The last truly great song recorded by Swindon’s cult heroes XTC is called River of Orchids, opening track to the orchestral album Apple Venus pt. 1. The uniqueness of this grand eco-anthem of a song lies in the tensive build up of layer after layer of pizzicato violin. The same technique and build up is central to the work of the convivial and talented R&B violinist Marques Toliver.
An important difference with XTC’s River of Orchids is that Toliver doesn’t need a string orchestra to create his magnificent ballads, he does it all on his own, with the help of some looping machinery.
He’s a cheerful chap, this young Floridian who looks like a young Philip Bailey. His songs are deeply romantic and sometimes anthropocentric (like a lot of R&B is, ever since What’s Going On), but his performance in the Amstelkerk is flippant and comical. Toliver does funny voices and has an infectious smile. Even when he’s showing some signs of narcissism – which must be inevitable when you are continuously playing along with yourself – it’s charming and inoffensive; ‘I’m just talking to myself’ he explains.
Looping on the spot is not a new technique. Other artist, most notably Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, have been doing it for years, using virtually every instrument you can think of. The innovation of Marques Toliver is not only that the loops he creates are unusually lengthy, consisting of a whole chorus or verse, but also that other than tUnE-yArDs’ music, Marcus Toliver’s songs don’t sound looped at all, or rather, they remind us that in the end all music is looped.
Looping is a good way to impress audiences with your talent and it also saves a lot of money when touring. In the studio, however, all these benefits are cut off and you’re left to your songwriting and arranging skills. No puzzler for Toliver. His EP Butterflies Are Not Free (2011) is brilliant. Toliver’s songwriting is of the same high level of John Legend, the best R&B artist out there at the moment. Toliver’s has the same warmth of voice as the small man with the big name and the same amiable stage presence. I’m fondly looking forward to Marques Toliver’s forthcoming debut album. Even his long stretches of classical violin, that usually remind me of someone trying to wash a cat in the shower, are pleasant and accessible. Let’s just hope that André Rieu does not discover this young virtuoso and makes him an offer he can’t refuse, but should.