Onika Venus arrived in the South West about 11 years ago. From Jamaica via London she soon teamed up local musician and promoter Mark Venus. They worked together and then teamed up in partnership, marriage and parenthood. I start there because the family side of Onika is front and centre to everything she is. Her journey has not always been an easy one but musically it started with family in South Manchester, Jamaica, her great grandmother being possessed of ‘the most beautiful voice you have heard’. Family remains foremost with husband Mark right up front. Her positivity and spirituality are infused into her work and life. The songs are all co-writes between Onika and Mark.
Musically it has been a slightly easier journey. As soon as you hear her voice as it opens the album and the title track it just says soul and blues. As the instruments enter they complete the signature sound, reggae beat with the pop sensibilities Mark has always had completing the picture. Apart from a brief flirtation with breakbeat, techno and house in London based Slyde this was where she started and where she remains. It suits her voice. And oh my word what a voice!
Mark is no slouch in the vocal department himself and when he joins her on the call and answer vocals, the harmonies, it is almost like they are brother and sister so well matched are their voices. Mark adds growl, power and provides a great counterpoint to Onika’s vocals. When they meet in the middle ranges I nearly fall off my chair every time. Their ranges though overlap very closely, adding to that family feel.
This album grew out of their collaboration as Vapor and essentially this is the development of that band with stalwarts Tom Selway and Dan Boulter carried with them to provide sax / harmonica and beats / percussion respectively. The bass was played by Ian Rowley. It was recorded at Up The Lane Recording Studios and produced in house by the studio owner Ron Rogers who also played some of the guitars and all the keyboards. Ron is aka one half, with Carol Decker, of the writing team behind T’Pau including the classic ‘China In Your Hand’ and the whole of ‘Bridge of Spies’ album perhasps their best known and most successful album. He was also in the band during their active periods. Extra backing vocals were provided by Kayla Kelley.
The album opens with the title track and it is an absolute belter. A love song about the passion and attraction in first throes of total immersive romantic love and lust. It sets an insanely high standard yet logically there was no other place to start. It also sets the template for much of the arrangement and production. Mark’s preferred acoustic guitar underpins the pop influence and syncopation of the reggae rhythm counterpointed with a pulsing reggae style bass though in the higher registers of the instruments to allow the percussion, cajon in particular, to give the lower tones. The higher registers also emphasis its pop credentials. There is no full kit. The absence of the hi-hats and cymbalic tones one might expect of the reggae beat lean it towards the acoustic blues and pop of the deep south and Jamaican acoustic music. The plaintive wail of a simple harmonica cry punctuates the beat and adds to the blues tones. The genius of Tom’s playing as I have experienced live as well is that he plays EXACTLY what is needed. Never needing to be flash or show off his talent is as much in his arrangements as it is in his prodigious ability. The harmonica tells of the pain of feeling such love and how it wrenches at our soul when it arrives causing as much pain as joy, as much longing and absence as presence and passion.
Basically, this is a hell of a song. It was chosen as SongSmith’s song of the year for 2020, and not by me, but by no lesser lights than Sian Evans of Kosheen, Jason Flinter (Songdiner) and guitar magician Gerry Leonard (Bowie, Vega, Spooky Ghost). As the lead single it is also leading the way into radio play locally in Bristol. It was one of Ujima’s top 3 tracks of the year also. And Onika is being re-imported to Jamaican radio where she gets regular airplay.
So how do you follow it? A tough one. Luckily there is a range to the writing and plenty of tricks and experience in the locker. So next we get the contrasting sad pop blues of the break-up ‘Tell Me Why You’re Leaving’. All the heart strings broken by ‘Everything You Are’ get left to recover while the tune, the harmonies rip asunder any heart strings still intact. Tom has switched to sax however the playing is spot on again. Not an unnecessary note in hearing and accentuating the minor feel. Again, the writing is classy. Ending not with a drop but with an acapella sustain.
Next we are firmly into Jamaican territory. The reggae feel is to the max, the guitar is electric and the side stick snare with dub backing vocals and chorus. The sax is totally rock steady and harmonica mento flavoured. ‘Friday Love’ is a cheeky tale of illicit love gone right!
So just when you think there must be a repeat sound or feel the soul ballad ‘Everything Has Its Season is next. Driven by piano and string synth it could have come straight out of the Whitney songbook except it has a hard edged electric strum that keeps it very real. It is also at this point that I notice the lyrical development that Onika has achieved in the last couple of years. The themes of spirit and family are right up front again.
A smouldering ‘Storm’ pulls us back into the acoustic reggae realms. Another one with radio potential and the interplay of sax and vocal lift this into a special place. We get some toasting too which gives a certain menacing playfulness.
Things stay reggae with a much more trad style arrangement for ‘Who’s Been Loving You’. Perky one drop pop and damn fine. ‘When I’m Broken’ continues in this general theme but stripped right back to its instrumental bones and a fine pop melody. ‘I Need You’ starts like Talking Heads ‘Take Me To The River’ and develops into steamy raunchy seduction with echoes of 80s pop disco. Think ‘Ring My Bells’ with leather instead of bells. The electric guitar solo surprises and delights and gives us a harder edge as the song pulses, wines and grooves towards its climax. Ooh er missus indeed. And it’s our first fade out …
‘Shotgun’ takes us firmly into Marleyesque lands and some tasteful Hammond and more gorgeous sax layers gives us another single candidate and a stand out vocal performance. Wasn’t expecting the solo. I won’t ruin the surprise. It’s ace though.
‘Mary’ sees Mark given the opportunity to flex his considerable vocal talents and the arrangement builds masterfully as you would expect of such skilful practitioners towards a perfect sax solo and the spot on break down.
‘Reaper Man’ is a shared vocal and shows again how well their voices are matched. The harmonica this time providing the musical mastery. A great pop reggae tune. I can smell the fire smoke, feel the tropical heat and taste the rum.
And just when you think there can’t be anymore surprises we close with the spiritual ballad ‘Hard Life Troubling Me’. Just voice and organ, as much devil as church, even when the choir appears. The vocals have been stand out all the way through but this is their show case. It ends as unexpectedly as the album begun. MORE!
Vapor were one of the last shows I saw shortly before lockdown celebrating their 10th year. I hope Onika Venus is one of the first I see once gigs are a thing again.
The publicity suggests her music ‘conjures up many surprises’ and it is difficult for me to argue. I thought I knew the music. Onika, Mark and the crew have taken it to another level for sure.
The album is available on CD direct from them at onikavenus.com , or Bandcamp. https://onikavenus.bandcamp.com/releases . Extracts are available on streaming platforms and the video for the single ‘Everything You Are’ can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbpvujkORxs