Marques Toliver was discovered busking on the streets of Brooklyn by TV On The Radio‘s Kyp Malone. That’s a pretty decent bit of networking in itself, but he’s since worked with Grizzly Bear, Bat For Lashes and Holly Miranda. He models in his spare time and even edits his own magazine and now, following the well received Butterflies Are Not Free EP two years ago, he’s found time to record his debut album, Land Of CanAan.
Despite the PR-friendly back-story, Toliver is probably a bit of a tough sell for a potential soul/pop superstar. The violin is his instrument of choice, and his debut album is inspired by the autobiography of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the biblical story of Noah’s curse of Ham. You may not be surprised to learn that neither Rihanna nor Chris Brown make a guest appearance.
The weighty subject matter is balanced by an undoubted commercial nous, however. Land Of CanAan is one of those rare albums that will appeal to both mainstream pop fans and jaded hipsters. Toliver’s songs are accessible and commercial and enhanced by his terrific voice, but there’s an ambition and originality to many of these tracks which puts one in mind of Janelle Monáe‘s work.
Land Of CanAan is full of complicated string arrangements that add Toliver’s extra depth. On the surface, something like Stay is a simple pop song – the fact it’s built upon a stark violin arrangement and then builds steadily up to its irresistible chorus makes it impossibly listenable. Control pulls a similar trick – some gorgeously swirling strings envelop an addictive melody, and Toliver even has the nerve to steal a few lines from Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. It’s a remarkably confident approach that makes for a refreshing listen.
The presence of songwriter Eg White (the man behind Adele‘s Chasing Pavements, amongst much else) means that Land Of CanAan never strays too far from radio-friendly territory. Sometimes this works, as on the soaring If Only, but sometimes it veers towards the blander side of the middle of the road. It’s probably no coincidence that the one track where Toliver’s violin is put on the backburner, Weather Man, is also the worst track on the record, a dull acoustic ballad full of bland platitudes.
Far more successful are the times when Toliver stretches his ambition further. The beautifully stark instrumental of Repetition is hauntingly austere, while Magic Look is outwardly smooth and honeyed but underpinned by a subtly complex string arrangement. Toliver’s vocals are as impressive as his songwriting skills; his is a rich, smooth voice capable of injecting some yearning emotion into Stay or Something Wrong that lifts them a level above conventional RnB tracks.
There’s a swagger and confidence to Land Of CanAan which sets it apart from its many rivals in this somewhat overcrowded field. While it’s not quite the instant classic that its reputation would have you believe, there’s certainly enough to mark out Marques Toliver as a name to watch very closely over the next few years.