Steve Wilson. On music.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Countdown Continues with No. 6, Raphael Saadiq

Continuing today, and culminating with REVERBERATIONS number one album of the year, we’ll be counting down the top twenty-five records of 2011. I’m referring to this countdown as Twenty-five Faves because I have no pretenses about telling you what’s “best.” Sure, I think my taste is better than yours. But nobody died and made me Lester Bangs. And Lester could be arrogant, but I kind of think he would come down on the favorite side of the fave/best dichotomy. His criticism was nothing if not personal. 

I've reviewed the majority of these selections. In the event that I have I'll simply recycle the original reviews, sometimes with a little new commentary. If it's a selection I haven't reviewed previously, I will dash off a new, brief, introductory review just for perspective.

25. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for my Halo (Matador)
24. Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)
23. Bass Drum of Death - GB City (Fat Possum)
22. Coathangers - Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze)
21. Meg Baird - Seasons on Earth (Drag City)

  9. Jack Oblivian - Rat City (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum)
  8. Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer (Merge)
  7. New York Dolls - Dancing Backwards in High Heels (429 Records)
Here's a new (and long-ish) review of our No. 6 selection, Stone Rollin' from Raphael Saadiq, released on Columbia Records:

Reading the wealth of review material on Stone Rollin’, the 2011 release from Raphael Saadiq, I have been impressed by the ability of the contemporary critic to talk in complete circles. Saadiq’s work is categorized variously as new-soul, nu-soul, retro-soul – everything but soul. Well - it’s soul music, people. And let’s face it; most of these categories have more historical and marketing significance than musical. Soul itself was a nomenclature that spoke to a new generation of black artists and their audiences in the Sixties, and how they saw themselves. But there wasn’t one note of soul music that didn’t derive from what chart compilers and music merchants previously called rhythm and blues.

 The sad fact is that too much of the music found on the Urban (more tinkering with language - with vague, but miniscule cultural resonance) in the last twenty years has sounded like it was recorded by a lost generation who never heard Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin or hell, even the Ohio Players, but instead mysteriously ingested a cd-r of Roger Troutman’s complete exercises for Talk-Box. Talk-Box’s modern cousin the Auto-Tune has all but destroyed what’s left of contemporary chart music. It’s a wasteland. Oh it’s a wasteland dominated by black performers, but it’s a fool’s paradise – few of these performers build careers. They are pop fodder as surely as the plague of Bobbies (Vee, Rydell, etc.) was in the pre-Beatles landscape of Sixties pop music.

So, of course critics are stymied. Raphael Saadiq’s music derives from a long, strong continuum of black popular music. You can hear mythic strains of Fifties, Sixties and Seventies sounds – great black popular music, a music that built pride in the African-American community and entertained the whole damn world. Call it whatever you will.

Saadiq is no newcomer. As one-third of Tony! Toni! Tone!, Raphael Wiggins made hits and brought the whole canon of Black music to the sounds of a Nineties generation steeped in hip-hop. T3 were of that scene. They could dig what was great about it, but they were too consecrated in melody to sacrifice it. The aptly named Sons of Soul, released in 1993, was one of the classics of the era. When T3 split, Saadiq produced recordings for TLC, Joss Stone, D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, and John Legend, among others. His fellow travelers in hip-hop soul included Tribe Called Quest and Slum Village. Once he recorded solo, Saadiq became labeled as a ‘retro’ artist because his solo recordings, beginning with 2002’s Instant Vintage, embraced a history that many of his contemporaries eschewed. It was a knowing title, not because it was instant in the sense of being some compromise or short cut, but because it was vintage and still very much of the present (instant).

