To preface this review, I must confess that I grew up with little or no exposure to soul and R&B music, and the extent of my knowledge in that realm consisted of Sade, Debarge, and Soul II Soul. Then came along a girl I dated about seven years ago that introduced me to The Dramatics, which sparked an interest in classic soul. I thought it was fascinating, but didn’t give it much time until Brother Ali played some Bill Withers for me. I then was hooked and tried to listen to as much of The Meters, Chi-Lites, and The New Birth (among many others) I could get my hands on. Anything from the 90’s on sounded too boring and over-produced, which almost made me think that the style in its original form had died.
Thankfully, we’ve seen a massive resurgence in the past couple of years, most notably with Stephanie McKay and Mayer Hawthorne. However, there is one artist that absolutely nailed the 70’s soul sound, and is about to release his third record under Stones Throw. The artist is Aloe Blacc and the record is called “Good Things.”
Sounding as if was written 25 years ago and recorded last month, this is one of the most refreshing R&B records to come out in years. Sparked off by the social commentary “I Need a Dollar,” (which is appropriately featured as the theme music for HBO’s show, How to Make it in America), all of the classic elements of soul are present: endearingly imperfect vocals, bluesy harmonizing backing vocals, short horn phrasing, over-dampened drums, and that ultra-funky Rhodes organ sound. Thankfully, Blacc’s true voice is heard without the assistance of Auto Tune or any other pitch-correcting gear, strengthening the true essence of “Good Things.”
The production from the powerful Truth & Soul team (Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman, who also run a label under the same moniker), coupled with the backing band, The Grand Scheme, provides a perfect sonic soundscape for some of the social issues addressed by Aloe Blacc, such as poverty, homelessness, and economic imbalances. It’s an incredibly relevant record, and the analog feel adds so much more impact, not only to capture the classic sound and feel, but a statement on the difficult modern times.
The clever “Miss Fortune” is a metaphorical song about how money changes people and really allows Blacc’s voice to shine. His lyrical skills are also nothing to sneeze at, with great lines like: “The problem with having everything you want is you never really know what you need/Now Miss Fortune is a spoiled little debutante and it’s my fault, so I suggest you take my heed.” It’s a highly contagious song with the vocal melody running a high chance of being difficult to forget.
Another standout is one of the album closers, “Mama Hold My Hand,” a stunningly gorgeous ballad that is incredibly moving and emotional. It is about the solid family structure and the safety maternal safety net we sometimes take for granted, from needing our mothers’ help at a young age to needing independence at adolescence to realizing the value and necessity of their support system before it’s too late. The sheer emotion is clearly evident as his voice sounds like it is about to crack in the last half minute of the song. It’s not only touching, it’s incredibly relevant and easy to identify with.
The polar opposite, “Femme Fatale,” dismisses any oedipal suggestions with the cautionary advice of avoiding those scandalous girls who are so narcissistic and self-centered that they’ll take advantage of you given the opportunity. All of us guys have met at least one, making this a very easy song to identify with. The bluesy hook is another catchy melody that will be tough to stop humming, and the slightly dark and eerie music helps drive the point home. The swinging drums sometimes hop off beat, almost as a musical reminder to stay on your toes, just how some girls require you to do the same.
Although Aloe Blacc has a background in hip hop and was a rapper in the mid 90’s group Emanon, not too much is evident until the song “Life So Hard” is heard. The hip hop influence finally comes through and is about the only song where he breaks from the traditional fluid singing style, utilizing a more rhythmic approach. It’s a very intriguing track about just how rough some have it while trying to do whatever it takes to make ends meet to survive.
One of the more forgettable tracks is “Loving You is Killing Me,” an awkwardly upbeat and out of place track. It sounds rather forced and even out of place, something that this record could have probably done well without.
Overall, with the lack of unique and exciting new music coming out, “Good Things” is a healthy shot in the arm we need right now. Even though the sound is straight out of the 70’s, the lack of quantized recording techniques and overly perfected vocals and intonation is so nice to hear. It sounds as if this is an analog recording, which wouldn’t be surprising in the least, which adds to the charm of this retro-soul treasure. It’s as timeless as it is interesting, and sounds like it could be the basis for rap producers 25 years from now.
Written By Andy Giesen
Available on CD & Deluxe 3XLP (includes album instrumentals)!!