J & The Rest
Kisses on the Mirror
Kisses on the Mirror is available via:
The E.P., 4Am Again, is available here:
BEFORE I get round to the business of reviewing….
Kisses on the Mirror; I wanted to look at J & The Rest and what makes them so special. I wanted to start off by talking about artists that get into music by accident. It might seem like a rather haphazard way of getting into the business but it can result in a magnificent blending of people. I know a lot of people who plan every move and structure their careers from the moment they are old enough. It is impressive if you have that vision but how many of us, who have that passion for music, know what course to take? In the case of Jamal, as I shall show, it literally was a course that set him on his way. What I mean is few of us have any real early revelation and clarity. For me, when it comes to music journalism, I only got into it about six years ago. Before then I was hugely involved with listening to music but had never really seen writing as an option. The way I got into journalism was a former friend of mine had her own blog – and would write about her daily encounters and personal life. I had never seen a blog like that and was hooked by the fact it offered a portal to share your thoughts with the world. Of course, with very little happening in my personal life, I was not going to do the same as her. Instead, when we started chatting, it seemed like music would be the natural choice. Up until that point, in 2011, I had never written anything (review-wise) and started tentatively. With a few local artists on my page; before I knew it, I collated a series of reviews and interviews. Over the years, I have become more ambitious but it all started with that one moment. Jamal’s realisation is a different one but his progression in music follows similar lines to me. He was raised in a musical family but never considered music a full-time career.
His explosion/revelation was when he studied Music Tech at Leeds Met – that course, actually, was not as he imagined. I will talk about music education but the sour and disappointing time there left him a bit deflated. Rather than wallow and retreat from music forever, a friend of his advised him to come into the studio and jam. He went down there, not expecting anything big to occur but, rather than come away empty-handed, he met university mates John and Louis. The three of them clicked and were joined on the live circuit by Ricky (on drums). All of the players bonded and a natural brotherhood was formed. I am not sure how quickly that love was but one can imagine an instant vibe and understanding. Hearing them now and one knows the fact their music is so strong is because they are of the same mind. I hate bands that are manufactured and come together through committee. A lot of the best groups stick together because they have a natural friendship and find one another through unconventional routes. Whether you are mates from way back – or discover each other through a studio jam – it is an uncontrived and interesting way of setting up a band. Of course, there are manufactured bands that stay together but J & The Rest would not sound as strong were they assembled by a record label – one might look at the promotional photos and assume they were hand-picked because of their looks and style. That might sound harsh but I mean the boys have a distinct look and swagger; their voices and musical abilities perfectly mesh. That has all come through discussion and practice but it is stunning hearing them together and blending so effortlessly – like they have been together for decades, almost. I will move on but I like the way Jamal got the band together and how everything fell into place. That friendship clicking and popping when in the studio – how many other bands have that rush and urgency right from the off?
I alluded to the fact Jamal started his music curiosity via a course at university. It seems his disappointment and revaluation was a sage and fortunate event. He might not be in the band, and where he is, were it not for the studio jam. That Music Tech course would have taught him some discipline and abilities but I wonder what else he learned from it. Jamal’s voice is so natural and smooth it seems like he follows his instincts and heart. Music courses can, often, structure and define someone quite rigidly. There is room for manoeuvre and adaptation but many educational facilities want to turn their singers/musicians into the next-big-thing. This means, more often than not, looking at the charts. I live near a music university and often see a horde of students carrying a guitar case and looking the same. There is little personality and the depressing uniformity is something that worries me. I might be wrong in my judgement: one might whip out the guitar and have the chops of Eric Clapton or the calmer finger-picking genius of Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell. It seems many modern schools/music universities are teaching their students to be like the bets of the mainstream. I think more would go on course – and stick with the course – were the curriculum broader. Instead of honing them into a particular artist/sound; there should be more emphasis on freedom and musical exploration. I admire the courses concerning production and engineering but feel courses concerning vocals and guitar/drum often guide the students too strongly in a set direction – the alumni coming out sounding like everyone else and not having any viable career. There are some exceptions that forge a successful route but they are in the minority. In Jamal’s case; I think it was the course he was taking that might have put him off. It sounds very technical and stuffy. The lessons would have been quite dry, I can envisage, and that is not what he is about. His education has come from the studio and gigging with his boys in the band.
