In the turmoil of the late 1960's black music underwent a revolution, the sweet and innocent soul sounds of the mid sixties were replaced with a sound that was lean and sparse embellishment from strings became redundant, lyrically the focus turned towards the ills of society, poverty, racism, unemployment and drugs. The despair of life in the ghetto became a focus of black artists as they attempted to expose the true plight of black citizens. James Brown heralded the musical change, stripping the sound back to it's basic element, the groove, it became the focus and the backbone of each song. Brown's lyrics were not for the most part politically or socially oriented but there was a darkness in the music that attracted people to it. Marvin Gaye and later Stevie Wonder took up the challenge of keeping that element of despair and frustration in the music but they added poignant lyrics and a direct message to match the music. In the late 70's as the grip of disco took hold in black music the musical symbolism of the late 60's was a mere memory.
Now my time line maybe a bit awry but it feels over the past 5-8 years there has been a turn of the head back towards the past, as America become mired in political apathy and an economy struggling with the demands of a modern global economy that old feeling of despair and anger is returning and it's coming out in the music more often. Soul music is not generally the outlet for this expression it's normally left to the hip hop genre that has a natural inclination to anger in it's lyrical content. However bands like The Roots and artists like John Legend and Raphael Saadiq are bringing that old sound back to fit today's problems and it's a great sound.
Raphael Saadiq's new album Stone Rollin was released last year, it's his fourth solo album but he has a long history in music. In 1984 at the age of 18 Saadiq went on the road with percussionist and singer Sheila E as part of Prince's Parade world tour, he was later a member of R&B group Tony Toni Tone probably best known in Australia for the song If I had No Loot. Stone Rollin encapsulates all those great elements of late 60's soul, but it has a diversity to it that doesn't make it feel like a pastiche and that is the greatest hurdle for albums like these, re-creating the past to sound new is a tough tightrope to walk. While there is a sense of despair in the album, that feeling that the road ahead is potted with dark holes there is also uplifting moments. The Answer focuses on Saadiqs' tough childhood growing up in Oakland, whilst surrounded my drugs and crime he was still able to reflect on the positive aspects of community and the guidance he received from the elders in his community 'from the teacher to the preacher'. The opening track Heart Attack is lithe funk, something you might have heard Stevie Wonder doing in 1970, the influence of Wonder runs deep in the album but Saadiq is more than capable of making the required adjustments. He has the ability to match Wonder style vocals with a James Brown backbeat and some almost jazz style flute additions. Go To Hell continues that late sixties feel but with more of a psychedelic feel, a syncopated rhythm that creates the feel of something unsteady, the future is uncertain where do we find the answers.
Stone Rollin is a funky blues replete with harmonica, the song has an old fashioned strut something that you might have heard out of south Louisiana but with a Northern feel. That ability meld and craft a sound that has historical basis but sounds fresh is something that Saadiq achieves almost effortlessly on this album. Stone Rollin is sexy without the smut and that is saying something in today's musical environment. Day Dreams continues that bluesy approach with the tempo lifted and low fi growling guitar becomes more prominent. Also on display is the unique talent of slide master Robert Randolph, who is amazing live! Moving down The Line has that Motown groove with some nice understated horns, once again you could envision Stevie Wonder performing this in 1970. Saadiq is someone who would be a natural for something like BluesFest at Byron Bay, I hope he tours.