Stone Rollin’, so named because Saadiq likens his aesthetic strategies to rolling dice (i.e. taking chances), is the best and most diverse representation of Saadiq’s vision yet. It kicks off with “Heart Attack,” a lean, driving performance that obliterates the line between rock and soul. An homage to Sly and the Family Stone (also reminiscent of performers like Charlie Allen from Pacific, Gas and Electric or the Chamber Brothers), it articulates a production template that Saadiq employs throughout Stone Rollin’; originating from a desire to closer approximate the live shows he and his band did supporting his last record As I See It. That record was in part Motown homage, but in live performance Saadiq and his ensemble cut things closer to the bone. “Heart Attack” is, as are many of these tracks, essentially Saadiq as one-man band (guitar-bass-drums … along with a curiously effective use of Mellotron, for shade and segue) with occasional pinch hits from other musicians and singers.

“Go to Hell” is more lavishly produced. Saadiq tends to alternate performances with stripped down instrumentation and those with elaborate arrangements. Emphasizing the pursuit of salvation, in stark contrast to the sheer carnality of “Heart Attack,” “Hell” swells with What’s Going On style string flourishes and Gospel-infused choir singing. The lyrics aren’t your standard spiritual verses, however, they’re closer to the psychedelic poetry of vintage Jimi Hendrix.

Carnality returns with “Radio,” as Saadiq spars with a temptress (played by Mone’t Owens, who provides great back up and response vocals throughout) to a pumping rhythm and blues track that recalls “I Can’t Turn You Loose” vintage Otis Redding.
The title cut is equally blues steeped, the tempo slowed down to a blues grind, and Saadiq’s vocal sounding like a grandchild of O.V. Wright chilled with a touch of Curtis Mayfield. “Stone,” according to the artist was inspired by Howlin’ Wolf. This exemplifies how deftly Saadiq adapts his influences; while the Chicago by way of Mississippi feel is clear, Saadiq likes to throw curves. There’s a New Jack quality to the swing of the song, an odd, but effective Mellotron part runs through the arrangement, and the response vocal (“this girl of mine”) is nothing you’d hear on any Chester Burnett sides. Darrel Mansfield provides South-Side style blues harp wailing.

“Day Dreams” is a Ray Charles informed shuffle. The tempo is brisk, but Saadiq dials back the vocal approach, sounding sly, soothing and assured like Pops Staples, on a lyric that speaks to the gap between expectations and revenue, especially when it comes to the ladies. “Movin' Down the Line” has a Marvin Gaye “How Sweet It Is” swing and Saadiq plays a bass line that would do his hero Larry Graham proud. The string arrangement recalls Leon Ware’s work with Gaye on the I Want You album, Saadiq even giving a shout out to Ware in the lyric.

Several songs feature newcomer Taura Stinson, who contributes as composer and singer, including “Go To Hell, “Just Don’t” and “Good Man.” “Don’t” brings a go-go beat, combined with some Philly soul vibes. “Good Man” fuses reggae and the classic soul of Bobby Womack, and Stinson’s Greek chorus is a key element in the performance.

Stone Rollin’ concludes with Saadiq’s version of the kind of ballad that could come from Michael Jackson’s better moments. A song about coming up hard in the ghetto and youth’s need for role models, it could easily collapse under the weight of its conceits. Instead, its ‘takes a village’ theme is inspired and rousing, as the haunting “in my neighborhood” refrain sticks hard in that part of your pop brain that longs for a hook.

Raphael Saadiq has been in the game for over two decades. But if you’ve seen him live you know that his presence (imagine Urkel transformed into the hippest dude on the planet) and powerful performances are timeless. Stone Rollin’ is the most complete and compelling case he’s made yet for his classic, but contemporary rhythm and blues sensibility. Artists as diverse as Anthony Hamilton, Aloe Blacc, Nikki Jean, Mayer Hawthorne, Sharon Jones and others are part of a trend, if not exactly a movement, that’s restoring melody and organic (read: real instruments) sounds to contemporary Urban music. Categories be damned, Raphael Saadiq is a conscious artist, mindful of his place in a remarkable, rich continuum of African-American pop music, and making his own indelible contribution to that continuum. Stone Rollin’ leaves you hungry to learn what other rich veins he can mine in pursuit of his own, singular vision.

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