The challenge of writing about music is made infinitely more interesting when you consider a song that’s under two minutes in length. It’s something I’ve addressed a number of times over the years, as some of my favourite slices of life have been the briefest. Whether it’s the insistent funk of Kindness’ ‘Gee Up’, the Daft Punk synth wave of Cut Copy’s ‘Zap Zap’ or Rihanna’s sweet ‘James Joint’ interlude, there’s something quite special about being able to say it succinctly. That’s particularly true of opening numbers like this one, usually designed as throwaways to introduce the thematic undertones of the album before kicking into the song proper. I love all of Niia Bertino’s debut record, but I am utterly besotted with ‘Prelude.’ It might have to do with her jazz study, her classical piano pedigree or the fact that she was once voted by the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts as one of the Top 100 singers in America. Or it could be nothing to do with any of that and simply the magic of this quiet moment of bliss.
What gets you first about ‘Prelude’ is the chords. They slide into pitch like a woozy record player warming up after a long time lazing in the sun and chime out, insistently across almost every beat of the song. They’re rock solid yet consistently moving, descending through what I presume to be modal variations in such a spine-tingling fashion that they remind me of the opening to another song that would go on to feature a great vocalist – Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig In The Sky.’ And then, when you’re already on the hook, Bertino’s voice knocks you flat. It’s one, then it’s three, then it’s a choir, coming together in succulent harmonies that are so dazzling they give your ears vertigo from trying to catch them all. In the layering, we hear Bertino’s full range, the various timbres and tones of her vocal. But mostly, what we hear is some unbelievable phrasing. Choral moments give way to jazz intonation, every lead note a deliberate move into new, bluesy territory. It feels like she’s eaten her piano and is singing it as she plays. For a lesser artist, you’d assume it was programmed. But here, you know it’s the real deal.
It’s taken a while for Bertino to get here. She’s made herself a valuable player across R&B, hip-hop and jazz, slowly inching towards her debut. And while many of the other songs here – including some produced by Rhye’s Robin Hannibal – have inflections of these other genres, none feel as thoroughly well baked as ‘Prelude’. It’s a stunning song from a stunning talent. Get ready for the best one and a half minutes of your week.