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The Maltese Siren returns with a confident (and tremendous) E.P. Following on from Babygirl‘s template, Chess augments her previous sounds with edge, punch and… imħabba. This year will see a huge rise to prominence for the young starlet: coming to a venue near you…
HAPPILY, I get to focus, once more, on the merits and idiosyncrasies of the….
female solo realm. Over the past few weeks I have featured the likes of Harts and Emily Kay- both tremendous solo artists. The former is a prodigious 19-year-old from Melbourne; garnering favourable comparisons to the likes of Prince. The latter is a young black artist from Birmingham; striking of voice and assured of great things this year. Most of my attention last year tended to focus on the band market, and quite a few different genres of music. My main objections and fears- when faced with the lone artist- has revolved around quality. Although the solo market is crowded and burgeoning, I have always been puzzled why there are not more noticeable stand-outs from the genre. I have been surprised and amazed by some of the acts I have featured, but when I look towards what is considered ‘mainstream’ or ‘popular’ there are few I can recommend. Most male solo artists tend to be acoustic, and- to my mind- unspectacular, boring and generic. For every James Blake there seems to be dozens of wishy-washy examples whom sing about broken love and longing- in other words, the same as everyone else. In terms of the female market, I find that the lyrics and songs are more compelling, yet the voices seem to be too twee or bland. In order to strive and to gain voters, one must break from the well-worn parables; inject personality and diversity into your sounds, as well as be original and memorable as possible. This year will act as a litmus test for any new solo act- as well as those thinking of entering the scene- whom want to win fans and ensure that they are in-demand into 2015. The northern climbs of England have been producing the brightest new solo talent, and Yorkshire especially has fervently produced some wonderful talent. When looking closer to home, all seems not to be lost. As well as solo acts such as Second Hand Poet (based in Surrey), I have been hearing some great young artists. One of the best young artists I have witnessed has been a young lady, Chess.
The woman behind the moniker is someone I have known for a while now. Although we have never met, she seems like an old friend, given the fact that I have reviewed her a few times now. Chess (Fran Galea) has grown and matured as an artist over the last couple of years. My first encounter with her was when I was listening to some covers she had recorded. Whereas most artists are unadventurous and narrow when they go to cover an existing song, Chess showed herself to be more unique and brash. Not only in the sense that her voice is a dominant and remarkable force, but also the types of songs that were being featured. Modern-day soul and latter-day blues were put under the spotlight, and the young heroine showed herself to be well-educated and intelligent with her song choices. From those initial moments, I was sure that in Chess I had discovered a rare and worthy talent- and one that has few direct equals. Further communication with Chess increased and multiplied my respect (for her), and compelled me to keep a close eye on her career. Chess if of Maltese origin and has been reviewed, celebrated and promoted in her home nation- gaining some prestigious airplay and patronage. She is a key and beloved name here, and it is not going to be long before her music transfers to further foreign climbs. To my ear, Chess’s style and range means that she will have supporters and fans waiting in the U.S. I have surveyed many American acts and know that Chess’s sounds would fit in perfectly. In terms of her long-term ambitions I am not sure, but it is certainly something she should think about, as we move through 2014, I know how much music and realising her potential means to her, and how much of a relief the E.P.’s release provides. The song Vanity is the first song to be released from Tuxedo, and is a perfect summation of Chess’s talents and abilities. In terms of social media following, Chess is building a steady collection of fans and supporters. The past year or so has been a fairly busy one for Chess, and it is a year (2013) that saw the release of her debut E.P., Babygirl. Across the trio of tracks on that collection, we saw the fledgling artist take some of her first steps- and was an E.P. that really struck me. With the help of her producer Edd Holloway, Chess unveiled tracks filled with tenderness, redemption and revitalisation. Some of the big themes that were explored within the E.P. included not giving up; patience in relationships and holding on when things get tough. There was a great deal of positivity within the collection, and this was augmented by Chess’s vocal performances, which were filled with power, conviction and passion. Some of Chess’s influences include Freddie Mercury, Prince, Christina Aguilera and Michael Jackson. I could detect the same kind of gusto and conviction (within the songs) that Mercury was so adept at; a comparable silky sexiness that the likes of Prince and Jackson were masters of, as well as an Aguilera-like set of pipes. It was hardly surprising that Babygirl was held close in many people’s hearts, and the ensuing praise and support the E.P. gained, saw Chess’s stock rise. A series of stunning cover versions and tracks such as Happy End kept our young heroine busy and focused, and it has all lead to this moment. Our heroine has received airplay in three countries (Malta, England and Australia), has been featured in magazines and multiple blogs; has played venues including The Luxe and performed to thousands of people. Too many new artists are given too much credit, whilst those deserving are often overlooked. I hope that Chess gets a lot more airplay in the U.K. (and abroad) and find herself a whole legion of new fans. She should have no fear, as her latest E.P. is a confident and stunning set, and will see her transcend to a new audience- as well as the attentions of many high-profile radio stations and venues.
