Three Little Words marks three years and the final installment of a trilogy of albums, cementing Dominique Fils-Aimé’s ability to breathe fresh life into old-school genres. In 14 tracks and under 40 minutes Fils-Aimé gently shifts through a myriad of styles, moods and influences while never straying too far from traditional pop and soul music. It offers a big hug of oldies nostalgia with contemporary kisses in the recurring warmth of claps, hand drums, horn shots, layered harmonies.
Although of Haitian-Francophone descent and emerging as a breakout from Québec’s star-making system, Fils-Aimé’s debut EP and three albums are in English, paying homage to the Great American Songbook. Her smoky and versatile Stay Tuned!, landed her on the 2019 Polaris Prize Shortlist and the 2020 JUNO for Vocal Jazz Album. This latest release continues the trajectory of stretching beyond the expected forms and sounds to something more unique and globalized.
‘Grow Mama Grow’ kicks off the set with a hybrid of soul and Big Band before slipping into an Arabic jazz passage and then introducing a short Africanesque a cappella coda. Likewise, the feelgood doo-wop of ‘While We Wait’ is deftly interjected with a strident Stars Wars-esque transition to a minor-sounding invocation to “be the change.” The following pieces revert to more standard pop forms but make use of a variety of tempos, keys, instruments and emotional states. By the seventh track, she descends into an elegant melancholy with ‘Fall and All’.
Her incorporation of African themes comes to the fore halfway through with the lead single ‘Love Take Over’, ‘Tall Lion Down’ and the title track ‘Three Little Words’. The final few tracks express the assurance of love, homecoming, and positive transformation. She concludes nicely with a nimble, blues-inflected cover of the classic ‘Stand By Me’.
The songs are beautifully arranged, produced and mostly well-balanced, leaning frequently on doublings and lush harmonies. The sound is pure and organic, quite the switch from most of today’s releases filled with synths, distortions and programmed beats. Overall, Fils-Aimé keeps things soft and smooth, resting heavily on vocals, often in the style of an a cappella choir. A drawback to her vocal performance is that it doesn’t always build to a full-throated climax or employ the expressivity that one would expect of her influences such as Nina Simone and Etta James. She doesn’t lean much into the blue notes and glottal attacks in ‘Mind Made Up’, nor does she quite deliver on heft and climactic phrasing in ‘While We Wait’. For modern comparisons, she’s much closer to the vocal stylings and lyrical restraint of Sade than the grit and sass of Amy Winehouse.
Three Little Words combines a sense of familiarity without getting stuck in outdated tropes and passive sentimentality. Three Little Words is filled with soft edges, that offer a silky-but-firm sonic journey. At the end of her trilogy, a veneer of sweetness and innocence cannot hide a woman who has wrestled with darkness and found an inner nobility. Inspired by her Old World ancestors, this artistic endeavour ends with emancipation, self-love and warm embrace. She expresses this most transparently in her lead single ‘Love Take Over’: “making over the brand new queendom, nurturing the roads that lead to freedom… raising empires based on wisdom.”