With its roots in the mid-century South, few genres can claim to be as essentially American as soul. It seems an odd quirk, then, that in the 21st century, the genre has found the most success in the hands of British artists like Estelle, Adele and the late Amy Winehouse. While not exclusively a British phenomenon, few Americans in recent years have managed to match their success.
Enter Tor Miller, the latest singer in a wave of male solo artists that has — unsurprisingly — been largely dominated by Brits like Sam Smith, James Bay and Ed Sheeran. With piano-heavy ’70s throwbacks, soaring tributes to his hometown of New York, and cover art that evokes late-century noir, the 22-year-old Brooklynite brings the genre back across the Atlantic on an aptly-titled debut album, American English ().
Miller’s style is refreshingly confident, energetic and anything but subtle. His flair for drama is immediately apparent on the knockout opener “Surrender,” which starts with a brash, dramatic piano and strings line. The track’s bombastic, freewheeling energy is a strange prelude to the more cerebral “Midnight,” but if his intent was to first grab our attention before showing us what he’s truly capable of, then “Surrender” does the job nicely. While the album’s opener is undeniably catchy and inspiring, most of the songs build up to their hooks more deliberately, with soft, tense intros that give way to soaring choruses. On second single, “Always,” the snapping builds up to a deep, stomping beat so effortlessly, it’s happening before you’ve noticed its arrival.
Other songs hint at greater versatility. “Rag N Bone” is an emotional piano ballad crafted to demonstrate Miller’s vocal range, rejecting more complex instrumentation in favour of stark piano chords. “All Fall Down” and “Baby Blue” feature hints of jazz that electrify the tracks and hearken back to the ’70s. Reaching into the past for inspiration pays off well for Miller. His lyrics and style evoke not only places but also eras. With a sound that nods towards Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, he also captures the aesthetic of a period in music that he was never around for, yet embodies almost flawlessly. The album feels timeless in a way, a quality helped by heavy reliance on acoustic instruments, with minimal use of electronic sounds. Miller’s talent for songwriting pairs well with instrumentals that feel organic in a genre that sometimes suffers from overproduced, excessively cinematic instrumentals. The ever-present piano is the album’s backbone, while the strings and choral arrangements lend a degree of drama to the tracks. But the instrumentals never come at the expense of Miller’s distinct and expressive voice.
His quivering yet commanding vocals are well-suited to his subject matter, which often dwells on themes of youth and young love. Between his musings on love, longing and heartache, all the generic tropes of contemporary soul are present on American English, but by grounding the album firmly and unapologetically in his hometown, he marks out a distinct style. New York functions as both setting and subject matter, its iconic locales providing much of the inspiration. In “Washington Square Park,” the famous meeting place plays host as Miller reminisces on a lost love. “Chelsea” distills the energy of the city into a memory of a night in one of its best-known neighbourhoods, culminating in Miller repeating the line “I’m a New York City boy.” Even when it is not being directly referenced, the city is a constant presence on American English, whether it is in the bright city lights bearing down on him on “Headlights,” or the crushingly busy, anonymizing streets evoked by the closing track, “Stampede.” Somehow, Miller captures something of New York’s timeless feeling, a feat that many artists attempt but few manage to carry off successfully. “Midnight” captures this best, dwelling on the minutiae of a New York night, when the city catches its breath in the early morning hours. Sure, it’s all incredibly sentimental, but Miller handles it with the sincerity that could only come from a native New Yorker.
In case last year’s Midnight EP left any doubt, American English proves that Tor Miller will be an artist to watch in the future, that he can stand alongside the best of his peers. In a field already saturated with talented vocalists, Miller stands out with an undeniably infectious passion for his craft, along with a cinematic sound that captures the essence of a particular brand of late-century Americana. Not bad for a child of the mid-nineties.
American English will be released on Sept. 30 and is available for pre-order on iTunes.
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