Yola – “Stand For Myself”
Every once in a while an artist or a song comes along that really makes you go “wow”! So when I first heard “Diamond Studded Shoes” by British-born singer Yola, I couldn’t believe my ears. Was I back in 1961 listening to a young Tina or The Supremes or could this really be music in the year 2021? You do have to pinch yourself when you hear the voice of Yolanda Quarty and then accept the backing tracks and instrumentation used not to think that this was a time when JFK was president of the US, television was in black and white and men in space could only be imagined. So it’s a surprise to learn that Yola’s brand new album, “Stand For Myself”, is not her first. How is it that this British singer seems to have not been picked up by the masses in her home country and yet garners wider acclaim ‘across the pond’?
“Stand For Myself” is that Supremes, Tina, Blues, R&B, Soul record that should have been made sixty years ago. In fact, it probably was, but not with the set of lungs or style as crafted by Yola herself. There’s some Deee-Lite in there too a little bit of Duffy, but this is a record that is pure Yola from beginning to end. And she kicks off, not with a show tune, but with the smoky ballad, “Barely Alive”. With scratches just as it used to be playing an old 45 on your mum and dads music box, the song feels as if it belongs in a remote diner jukebox or straight from the film ‘Dirty Dancing’. I am sure that had Yola been about in 1987, she would have been selected to write and perform songs for the soundtrack of that movie. More effortless and soulful class follows with “Dancing Away In Tears”, which oozes Summer charm and great vibes.
Sophisticated and sublime are already the order of the day here as you will have worked out by now and Yola delivers that for every second of every song. So now as we are all settled in, two tracks down, Yola delivers the song that made me sit up and listen to her talents, “Diamond Studded Shoes”. This throws every conceivable genre of music into the mixing pot and blends them all together so perfectly to create, arguably, the best song you will hear this year! Yola never lets the quite obvious power of her voice to overwhelm each instrument or the brilliant understated soundtrack of this song that manages to whip 50’s, 60’s and 70’s harmonies into the 21st century all at the same time. Yola goes for Gospel and Country with “Be My Friend” and for the first time, she focuses on her vocal and not the music accompaniment, repeating her wish that she wants you to be her friend, out in the rain.
There’s more smoky jazz, R&B, soul and gospel tones with “Great Divide” as Yola takes the tone and the pace back down to a lazy night cabaret style number. You can almost hear Elvis performing this one so you be forgiven for thinking this was a cover and not an original composition. Once again, the production of this album is very calculated and deliberate to make you think this was made back in 1961 and not in 2021. There’s more gorgeous sounds and dreamy vocals to come with “Starlight”, another highlight. One highlight after another is how this album has been conceived and “Starlight” is a showcase and a lesson in itself of how to achieve that. Yola keeps the ear firmly to the ground with “If I Had To Do It All Again”, never once stepping out of place with this swinging 60’s ballad and the introduction of the strings towards the end of the song only enhance the listening experience.
One song slides into another as we ‘slip’ into “Now You’re Here”. There’s a bit more sass and funk to this track, but not too much, mind you, don’t want to be given too much more than the excess already on offer! The blues guitar, present on many of the tracks on “Stand For Myself”, really takes star billing with Yola’s own multi-level vocal here. “Diamond Studded Shoes” part two is up next with “Whatever You Want”, and if you put them side by side, they fit so well. The tempo is pitched higher than any other song, save “DSS”, while Yola exercises her mighty set of lungs against the Country/Blues backing track that kicks ass and kicks the soul out of pretty much anything else in your record collection. Period. Yeehaw! Remain upstanding for “Break The Bough” as the pace and liveliness late in the day continues and it’s as if a young Tina herself was joining Yola on this track as she really unleashes everything she has to impress upon us all that we are “free to fly and free to love”.
With an authoritative instruction, we all settle back once more with “Like A Photograph” as the distant sound of the gospel organ and the choir together with the dreamy air of this song envelopes you and keeps it going for more than five minutes. You just don’t want it to end. Ever. And as with most of the songs on the album, the fade is long and drawn out so you lament its passing but cherish the time you spent with the song. Yola sends us packing with the title track and a rather cheeky number. Light hearted and bathed in bright light and awash with electric guitar, Yola goes for that grand finale as she builds the vocal back to “Break The Bough” territory and just when you want more, fade and fin.
It has to be said that there isn’t a collection of themes and sounds quite like Yola has bequeathed us with this mighty second album. It cries to be heard and not just in The States, where it firmly belongs, culturally and historically, but to a wider world. To those who remember 1961 and the music of that time. As a celebration of the artists and the voices that were coming out of America. As Yola’s tribute and salute to the giants of R&B, soul and gospel but most of all as an album that stands tall in a world of electronically produced sounds and futuristic styles, there is still a place for big band, big sound and big notes. This is Yola standing for herself in a big world, but in a world where “Stand For Myself” deserves to be the biggest of all.