Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Look Both Ways #2: Raphael Saadiq Bares His Soul

Old school is back—and not one Brian McKnight record too soon. Soul music is back in style thanks to artists like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. They’re making music with real drum sets and punchy horn sections rather than the turntables and drum pads of contemporary R&B and neo-soul. Hey, even Seal has a new album of ’60s and ’70s covers, simply titled Soul.

Raphael Saadiq, a longtime neo-soul singer with strong, versatile pipes, released an album this fall that will fly out of your computer speakers like it’s coming off vinyl. At its best, The Way I See It can feel like a condensation of soul music’s greatest moments, while retaining a welcome freshness.

Saadiq draws on so many influences that it’s really impossible to find a particular album by one artist that is appropriate for direct comparison. (I tried, first with James Brown’s Live at the Apollo Theater – the one from 1963 – but Saadiq sings with elegance, not Brown’s down-on-your-knees abandon. Then I went for Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ The Anthology; that was closer, but too of-a-piece to account for all the influences on The Way I See It.) This album draws on almost the entire Motown sound in its various incarnations over the years, so the best “parent” that I could find for this installment of “Look Both Ways” was Motown 1’s, a tastefully selected collection of hits from the Detroit label that helped craft the soul genre.

On this compilation, you’ll trip over the roots of Saadiq’s vocal sound everywhere: Stevie Wonder’s high-climbing, rapturous voice, audible on “Uptight (Everything’s Alright);” Smokey Robinson’s silky alto, featured twice on 1’s; and Marvin Gaye’s sexiness, most apparent, of course, on “Let’s Get It On.”

The instrumentals on The Way I See It essentially run the gamut of the Motown collection, taking as many cues from the saxophone-driven, fast strut of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” as from and the guitar-and-strings sweetness of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. But Saadiq adds something – sometimes subtly, sometimes plainly – to the retro sound. He’s clearly a neo-soul artist, and the drums sound owes as much to ?uestlove as to the Funk Brothers. Unapologetic throwbacks “Sure Hope You Mean It” and “100 Yard Dash” don’t make it back to the ‘60s without getting a scrap of Macy Gray’s (mostly overlooked) neo-soul gem, On How Life Is, caught in the time machine with them.

The songs on Saadiq’s latest are brief, but, hey, that’s how they did it in the old days. He doesn’t really bother with bridges or huge dynamic changes, but the album makes up by proving surprisingly heterogeneous from song to song.

Calls for social change, one critical aspect of classic soul, make a brief appearance on Saadiq’s record, on tracks three and four. They are the swinging “Keep Marchin’” and the bayou-shuffling “Big Easy,” an ode to a lover swept up in Katrina’s waters. A greater showing would have been welcome from Saadiq, especially at a time when a wake-up call is necessary; after all, one election doesn’t signal the end to racial divisions in this country, and it’s surely not the ultimate realization of one leader’s famous dream, as many have claimed.

Both 1’s and The Way I See It serve as excellent gateways into soul music fanhood—Saadiq’s because it bridges yesterday and today explicitly yet gracefully, and 1’s because it’s simply a strikingly comprehensive compilation of the best number-one hits Motown Records ever produced.

  • To see the video for The Way I See It's debut single, "Love That Girl," click here. If the music was about to make you forget this is the 21st century, don't worry: in this video, Saadiq sings lines like "Cuz you're so sweet, I could never imagine somebody like you"--to three different girls.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the Feb. 2 issue of the Tufts Daily.

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