It’s fair to say that people don’t listen to traditional soul in the numbers they once did. Pop has become ever more synonymous with electronicdance and there’s very little cueing of up brass and singingin chorales these days. There are a few exceptions of course – Erykah Badu andRaphael Saadiq come to mind – but in terms of upstart performersoutside of local scenes or dinner-club residencies, there simply isn’tmuch of a crop of young burgeoning talent. The genre has said itspiece in a way, and may never escape the ’60s and ’70s whichrepresented its creative peak.
California’s Aloe Blacc understands that to a point. He sings soulwith big rose-tinted glasses on for the bygone generation he idolizes,and naturally, his second LP Good Things is thoroughly retro andalmost period-piece in design. He enlists a rollicking backing bandwho play entirely acoustic instruments – surely none of which were made after 1975 – and tackles age-old qualms like poverty, heartless women and the like, but never even getting close tothat ill-defined neo-soul tag that’s popped up recently.
He plays veryspecific songs. Good Things’ opener I Need a Dollar has him spitingthe ‘boss-man’ (yes he says boss-man’) for laying him off and leavinghim debilitated and without income. That’s not exactly new, as sentiment goes.On later song Life’s So Hard, whether it’s trying tobe ironic or referential, Aloe thinks life is really quite hard.
But the songs are good, and Blacc’s steadfast and undyinglove for this type of music almost defeats the familiarity of it all.He gathers and synthesizes the swagger of classic performers likeStevie Wonder and Sam Cooke to great effect. Blacc isthe kind of guy you know grew up playing Otis Redding recordsuntil they sounded fuzzy. For the most part he’s crooning, spoutinghis up-tempo armoury over pulpy R&B jams, sweaty spandex funk andjazzy piano-led ballads.
The people playing behind him are predictablygreat; the tight circular pumps on the aforementioned I Need A Dollarcome to mind. But don’t get distracted, this is Blacc’s album andeverything sonically takes a backseat to his singing. Luckily he’s easily got enough of a voice to carry an album with his name onit. His pipes and personality make him sparkle against dozens ofsoul-singer also rans.
All that goodwill makes Good Things a hard album to gauge; it allreally comes down to your particular love for classic soul. Thiscollection of songs have no problems with originality(redundancy isn’t an issue) but it never escapes its aged disposition.Simply, Aloe Blacc does too many things right to be written off. He’s likeSharon Jones – they’re both world-weary musicians whose craftbelongs in a different time. When Good Things is simply taken as whatit is – an album of smart, crafted, well-written soul songs – it’srather excellent. It’s only when the record is given too much thoughtthat doubt creeps in.