Tuxedo is perhaps the most apt title for Chess’s latest E.P. Whereas Babygirl gave the impression of a heroine effected by and in need of love, Tuxedo has a style shift that suggests more grandeur and edge. I adored Chess’s previous E.P. and felt that the writing and production was sophisticated, impressive and inspiring throughout. I know over the last few months, our heroine has worked hard and pressed her agenda. The latest E.P. is draped in style and class. If you look at the cover to the E.P. itself, you will see that it is a black-and-white symphony of memorable imagery. Edge letter of T.U.X.E.D.O. is represented by a different image or character; mixing cigars, time pieces, necklaces and tuxedos. It is a nice touch and a stunning logo that you can’t help but take your eyes from. Our heroine herself appears contemplative and in deep thought (on the cover). Dressed in black and white, and wearing shirt and brace combinations, she is stylish, striking and smart. I have seen many of the photos, stills and shots from the E.P., as well as the video to Vanity. Chess appears always as a stunning and gorgeous young woman, and someone capable of turning heads- and taking away the breath. She has a vibrant sexiness as the likes of many of her female idols, and she is a vivacious and captivating presence. When starting out investigating the tracks on Tuxedo, these thoughts and merits stuck in my mind. The opening seconds of Vanity lead you beautifully into the E.P. It is a romantic and argumentative piano line that flourishes and twinkles. It trips and pauses; strikes and presses which creates a stirring atmosphere. The opening words set the scene quite succinctly: “You need the applause/You need the attention“. Chess’s vocals are convincing and imploring, as she points the finger at society. Whether there is anyone particular in our heroine’s mind, or if it is based in fantasy, I am unsure; but we can all relate to the type of person that is being surveyed, and “Caught in a downward spiral“. Chess’s vocals are powerful and impressive in the early stages- backed by the pulsating and energised piano line. She incorporates influences such as Christina Aguilera into the mix, yet you can not tell of any direct comparisons. The projection and sound are very original and she is an artist whom employs hints of her idols, but is very much her own voice. Before long, the song explodes into life, as a hard-hitting bass and drum strike backs the vocal. The sudden rush takes you by surprise, as Chess continues her assessment of our attention-seekers (“You just want to live in your own world“). I notice a cheeky little reference to You’re So Vain (“I guess you think this song is about you, don’t you?“), as our heroine unleashes the full power and force of her vocal. You get the sense that Vanity could soundtrack many a club night out, as it has that ready-made dance floor flavour, but also has elements of the classic and wonderful dance music of the ’90s. There is a huge emphasis on conviction and prowess and you can tell that Chess means every single word. I have been informed (by Chess) that the song concerns self-absorbtion in the wider society; it is clear that she is being put to rights, as it is stated: “You’d like to think they all love you“. Chess unleashes her voice but does not let it get to breaking point. At one moment she sings softly and contemplatively, before rising and striking within seconds. This gives weight and extra emotion to the lyrics, which reminds me a little of Lady Gaga; as well as the aforementioned Aguilera. The chorus itself is perhaps the catchiest and most impressive part of the song, and when it comes around for the second time, you find yourself singing along: already familiar with it, it sticks that quickly. The sensation and electricity which sparks from the chorus has a great summertime feel and I am sure will be blaring from many car stereos in a few months time. Although the song deals with taking to task a vein and empty figure self-absorption, it never loses any spirit and energy; it is constantly uplifting and memorable, and gets your feet tapping and arms pumping. It is not surprising that the track is the lead-off single from the E.P., as its blend of catchiness and potency will mean it is a fan favourite for a long time to come. In the same way that Michael Jackson began Dangerous with hard-hitting and edgy tracks, Chess has done likewise. In a way, Babygirl may be her Bad (in the way that it is more redemptive and romantic), whilst the follow-up shows our young artist filled with fight and spirit. As the memorable chorus brings the song to an end, we are given a slight twinkling outro, that gives us time to breathe, and reflect on what we have just heard. Vanity is a striking and stunning start to the E.P. and shows our heroine in full flight and fantastic of voice. The energy and quality continues unabated as we lead into the title track. Beginning life as a swirling electronic coda, reminiscent of an air-raid siren, a funky and hypnotic beat begins. It has hallmarks of classic Jackson and Prince, and is infused with funkiness and rhythm, as our heroine steps up to the mic. Early tales see our songstress in thoughtful mode: “Life is like a game of chess…”, as the vocals trip and roll with syncopated rush. Chess’s voice again is awash with conviction and passion as she delivers her messages: “Ain’t nobody here to judge no more“. Themes and lyrics deal with the realities of life and simple truths, as Chess intones: “What you see is what you get/It’s black on white“. I was curious whether there was any