I will explore the band’s style more very soon but, before moving on, wanted to look at the conflict between education and instinct. I, as a writer, as in the latter’s camp. I realise the chances of me being snapped up by a broadsheet newspaper are the same as Donald Trump finding God, donating his money to charity and apologising for all the wrongs he has done – changing the world and concentrating his remaining years to assisting the poor in the developing world. In case my sarcasm is not strong enough, it all boils down to one thing; I am working-class. My education is university-level but I did not study an ‘appropriate’ degree – Journalism or some other subject – that would see me fit to work at these papers. I have no previous experience in the press and so, by virtue/misfortune of my social standing, will never be allowed through the exclusive rope of the broadsheets. That is disappointing but it seems if one wants to get anywhere in journalism – and they are working-class – then they need to pay thousands and spend years getting an education. That seems ridiculous as, to me, talent cannot be compartmentalised and evaluated in modules and accreditations; numbers on a page and a piece of paper. That may seem ironic as that is what music journalism is – with some florid wording and acute modern observations – but I mean a journalist is no less qualified if they spend years writing their own blog. It annoys me the only way people like me can ever get on in their career is if they are formally educated and bankrupt themselves. Jamal must have felt like this when he started studying music and realised he would not get anywhere fast doing what he was doing. I wonder whether he would sound as good and natural were he to go down the education route – I wonder whether I would lose my unique format if I did a degree. I feel, not bitter or anything, the way I am doing things is the right way to do it. I have learnt a lot more following my own thoughts and featuring the artists I have already.
Rather than turn this into a personal rant – what’s the point having a blog if one can’t allow some venting?! – but I wanted to talk about J & The Rest’s music. They have quite an Etonian approach to R&B (old school…oldskool? Anyone?! Suit yourselves!) and manage to mix the smoothest and most affecting of past days with the modern production and rush of the charts. That is no bad things because the guys are never commercial in their attack – their music is much deeper and complex than any of the mainstream R&B bands we have. It is unusually seeing a band like J &The Rest in our midst. They are not an all-vocal band like Boyz II Men or have that same sounds as, say, Londonbeat – one can, though, imagine they’d pen their own Thinking About You (the biggest hit from Londonbeat) sometime down the line. A lot of the modern R&B music is very cutting-edge and it relies on pushing the genre forward. I feel there are few that manage to evoke fond memories of the past whilst keeping the heart and soul of-the-moment. I hear little whispers of classic R&B acts and bands from the older days. I always prefer music that mixes old and new so, when listening to J & The Rest, I am satisfied and nourished. Jay & The Rest’s E.P. 4 A.M. again (their version is grammatically incorrect so have written it ‘A.M.’ rather than ‘Am’ or ‘AM’) is a stunning four-track collection that starts with the track Kisses on the Mirror. All Clear and Weary Love, in title alone, sound like they are going to be oldskool love ballads; Kisses on the Mirror quite tender and seductive – 4Am Again (whether that is pronounced ‘am’ or ‘A.M.’) a late-night introspection. It is a record that conforms to expectation but offers so much more. Seeing as the band formed with a sense of chance on their side – I am amazed they managed to produce something that sounds easy and accessible. I am unsure how much rehearsal there is but the guys mesh and there is not a missed beat. What I love about the E.P., and will explore in the conclusion, is the fact it’s tight and does not needlessly wander.
A lot of new bands, in an effort to impress and make a mark, stuff an E.P. with too many details and songs; they overwhelm the thing and come across as too eager. It is hard knowing whether to produce an E.P. or album for the first offering. Many have too much material for an E.P. and not enough for an album. It can be hard whether to go for an album – and have to think of some songs on-the-fly – or scrap a couple and produce a more refined E.P. The temptation is to toss it all into the blender but that can cause its own issues. I imagine J & The Rest had a couple more songs in their mind but have limited themselves to four. In this quartet of jams, they have fused the evocative spirit of classic R&B with the rawer and more hard-hitting beat of modern-day R&B. I mooted how few R&B bands there are but, as it is Jamal who takes care of most of the vocals, it is a more traditional band line-up – one singer and backing. That said; there are few R&B bands out there. Normally, you’d have a solo singer and any bands would cover other genres. I would like to hear, in time, all the boys mixing their voices and giving us that big-release harmony. You know the ones: where the spirit is lifted and the blood rushes all over the place. That is a rarity in today’s music and something we need to promote. As it is, the guys are a solid and fine unit that produce some of the best music around. I have been caught by the accessibility of their E.P. One does not need to be an aficionado of R&B to understand what they are about and where they come from. They do not put too many other sounds into the mix – whereby you can hear influences and particular artists when listening to them.
