I know what you’re thinking: “Oh great, another violin-playing, ethnomusicology-studying R&B singer. Hasn’t that been done to death?” All kidding aside, what’s most remarkable about Sudan Archives’ debut full-length is how naturally those multiple disciplines come together. While the Los Angeles-based Cincinnati native also known as Brittney Parks released two promising EPs over the past couple of years, this album finds her vision — and most importantly her songwriting — coming into dazzling focus.
“Athena” is essentially an alt-R&B album, but the versatility and diversity of the arrangements set it apart from virtually anything that’s come before: The intricately layered vocals, midtempo beats and pulsating low end anchor the album in the R&B genre, but the instrumental hooks are driven primarily by Sudan’s violin and/or a string section — yet in such a natural-sounding way that the approach never feels gimmicky. Sometimes she plays violin with a bow, sometimes she plucks the strings, sometimes there’s a full string section delivering haunting atmospheres that bolster a melancholy melody (like on the double-entendre lyrics of “Down on Me”). And while many of the songs have powerful and intricate melodies, some are almost naively simple, like the opening “Did You Know?”
While some of the diversity obviously comes from her tasteful selection of collaborators, including Wilma Archer (Jessie Ware, Nilufer Yanya), Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, Sampha) and Paul White (Danny Brown, Charli XCX), there’s never any questions whose unique vision is behind this innovative, unusual and inviting album.