LISTENING PARTY: Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’ at Hotel Palomar, DC
by Marcus K. Dowling
Lost in the sea of mainstream hullabaloo surrounding the classic leaning with modern effects combinations of Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson and Cee Lo Green and The Smeezingtons may exist someone more equipped to exceed the standard for excellence in the adaptation of classic theory to create a timeless pop sound in the modern era. Raphael Saadiq has been a critically acclaimed international pop star twice before. As a member of Tony Toni Tone, Saadiq set a standard as classic songwriter and bassist, as between first major hits “Little Walter” and “Feels Good,” as an orchestrator, songwriter and vocalist created a vitality in pop that in combining a West Coast swing with Motown pop and a New Jack attitude was a winner. On ballads like “Lay Your Head on My Pillow,” “Anniversary” and “Thinking of You,” the classic standard set by the cadre of artists who recorded in places like Muscle Shoals and the Stax Studios in Memphis was met, jazzy, sloe gin soul that delighted the minds and stayed attached to the hearts of all. In Lucy Pearl with A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson, he created an instant classic, as “Dance Tonight” was a soulful funky seventies blend with modern updates, recalling equal parts Chaka Khan and Rufus and J Dilla. For the average artist, that would be enough, but for Raphael Saadiq, his latest 2011 release Stone Rollin’ , played at a private Sony listened party in DC last week, clearly invites so much more.
In an intimate session at DC’s swank Hotel Palomar, Saadiq (on lead guitar), was backed by a bare bones acoustic ensemble of a percussionist on the box drum and a bass guitarist. Since 2004’s Ray Ray, Saadiq has become enamored of examining the classic soul vibe that always was a background impulse of his success in a fully realized fashion. In totally re-branding his public image, he has aged gracefully with his fans, and in adopting peg leg pants, sharkskin jackets and skinny ties on 2008’s The Way I See It, it reflected the Temptations soul vibe he was pushing for, and in that look and sound falling in line domestically with the blipster elitist, vinyl purchasing and classic soul reclamation society communities, he may not have been commercially successful, but was critically acclaimed and had a string of successful live concerts and secured his legend overseas.
For Stone Rollin’ (named as Saadiq always rolls the dice and stays classic yet still progressive in his career), he’s adopted a more early seventies vibe, severely slim club blazers, minimal flare houndstooth slacks and spit shine loafers. The sound is much the same as The Way I See It, all over the classic map, but delivered with note perfect excellence. “Radio” recalls Chuck Berry’s frenetic 50s post-rockabilly early R & B. Title track “Stone Rollin'” pulls in the influence of the Hi Records rhythm section, and “Good Man” is phenomenal songwriting and tells the tried and true story of trying to remain faithful. The most surprising of all? “Just Don’t,” a song that borrows the rhythmic and percussive pickups from Canadian band Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me.” It gets a fantastically funky workout in the hands of Saadiq and crew and is woven around well crafted songwriting. Overall, the album is a smash, as in Saadiq growing comfortable along an iconic path that he can mold to excellence, he will succeed.
In final, there is a home for Saadiq’s excellence in modern pop and soul. In claiming the wealth of terrific, legendary album work by the likes of Larry Graham and Nick Ashford (both called in to work on the record), and in being one of the few remaining crossover R & B voices, Saadiq holds an important place, and in understanding his need to excel as a necessity for the stewardship of modern soul, he is appreciated.
Stone Rollin’ is available domestically in stores on March 22nd.