particular motive behind this song; whether a person (or persons) had influenced this track, or whether our young artist is surveying the world around her. There is again an edge of Gaga, as well as early Britney Spears, yet the vocal performance is more impressive and stirring (to my mind). Where the title is spelled out (T.U.X.E.D.O.) the letters are delivered with a breathless seductiveness. It is repeated- backed by a punchy and hard beat- that means your attention and mind is captured fully. I am impressed by the vocal shifts in this song, especially. The first verse was delivered with a shotgun and staccato pace; the song’s title is given a sexy and soft tenderness. When the next verse is unveiled, there is another shift, as the first two words are held and slowed, before the pace quickens. In this way the meanings and lyrics are given extra emphasis and your attention is once again captured. When Chess sings: “Tonight/You and I/Become/Tuxedo“, you can hear the crackle and pop in the music. As I stated, it has underpinnings of Prince and Jackson, and a similar funky and catchy kick to it. Whereas Vanity has a dance floor potential, Tuxedo a great sound of ’90s pop/funk, as well as modern-day female pop (Gaga, Rhianna and Beyonce). Our heroine is constantly engaging because of the passion and conviction with which she delivers her words. All of the greatest singers are synonymous with these merits, and Chess infuses every word with force, power and clarity (a rarity amongst the modern scene). When the chorus swings back into view, again it is something you are singing along to. Because of the memorable lyrics and excellent and stunning production, the words and music burrow deep instantly- so many songs suffer because the vocal is indecipherable or the composition is too imposing or overwhelming. With another round memorable chorus-ing, Chess takes Tuxedo to its conclusion, her vocals weaving in and out of one another; layered and huge- adding weight and passion to the final seconds. The outro is a funky and electric guitar buzz; accompanied by that punching and bold beat. The final track of Tuxedo‘s trio is an intriguingly-named curiosity. Dangerously Beautiful could be a film title; a perfume or a classic album title- it has that fascination and nuance to it. The song itself gets off to the races quickly. Scored by a guitar line that almost sounds Flamenco, there is a certain Hispanic or Latin sound to the guitar. This track gets under my skin very quickly, and really stood me to attention. The composition is stunning right from the off. The drum beat which crackles and tumbles is bold and exciting. There is an audacious skill and consideration at work that you would not expect from someone so young. I keep harking back to the likes of Jackson and Prince, and it no hyperbole to state that the rhythm, sound and flair of the song could rank alongside some of their best work. There is a romanticism and sexiness about the delivery- not only within the composition but the vocal itself- as our heroine starts her trajectory: “I couldn’t be without you anymore“. It is hard to shift the guitar line, that is a pivotal focus and force throughout the early stages. Chess’s vocals are swaying and romantic, infused with blues and soul- yet once again powerful and convincing. With “danger coming” the song is a reconnaissance and assessment of a relationship that is doomed to failure. The Dangerously Beautiful is a man- unnamed- whom seems Siren-esque and intoxicating in his appeal. Our heroine wants to “save your life“, and warn (the anonymous female) away from him. Chess is standing back- aware of what might await our female subject- as another voice enters the fray. Chris Birdd is the other voice heard on the song, and provides another tone to the song. His quick-fire rap matches the electric backing as he wants to “chill with ya” and “talk about how I feel“. Here is our hero- or anti-hero- imploring and justifying himself; claiming that he is not as potent and deadly as Chess makes out. There is a great sense of storytelling and by-play in the song, between our imploring and wise heroine, and the vilified hero. As he speaks about “don’t fear what your friends think“, you get caught up in the energy and rapid delivery of the vocals. Having witnesses the previous two tracks with Chess alone, it is striking and a great shift to hear another voice- it adds an extra weight to the song. As Budd completes his mandate, Chess boldly steps to the mic.; wrestling back attention from the “Dangerously beautiful” rapper. Within the elliptical and pulsating guitar, Chess unleashes some wordless vocals; some coos and soprano rises which add extra emotion, sexiness and potency to proceedings. If the first two tracks have their futures mapped out in clubs and the summer-drenched airways, then Dangerously Beautiful seems earmarked to score ballrooms as well as clubs. It is another track that will be a live favourite and will be interesting to see if Chess and Budd ever perform this together- it will be a tantalising prospect. There is sweat and fire dripping from the speakers, and Chess provides a passionate and memorable vocal once more. One of the hallmarks of the E.P. is the strength of the choruses, and again another gem is served up here. As the chorus brings the song down to the ground it ensures that you are left hungry at the end- looking for another track; another repeat or something. Yet with a teasing wink, that will be left for another E.P. The abiding impression one is left with- after listening to Tuxedo– is what an impressive work it is.
