Private Space (Dead Oceans/Inertia)
Sometimes it’s true that it’s the exceptions that prove the rule.
To get a sense of how and why the third album from an Indiana soul group with a firm grasp on ‘60s and ‘70s soul so often works really well, I want to take a look at a couple of times when it doesn’t.
The first of them may seem counterintuitive as a relative failure, given it is the first single from the record, and in many ways the most likely to be a hit, the song they Witchoo. It’s briskly rather than deeply funky, but deploying Mike Montgomery’s bass so prominently it practically sets itself up on your forehead, right between the eyes. There are glistening keyboard splashes from Steve Okonski, hanging-with-my-entourage unison chanting from everybody, and drummer/vocalist Aaron Frazer wields his old school falsetto for a good minute before Durand Jones comes in with a confident counter that plays second fiddle but still centres Witchoo in a way that says, even before the word itself is dropped midway through, yes we are uptown.
If at the end of the three minutes and 43 seconds you have not, at least three or four times, thought of Bruno Mars – tonally, Uptown Funk; musically, 24K Magic - then you are not paying attention, and the band are not doing their job.
So, smart certainly, and I hope that it worked and they got themselves on radio everywhere because it’s catchy as all get out and sounds simultaneously retro and contemporary. But for me, it’s trying a little too hard and at the same time leaves a tad too anonymously, a flaw no band already going to be labelled revivalist can afford for very long.
Contrast that straight away with the album’s title track which luxuriates in a laid-back, string-enhanced, smooth progression from a metaphorical 101st Street to a quietly lit rooftop bar where guitarist Blake Rhein plays minimal but on-the-money strokes. Or with the elegantly crease-free More Than Ever, flute and all, where Jones can pitch his heartache tenor somewhere between Detroit and Los Angeles and convince you to believe every word.
The next hiccup comes at the other end of the album with Sexy Thang, which, as the title might suggest, looks to play on the line between smooth and sleazy (rhythmically and lyrically) and adds to that an attempt to walk between Marvin Gaye and Rick James (melodically and emotionally). It has some humour and a pulse groove but again loses its individuality as it could easily be the track you hear as a between-sets placeholder while the band is having a drink.
Immediately afterwards, the contrast comes as Sea Of Love finds its long confident strides on the back of another irresistible bassline and clean electric piano nodding to jazz, and the sexiness feels natural, as does, weirdly enough, a brief melodica solo. And that song is followed by a somewhat meaty take on Philly soul in I Can See where bass and guitar play alternating shades of straight man/colour man under the sweetened-just-right vocals.
Mayer Hawthorne’s been here abouts in recent times and this year we’ve already had the delightful retro fest of Leave The Door, from Anderson .Paak & Mars’ side project, Silk Sonic, so for lovers of soul that’s a little smoother, a little sleeker, a little more bell bottomed, the drought ended long ago.
That said, some people balk at the unrestrained looks backwards and wonder what is brought new here, and maybe they enjoy the more modern pumping up of Witchoo for at least trying to pitch forward.
But I reckon there’s always got to be room for the silken rustlings of Right Or Die and the pre-Studio 54 disco shadings of The Way That I Do, or the carryover from Motown’s suit-and-bowtie men that you get in Love Will Work It Out. If you do them properly, there’s joy to be had.
And that doesn’t hurt. At all.