The early notices on Laura Mvula's sterling debut, Sing to the Moon, compared her to Nina Simone. Perhaps it was the particular burnished tone that she uses during the verse portion of her songs, before she soars toward high notes as if she's trying to reach the clouds. Maybe it's our annoying habit of comparing black singers to other black singers or, worse, thinking that all black singers have a "soul" element to them.
Whatever the reason, Laura Mvula doesn't sound much like the High Priestess of Soul, even though she has freely acknowledged Simone, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu as influences. She blends the vocal gymnastics of jazz pop with the wide-eyed breathlessness of indie pop, and her flights are frequently guided by orchestra arrangements reminiscent of film scores (think Shirley Bassey) and late-period downtempo (think Bonobo and the Cinematic Orchestra). She often sounds like a woman keenly aware of a natural world larger than her own. "I tried to write the perfect song for you/ Then I realized it didn't belong to me," she sings on "Like the Morning Dew" as she compares her work to an act of spiritual creation.
With its hand-clapping rhythm and big drum beat garlanded by xylophone plinks, Sing to the Moon's lead single, "Green Garden," may be the album's most accessible entry point. "Is There Anybody Out There?" recalls Roberta Flack's "The First Time," at least until Mvula shrugs off her broken-hearted mood. When she sings, "Is there anybody out there/ I won't make it out here alone," her voice rises a bit, as if she expects that someone will hear her echoing croons amidst the rising silence. It's best to hear Sing to the Moon for what it is: a lovely jewel of a debut that cracks her future wide open.