I am eager to get down to reviewing their E.P. lead-off song but, until then, wanted to discuss the special merits of J & The Rest. Before I get there; I wonder whether that band-name is meant to be a bit dismissive. We all know the ‘J’ is for Jamal – the other three members relegated to ‘The Rest’. It has only just struck me but, on paper, it does seem like the frontman and the minions. I know that is not what Jamal means – and the guys all have equal importance – but it is interesting to note. Anyway…I digress. Looking at the biography and timeline of the band and I notice they have performed on the same stage as Tine Tempah and Robin Thicke. That is impressive and, although I consider Robin Thicke to be worthy of inclusion in The Big Book of Monumental Bell-Ends, he has a certain star quality and pull – even if he is a derivative and forgettable artist. Tine Tempah is much more credible and impressive. Although he has passed his best days; there is still a lot of petrol left in the tank. He is an artist who produces passionate and crowd-unifying music. I have got more involved with R&B and Urban music because of him. His sounds are a sort of gateway into Grime and Hip-Hop. This experience and plaudit – sharing the stage with some big names – would have given the new band quite a kick. Their music has been picked up and appreciated by a number of different stations and publications. It is hard to say how effective it is gigging with stars but, for the boys, it has provided them a confidence boost and sense of motivation. The fact they are deemed worthy of sharing a stage with Tine Tempah means there is popularity and demand there. The boys’ E.P. is a testament to their hard work and effort. Each song is crafted so every listener can appreciate it. It is never a case of songs being over-produced and saturated of naturalness: music flows and has an easy charm; the lyrics and performances are backed by excellent production values.
Journalists have noted comparisons between Jamal and artists like D’Angelo and Maxwell. This is no small feat and, if there are people talking like that, it means Jay & The Rest are stepping in the right direction. I find it rare to have a British R&B band being linked with U.S. greats but that is another reason our guys are so special. It might take them years to reach the same heights as D’Angelo but, if they are looking for guidance, look at what he is doing and take that approach. I do not mean replicating his music but listen to an album like Black Messiah (the 2014-released record credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard) and it went down a storm! It is considered one of the finest records of the decade and was met with enormous critical acclaim. We in the U.K. have not produced anything as good as that and this worries me. I am sure we have the talent but few artists are harnessing the same dynamics and colours as D’Angelo. Our R&B artists are too commercial and not pushing the envelope as much as they should. Maybe that is a divide between U.S. and U.K. but I feel there is a lot of promise concerning J & The Rest. I feel they can produce something that has the same ambition and scope as D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. That would be a terrific achievement and something that could kick-start British R&B. The London boys have that balance of vintage and new that is so essential if you want to create a classic album. If it is too old-style then it runs the risk of alienating younger generations. If it is too modern then it is only likely to have limited lure. It is a hard balance but one Jay & The Rest have struck.
