Monday, May 1, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #178 - Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It

Typically for I’d Love to Turn You On we wait until an album is ten years old before it becomes eligible for the column - it has to be something largely passed over in its initial release to qualify, and with time we’re better able to assess whether it holds water in the long run, rather just having an impressive initial impact that fades quickly. But this album turns nine in 2017 and I can’t wait until 2018 for it to officially be eligible.

Raphael Saadiq was a member of and the primary songwriter for the late 80s/early 90s neo-soul outfit Tony! Toni! Toné!, who scored a number of hits with their modern/retro soul before he left the group to pursue his own vision. His solo records in the wake of the group followed a similar pattern - classic soul influence with modern production styles and genre excursions to stay afloat in the current music field. However, in preparing this record he went decidedly old school. This unabashed throwback shows not just in the songwriting style - songs are kept as short and punchy as prime Motown - but even down to mike placement, recording equipment, and engineering approach (he studied records and session information of both Motown and The Beatles to help approximate the feel of the classic recordings). And Saadiq created the songs in the same one-man-band fashion that Stevie Wonder did – recording layers by playing the instruments (a typical song’s credits reads “Raphael Saadiq - vocals, guitar, bass, drums”), then embellishing the results with session players (strings, horns, percussion, occasional other instruments) and a high-profile guest here and there (Joss Stone, Jay-Z, and Wonder himself).

But all the recording technique and study in the world would mean nothing if Saadiq had not written great songs – and he has, twelve of them in fact. This is his finest album, solo or with his former group, and he honors the musicians he studied by producing an album that can hold its own against the classics. It kicks off right with one of the album’s best and catchiest cuts, “Sure Hope You Mean It,” a gorgeous uptempo number which leads right into “100 Yard Dash,” another fast, catchy one that continues the first song’s love longings with a stronger beat pushing it along. He shifts gears slightly for “Keep Marchin’” which from the title sounds like it could be an homage to the Civil Rights Era music that he’s drawing on, but paints a broader stroke lyrically as a song of uplift in the face of adversity, like the regular album’s superb closer “Sometimes.” The time warp we’ve experienced thus far in feeling like we could be listening to an album straight out of 1965 shifts slightly with “Big Easy.” Not in sound – Saadiq is still deep in his Holland-Dozier-Holland craft – but in the lyrics, which tell of a love lost in New Orleans, his baby not coming back. Even that could’ve been from the past, but the setting isn’t just New Orleans, it’s New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, and the song is a heartbreaker because his baby may not be coming back for the most devastating of reasons. And so it proceeds: “Just One Kiss,” “Love That Girl,” “Let’s Take A Walk,” “Never Give You Up” – all as melodic, direct and forthright as the classic love songs they evoke. “Calling” is the first time he plays his hand a little differently, with Rocio Mendoza’s Spanish-language verses uncommon for the era that most of the record evokes but just right for 2008. And a couple other times small touches take us out of the vibe – the sitar on the great “Oh Girl” puts us up toward 1973 or so, and Jay-Z’s cameo on the bonus remix of the same song couldn’t have come at any time other than the 2000s. And then there’s “Staying in Love,” which he claims is about music and staying true to your own artistic vision, but certainly could be grouped with the above love songs for most of us.

But mainly, Saadiq decided to cast a spell to transport us backward and it works beautifully, beginning to end. It works because he wrote terrific songs; it works because he did his homework to make them sound superb – as crisp, clear, and catchy as their predecessors; and it works because he’s musician enough to pull off the one-man-band trick that R&B geniuses from Stevie Wonder to Prince mastered before him. He followed this masterstroke three years later with the excellent Stone Rollin’ (which takes us from 1965 to somewhere more like 1971) but he hasn’t released a solo album since, preferring to focus his talents on soundtrack work (Luke Cage and the TV series Empire among others) and songwriting and production work for others (recently on Solange Knowles’ widely acclaimed A Seat At the Table). For now though, we’ve got this album and it’s tided me over just fine for just about nine years already.

-         Patrick Brown

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