Hollie Cook "Happy Hour"
The beating heart of Steve McQueen’s mighty historical film series Small Axe was the music of Black England during the mid-to-late 20th century, and its best episode was Lovers Rock. A celebration of the titular reggae subgenre, the hour-long film pivoted on a London house party dancefloor scene gloriously soundtracked by Janet Kay’s 1979 courtship referendum “Silly Games.” For some it was a reminder, for others a revelation, of a style that, in its heyday, got little traction beyond the UK and Jamaica—a Philly soul sibling less concerned with politics or Rasta theology than with battlefields of the heart. While men certainly distinguished themselves in lovers rock, it was a less male-dominated space than roots reggae, especially in the UK, where lovers rock fully bloomed and where women shone brightly, even if they were often denied agency. English artists beyond the genre felt its sweet and sultry pull: Sade reflected its influence on an album named after it, as did the Clash on a highlight of London Calling.
Hollie Cook, a London-raised singer in her mid-30s, missed the music’s golden era, but over the past decade she’s become its most notable booster, expanding its possibilities the way Sharon Jones revitalized 1970s soul. Her fourth LP (fifth if you count the Prince Fatty-remixed Hollie Cook in Dub), Happy Hour refines her muscular sound, which echoes tough British roots acts like Aswad as much as the silk sheet approach of Janet Kay and Caroll Thompson. The daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and Culture Club backing vocalist Jeni Cook (Boy George is Hollie’s godfather) started her career as a latter-day member of the Slits—all of which might explain her taste for rough edges. The tension between soft and hard animates her sound. Happy Hour’s title track bolts on Ben Mckone’s hot-stepping drums and cymbals, which bushwhack through clouds of reverb, conjuring the wooziness of being two or three drinks in, as the singer laments how margaritas can’t cure her jilted ache. In “Moving On,” she pledges to ditch a toxic mate while a tart string quartet telegraphs a queasy, echoing uncertainty.
Weed paeans are reggae tradition, like whiskey ballads in country, and “Kush Kween” advocates the psychic benefits of home gardening, as well as consuming the harvest, with a guest appearance from Jamaican singer Jah9. But the best moments veer from tradition. On “Gold Girl,” Cook side-eyes a femme fatale with old-school vocal drama, unfurled over strings and mixing-desk antics like a triangulation of British touchstones Shirley Bassey, the Slits, and Soul II Soul. “Move My Way” updates the mix with a touch of ’90s UK garage, suggesting a new direction Cook’s sound could take, situating lovers rock in a continuum of Black British musical invention like the outstanding recent Soul Jazz compilation Life Between Islands.
Cook co-produced Happy Hour with Mckone and keyboardist Luke Allwood, taking the reins from Youth, the bassist and post-punk dub master who produced Cook’s 2018 Vessel of Love, though he returns to help out on the mix here. But the most notable guest spot is the most subtle. Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell, known for his landmark work with Linton Kwesi Johnson, is an architect of UK dub and lovers rock who wrote “Silly Games” and even had a cameo in McQueen’s film. On “Praying,” the legendary producer joins Cook’s backing vocalists to express collective resilience in the face of heartbreak, wondering “what now?” and ruing “the mistaken hope that we were blessed.” With Cook insisting that “somehow we’ll make it through,” the song hints at the stealth cultural politics of lovers rock, while nodding to a creative forbear. But here, it’s Cook calling the shots, and carrying the torch with style.