, say, Holland). But damn if it wasn’t the airwaves’ loss.

Labi Siffre :: Give Me Just A Little More Line

Less to do with cocaine than a lover’s sense of autonomy, Siffre’s "Give Me Just a Little More Line" is the quintessence of his leftfield stance as a singer-songwriter. A majestic, melancholy blues chant that makes you want to weep with sympathy within the first few measures. A high-flying voice that shares as much with Peter Gabriel as Mayfield. The horns don’t punch, they underpin. At the forefront instead is a silky string section, sweeping up the emotional register of the song, making it pine even harder for that titular line to be loosened up.

Siffre also had the ability to pare things back even further, and one of the delights of listening to his albums is how quick he is to follow a killer groove (see "The Vulture") with the lightest of touches. Sometimes it can be a little coy, sometimes cheekily camp, but mostly these hot-cold tendencies settle into their own laidback acoustic languor. If you can imagine Janis Ian, Joan Armtrading, and Tracy Chapman all getting together for drinks, at least one of them would have to have a Labi Siffre record close to hand. It’s also saying something that you can look through the man’s back catalog and find songs taken up (not only by Eminem and Madness) but Kelis, Kanye, and Kenny Rogers.

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