Audio Mixer: Jonathan Quarmby.
Recording information: RAK Studios, London; Studio Magnetica.
Although sparsely attended to with strings, percussion, and a few other ornamentations, Benjamin Clementine's debut album, At Least for Now, makes its case as a one-man show for piano and voice. The compelling British singer/songwriter is dramatic, self-assured, and theatrical in the extreme, boasting a powerful voice that swells to fill the room, which, on this unique record, seems to expand and shrink at the drop of a hat. A native of Edmonton in East London, Clementine left home at 16, eventually devoting himself to the lifestyle of an artistic vagabond, busking on the streets of Paris where he developed an unconventional style that blends together bits of soul, classical, opera, and street folk. A chance discovery by a French promoter led to bigger performances, a pair of acclaimed EPs, and a deal with Capitol. Opening his debut with "Winston Churchill's Boy," he boldly repurposes parts of the prime minister's famed WWII speech into an austere paean to his own journey of self-discovery. Like many of the songs on At Least for Now, it takes time to develop, but his magnetic delivery commands attention and his unusual songcraft is consistently interesting. "Adios," with its rapid-fire piano minimalism, seems to contain all of Clementine's vocal personalities as he soulfully opens up his lungs in the verses, only to half-bark the choruses before inserting a rambling spoken word rant about angels midway through. There's no shortage of standouts, with "London" and the skittering cabaret of "Nemesis" among the album's best moments. The stark, melodramatic "Cornerstone," a centerpiece of his first EP, makes another appearance here to great effect. At Least for Now is a pop record of sorts, but completely on his own terms, and like Antony Hegarty (an acknowledged influence) and Rufus Wainwright, two artists who have similar aspirations of pseudo-classical grandeur, Clementine will no doubt be polarizing for many listeners. There is no question, however, of his raw talent, poeticism, and knack for beguiling melodies, and in this oversaturated market, the true mavericks will always rise above the din. ~ Timothy Monger