Scottish singer/songwriter Joseph Malik and his collaborator and producer David Donnelly have been on the underground scene since the late 1990s. They began as the duo MF Outa National, recorded an album for Mo' Wax Headz, and issued a number of EPs on Stereo MC's Response label as Black Anized. But it wasn't until Malik conceived his "Futuristica" project -- where he not only began to actively encounter, but also to incorporate, elements of nu-jazz and the sound coming out of Manchester's New Century Soul Club into his work, along with organic textures and acoustic instruments -- that it all came together into something wildly original and wonderfully wrought. Produced by Donnelly, Malik issued the brilliant Diverse in 2002. That set was filled with acoustic folk/soul/jazz tunes that took the nod from pioneers like Terry Callier and Sheree Brown, and turned into something distinct and modern.
On Aquarius Songs, Malik -- again with Donnelly producing and co-writing -- looks to history and to the future in trying to create a brand of nu-soul that contains the deep emotional and organic textures of the music at its best, while at the same time bringing the immediacy of house and some breakbeat into the mix. There are nine new cuts on this set, moving around in a highly textured, spacious mix of loops, acoustic guitars, strings, pianos, and Malik's devastatingly beautiful singing. The album opens with the title track; it's a bluesy horn section strolling the changes for a late-night, noir-ish croon. As cymbals pace a B3 into the groove, Malik offers an autobiographical tale from birth to the bewildering present. This is countered by synths intro-ing a flamenco guitar above muted but brackish noise before a melodica snakes its way into the body of "Diablo." Here, snare loops break and stutter before strings and more ambient noise wash over the entire proceeding. Another standout is "Dream Dancer," with its spare, graceful keyboard lines over the four-to-the-floor rhythms that give way to Malik's devastating vocal. The albums closes on a political note. First there is the haunting "Casualties of War," with its jazz and gospel overtones. Then the live "Race Relations," a tune Callier would have been proud to write; it is performed with an acoustic guitar and background sine wave noise. It's a moving plea for tolerance on all sides and an admonishment calling for honesty. In all, Aquarius Songs is a solid, compelling, and deeply focused step forward in Malik and Donnelly's musical journey.