J & The Rest put their E.P. out at the end of July so it has been in the ether for a little while. I wanted to review its opening track, Kisses on the Mirror, because it best represents the E.P. and is the strongest cut. The opening movements see a distorted, rushing vocal that is all machine-like and squelchy. That instantly fuses with something vintage and caramel. The electronic vocal – must-favoured by a lot of R&B and Future-Beats artists – projects urgency, confusion and street lights. It sees my mind wander to the street and wandering among the late-night revellers. When I hear the stylish and evocative mixes of the past, when combined with the modernity, it is an evocative and stunning sensation. Without a word being sung, you are somewhere else and imagining where the song will go. My imagination ran riot and, from the street and the neon lights, into the house and in front of the mirror. I am not sure how influenced by relationship and sex the song is (excuse the poor grammar) but there is a definite sensuality and allure to the introduction. Jamal feels and smells the perfume on his skin, My doubts are allayed when I hear his rich and entrancing voice talk about a conquest and memory. Maybe they have not actually got together but there has been some tease and flirtation. The girl is on his mind and there is something bittersweet about the lyrics. Although the girl has hit him like a typhoon: one gets a sense they are separate or their paths are not as interlinked as they should be. Perhaps they have spent the night – or flirted all night – but they lead separate lives. She might have a boyfriend and he is unable to extricate her from that relationship. I feel a real sense of desire and candour in Jamal’s voice. The gang back him with incredible beats and emotive colours. One senses conflicting shades and layers running right through the composition. I am drawn to the electronics and wobbly voices; the tense beats and flowing strands. It all goes into a soundscape that projects so many visions and has a raw sense of sexuality.
Kisses on the Mirror, in regards its title, suggests intrigue and interpretation. Does it mean the girl left her lipstick print there as a tease to the hero? Is it about reflection and not being able to embrace a kiss – just a mark on a mirror that reminds him what he could have had? It is a compelling song and one that left me guessing to the very end. As the track progresses; more revelations come to light. The hero has Stockholm Syndrome which, to me, suggests there is a hostage-type situation in the relationship. The girl might be playing him for a fool and sharing her affection with other guys. He has come to identify with his ‘captor’ and does not want to be punked and put down – are other guys she’s seeing feeling the same way?! It is an interesting dynamic about love and one that gets me thinking. Our man wants a touch and something pure but it seems he cannot release himself from her spell. There is definite charisma and beauty he cannot shake off. Many of us have been in the situation when logic takes a back seat to the desires of the heart and soul. Jamal might have played his hand too early and been a bit too hot and insistent. Perhaps he knew the girl was bad and fell into her layer. It all sounds very dark and tragic but that is how love can play out at times. I wonder whether it is real love - or our hero wants sex and something physical? The feeling there are other guys out there who get to share the girl does not sit well. He is “not used to” being left notes on the floor and kisses on the mirror – the girl teasing our man with goodbye notes and driving him wild. Jamal’s high-pitched, chocolate-rich voice reaches to the heavens and is backed by his erstwhile, tight-knit band. Each component perfectly clicks so the song pops with energy, desire and emotion.
One might hear the vocals and assume the boy is fine with the scenario. I hear the emotion in the voice and the fact there is hurt. He is not someone who brags and is used to getting what he wants. Some might assume he is a player that does not have to struggle when it comes to love. That might be true to an extent but, here; a desire for something deeper comes out. The heroine has the ability to get who she wants so, when it comes to one-night conquests; she is happy to leave notes and guys drooling. She has all the power and is playing the aces. “Who’s the sucker now?” asks the hero. Maybe they went into it assuming he would get his way and the girl would fall into his arms. That is not the case and, as we hear, she has left him wanting more. It is a breath of fresh air hearing an R&B song that takes this course. So many of them are quite sexist and talk about shallow conquest – no real emotion or decency underneath. Here, we find the hero struggling for words and making sense of what has happened. The girl plays the guys like a guitar and that irks the hero. Thankfully, away from the scorn and reflection of the verses comes the big and singalong chorus. It is a blast of classic R&B that gets the words into the head. The chorus does not undermine the seriousness of the song but it does offer some relief. It is hard seeing the hero struggle but one wonders whether he had this coming. So many guys think their swagger and confidence can get any girl to do what they want. In this case; we see a heroine who will not be played and knows what she wants. She can get any man and, rather than dedicate herself to a relationship, she teases and toys with the boys. This leads to a sense of Stockholm Syndrome and being entrapped.
