Staff Picks: Music
Though Seal’s most recent album, Soul, was released late last year, it took months for any of its cuts – all covers of soul standards from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s - to get any substantial radio play. In recent weeks, Seal’s cover of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ classic slow jam “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” has become a fixture on some stations’ airwaves, introducing a new generation of listeners to one of the most heartfelt lover's pleas of understanding ever put into a pop song.
The arrangement on Seal’s version lacks the lush orchestration Gamble and Huff provided the Blue Notes on their 1972 version, but the more stripped-down arrangement (reminiscent of a previous hit revival of the tune in 1989 by Simply Red) still captures the romantic essence carved into the groove of original hit. While not as intense as Blue Notes lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass’ aching reading of the song, Seal’s unmistakeable vocal does the song justice, his soaring lead cushioned by the accompanying vocalists’ hushed, close-harmony refrains.
Anyone unfamiliar with the original versions of the songs contained on Soul should find the collection to be a decent soul primer. Seal and his production team do a fine job with the interpretations, which are all generally faithful to the original arrangements, though none of them are a patch on the originals – when you’re covering the likes of Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green, it must be understood it’s no contest. Still, with such an impeccable song selection, voiced by such a charismatic performer as Seal, Soul is a collection worth hearing beyond its breakout hit - especially if it leads listeners to the original sources.
When Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It first burst through our stereo speakers, my wife thought I’d accidentally put in one of my ‘60’s Motown collections. Not so, but Saadiq’s production style on this, his fourth solo LP, so faithfully recreates the sounds of mid-to-late ‘60’s Northern Soul that it’s easy to believe it’s a lost masterpiece from the vaults of Brunswick or Philly Groove.
It’s not just the production that echoes the best vintage soul – it’s the groove-inducing songs, all straight from the pen of Saadiq himself (only a handful being co-writes). While a flourish or two may be lifted wholesale from an R’n’B classic (the chromatic string ascensions and descensions of "Just One Kiss" - a duet with Joss Stone - come straight from the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination”), no tunes sound like blatant steals. Influences are deftly blended, so that a song like “Keep Marchin’” brings to mind the vocal stylings of the Impressions, singing socially conscious lyrics a la Curtis Mayfield, backed by the Funk Brothers as produced by Smokey Robinson.
The former lead singer of New Jack Swing legends Tony! Toni! Toné! hasn’t totally escaped the modern world – a bonus track remix of “Oh Girl” (not the Chi-Lites smash) features Jay-Z, and there’s a polish on the recording that doesn’t scream retro the way Daptone’s gut-bucket productions do. As yesterday as they sound, in mining older styles, Saadiq reintroduces his audience to sounds no longer so ubiquitous on the radio as in their heyday, which makes them fresh again. For those who never knew what all the fuss was about, The Way I See It may even sound like the future of soul. As long as Saadiq keeps making records, that future can last as long as it wants.
The Way I See It
Every year Young Adult author, David Levithan (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) asks his friends to list their favorite music (CDs and songs) of the previous year. I truly enjoy the list because someone always mentions something I missed. The winner in 2008 was the debut by Vampire Weekend. The Top Ten also included Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, and Portishead. Since it is the 10th Anniversary of the "David Music Poll" he asked each of us to also list our Top Ten in the past ten years. Check out all the selections at the David Music Poll Blog. Scroll to the bottom to find my selections.
In 1961 - the year President Obama was born - Etta James scored a huge crossover hit with “At Last”, a ballad that had been written in the 1940’s for the film Orchestra Wives, and had been covered by numerous crooners before “Peaches” made her version the definitive reading.
James’ hit version was recorded for Chess, the legendary record label headquartered in the city in which Barack Obama would later begin his political career. The Chess story was dramatized (and fictionalized) for the 2008 film Cadillac Records. In one scene, Etta James - played by Beyoncé Knowles - wows the Chess staff with her rendition of the song that would send her star soaring.
During Obama's first inaugural ball, Beyoncé encored her spot-on cover of this romantic classic as our new president and First Lady Michelle danced in celebration. It didn't matter that the musical moment was taking place in Washington, D.C. - it was Chicago casting its spell over all those taking part in the moment.
Regardless of her troubled lifestyle Amy Winehouse has an amazing voice. Her voice has power and strength with a bluesy, jazzy quality that comes unexpectedly from her smallish frame. When I hear her sing songs from Back to Black or Frank I relate her personal trials with Billie Holiday's and hope she won’t continue to say no to Rehab. I hope instead she will go.
Back to Black
I was introduced to the music of John Legend earlier this year in a strange, coincidental manner. My brother was telling me about him and then just minutes later, he came on a Pandora station I was listening to. Strange. But it was definitely a meant-to-be connection because, since then, I've grown to love the music of John Legend. His newest tune, "Green Light" is featured in a recent televison commerical. He has performed with such talent as John Mayer and Corinne Bailey-Rae. It is no wonder that he is the holder of five Grammy Awards. Check out his albums Evolver, Once Again, and Get Lifted. They are filled with remnants of the 70s, echoes of rap, and touches of soul.