Phantom Limb are an unusual musical prospect, drawing together a range of different sounds and experiences. By day, various members of the group have earned their crust as session musicians, vocalists and songwriters, skirting round the edges of the industry. A glance at their collective musical CV would list collaborations with everyone from Pee Wee Ellis and Percy Sledge to Tom Jones. Charismatic lead singer Yolanda Quartey, who has sung lead spots with Nitin Sawhney and Chase & Status, spent the summer of 2008 touring with Massive Attack, written for Will Young and performed backing vocals for Adele and Dizzee Rascal. By Yolanda’s own admission, though, the band has found it hard remaining in the shadows. “You’re supposed to be able to shrink back,” as she puts it. “I’ve had to play down my voice, and that’s the worst thing, actually.”
Having met by chance amidst these workmanlike sessions, Phantom Limb formed in 2004, and released their self-titled debut album in 2008. Yet it is with their second offering – The Pines – that you sense they’re truly stepping out to the front of the stage. The Pines is an assured, well-studied and heartfelt record, absorbing an array of classic influences. Musically, the songs stand at the crossroads between Country and classic R&B, which – from Ray Charles’ country albums to The Staple Singers fronting The Band – still feels relatively unexplored. Yet as Yolanda succinctly puts it, “Country and gospel are the same, just with different race singers.” The skill of Phantom Limb lies in their ability to assimilate these seemingly-disparate influences in a manner that feels effortless and idiosyncratic.
The Pines was in part conceived on the road, then in rural France, before being produced by Marc Ford (The Black Crowes) in Signal Hill; the oil capital of California. All proved to be conducive settings for an album largely written about escape. It’s all there in the restlessness of the title track, as well as the bruised-hearted Muscle Shoals vibes of ‘Give Me A Reason’. The resigned, working-for-the-man sigh of ‘Gravy Train’ captures the overriding sense that the band have spent all day making ends meet, but will sing songs they love long into the night. The Pines themselves act as a central metaphor for the longing to break out, and creatively, Phantom Limb appears to provide these expert musicians with the opportunity to do just that.
Some stellar musicianship aside, The Pines is arguably held together by the powerful, tender vocals of Yolanda. “My voice was pretty much incongruously massive from a very young age,” she laughs. “I used to sing Aretha Franklin as well as Dolly Parton, but I always had country licks more than soul licks. So I thought, I have to try to find a place for them both, and it took years.” And while it may have taken them their time, The Pines sees Phantom Limb find a space that is very much their own.
10 February HMV Next Big Thing @ Garage London
16 February The Fleece Bristol
18 February King Tuts Glasgow
19 February Electric Circus Edinburgh
23 February The Boiler Room Guildford
24 February Arlington Arts Newbury
01 March Hare & Hounds Birmingham
03 March Latest Music Bar Brighton
05 March Clwb Ifor Bach Cardiff
08 March Whelan’s Upstairs Dublin
09 March Mello Mello Liverpool
15 March Ride Café Plymouth