Into the final moments and this sense of stress and confusion does not abate. If anything; our man is piecing the night before together and wondering what to do. That lipstick mark on the mirror is causing him to pace to the floor and question his mind. In the chorus, we get horn blasts and nice beats; some great electronic swirls that all lead to something head-spinning and smile-worthy. I mentioned how the band have a fondness for classic R&B and one gets that in the chorus. The verses are more modern but, when you follow the song, you get hits of the old and new – this means the song is easy to love and can be appreciated by many. Before the song was through, I wondered whether things would be the same and a relationship would form. Women who can get their way without consequence are reluctant to stop the game. It appears things will not be rosy for the duo but she has a potency hard to shake. Few women can cause such a stir after a night together – if, in fact, things actually got to sex. One presumes so, looking at the clues – the note on the bedroom floor and kisses on the mirror – but our boy is not someone who wants the cheap and easy thrill of sex. He wants to see her again but she is pushing him away. Most R&B men have too much confidence and braggadocio that cloys and repels. They are all about flex and strut. Here, Jamal is not going to be one of those men that use women and then moves onto the next one, His heart, whilst not broken, is stretched and he wonders why he is being taken for a mug. Maybe that is the way things can go: not all women are looking for relationships; they might just want to have a good time without being tied down. Kisses on the Mirror is a song that reveals a broken man who is trying to face rejection – whilst unable to tear himself away from an intoxicating and beautiful woman. It is a beautiful and memorable song that, once heard, will not be forgotten – quite appropriate considering the dynamic and sense of addiction in the song. J & The Rest prove they are a band to be reckoned with and have plenty more good years left in them. A stunning cut from one of the hottest young groups on the scene.
Let’s take this review down but, before then, I wanted to tip my hat in the direction of Jay & The Rest’s future. The guys have not been together that long so it is understandable they want to take time and craft something meaningful and studied. That is not the case with the boys as they gelled pretty quickly and their E.P. is solid and assured. It sounds like the band have been together for years and that is down to their bond and shared talents. Jamal leads from the front but it is not solely about him. I wonder whether the band is performing a lot before the end of the year. The E.P. has been picking up reviews so there will be demand out there. I know they have gigged in London but there are venues that would love to see them play. The U.K. has so many spots they would be perfectly suited to so it will be interesting seeing what happens next. There has been promotion of 4 a.m Again (not sure exactly how it should be typed so I shall go with that) but the songs have resounded and resonated. Even though the E.P. is a couple of months old, now – there is no reason they cannot strike and take the songs as far as possible. I feel there is a lot of radio appeal and they could enjoy a widespread sense of recognition. I feel they would get love from Capital, KISS and Radio 2. That might sound like a broad demographic but that is the potency of the music. It has a young and modern vibe – which means it is perfect for stations like KISS – but that might be selling it short. Even for a young band; it is important getting under the radar of brands like BBC Radio 2. They are not to be sniffed at and, if you can blend that with the more hip stations, you have the best of both would. I know the guys could enjoy radio-play on BBC Radio 6 Music and Radio 1, too. There is hardly a station they could not get on so, because of that, another wave of promotion and canvassing is required.
I know they have a great P.R. team behind them but there is a definite need to keep the foot on the accelerator. If an E.P. is promoted when it is released – and then falls away after a month – people move to the next thing. Such is the attention span of most people; they can forget about songs if they are not constantly in the mindset. A song like Kisses on the Mirror is evergreen and demands love throughout the year. J & The Rest have launched the E.P. and done as much as they can, Maybe a mini-tour of London might be possible before Christmas? That would give the music another airing and bring them to new crowds. From there, into 2018, they could expand their horizons and take their music up and down the country. There are so many cities and towns that they’d own and seduce many fans. In terms of fanbase; they have big numbers, but that could rise pretty quickly. I know many people in London are reacting to their music but this appeal stretches much further. Getting out there and taking the music to the people is the best way of expanding the numbers. I am not sure whether they have a tour planned for next year but their music warrants further investigation. International dates seem likely but that might be a few months down the line. The guys must be thinking about foreign soil and I wonder where their minds take them. The reason why they are so passionately regarded is they are a hot new band but not a typical ‘boyband’. In fact; they are a proper, grown-up band who rely on their own guidance and do not conform to the mainstream. I shall take things down now by suggesting you all wrap your ears around the golden tones and body-moving compositions of J & The Rest. Jamal and the fellas are a potent and future-ready force that has the ammunition and ability to go as far as they want. If they manage to blend that suggestion of D’Angelo with the oldskool R&B then they could well…
BE the next big band in British music.
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