After following the plight (and embryonic growth) of the Babygirl E.P., I was excited- as well as a little nervous- when investigating its progeny. Chess’s previous E.P. was a memorable step, and I was impressed by the maturity and quality that was offered by such a fledgling and new talent. Chess was a familiar name in her native Malta, and has recorded quite a few songs previously; yet this was her first big release, and I was taken aback by the tracks on the E.P. The trio of tracks were steeped with positivity, uplifting codas and evocative imagery. The songwriting was confident, assured and strong, and was backed by the solid and assured professional production of Edd Holloway. Our heroine appeared (on the E.P.’s cover) as a gorgeous and tender chanteuse. I came away from reviewing Babygirl filled with confidence that in Chess, a great and fertile local talent has been unearthed. That was 14 months ago now, and a lot of time has passed between the two E.P.s. I know how hard Chess has worked in the interim; not only on creative planning and input, but making sure that a new E.P. was a financial possibility. There have been obstacles and setbacks along the way, and I was wondering whether these cracks in the pavement would deter or weaken our heroine. Tuxedo is immediately reassuring and confident. The latest E.P. is a dancier and edgier affair, yet retains a lot of the trademarks and unique Chess moves that the debut promised. Fran Galea has demonstrated that she is a strong songwriter. Her lyrics do not suffer from cliché or bloating- like so many contemporaries- and she has the innate ability to make a chorus lodge in your brain for many months. The compositions are fascinating and layered as well as vary between soft and tender piano-led songs, to thumping and anthemic rushes. All the true and terrific elements have remained in tact, yet Chess has kept her sound fresh and ever-mobile by injecting harder edges; heavier elements- as well as thematic shifts. Within Tuxedo there is an element of foreboding and accusatory finger-pointing. There is a sense of warning, moralising and hard-hitting truths. I am familiar with how good our heroine is (from her covers as well as original material), and she is a vocalist that has an incredible range, yet has her own unique and meritocratic identity. Chess has some influences within the likes of Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, Etta James, as well as Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury- you can hear a little of each in her delivery. The three songs are filled with memorable hooks and choruses; huge vocals as well as detailed and catchy compositions. I am sure in the back of Chess’s mind she is plotting a possible E.P. number three. There is going to be a huge demand for one, and by the end of Dangerously Beautiful, I was aching for more- such is the effect of Tuxedo. Last year, Chess performed in some established and prestigious London venues; gained some incredible airplay- and drew in a lot of new fans. The release of Tuxedo will see this rise to prominence continue, and I will not be shocked if I hear Chess’s music appear on BBC Radio 6 or BBC Radio 2 even. Special credit also goes to the following musicians (Terry Michellis – Guitar; Dan Aquilina – Bass; Billy Grammatikos – Drums) as each brings something memorable to the table. The guitar work is strong and varied and adds great weight and excitement to proceedings. The bass work keeps the tracks flowing and incorporates a strong and taut backbone, whilst the drum work is prolifically memorable- especially on the closing track. This year will see our star making some headway towards hitting mainstream success. There will certaintly be more high-profile gigs, as well as some important and repeated airplay. Once the impact of Tuxedo is fully felt, it will bring in the attentions of record labels and venue promoters. I am confident that the end of this year will see Chess ascend rare heights and see her stock rise hugely. Whether there are imminent plans for more music, or whether she just wants to get Tuxedo out and see how people take to it, I am unsure, yet it is clear that acclaim will be universal. Sit down and let the E.P.’s wonders and dizzying spells overwhelm. It is only January, yet- in terms of new music- Chess has done this:
SHE has produced an E.P. that could well be one of the best we’ll hear all year.