R&B/Soul legend and Grammy-Award winning singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Raphael Saadiq recently released his fourth studio album Stone Rollin’ (March, 2011) and the follow up to 2008’s instant class is The Way I See It. Expanding the mid-’60s Motown “classic soul revival” sound into more eclectic territory by including elements of classic Rock & Roll, Blues, Funk and expansive ’70s styled Orchestral music, the new LP’s general aesthetic leans towards Saadiq’s live performances and influences being drawn from classic artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf and Sly Stone amongst others.
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Stone Rollin’ is not a bad record but the bad news is it’s not a very good record either, by Raphael Saadiq standards.
The fact that it takes me until the fourth song of the 10-track album to be interested or captured isn’t a very good sign and while the fourth track, “Over You” is a gem of a track and so are the album’s second single – “Good Man” – and the album’s final track – “The Answers,” not much else instinctively stands out on this record, which in itself is a shame because it’s Raphael Saadiq for crying out loud and I’ve grown to expect much more.
It’s not all bad though, far from it as the more times you listen to the record, the better it sounds. “Movin’ Down the Line” makes for little over four minutes of easy listening Retro Soul music in true Raphael Saadiq fashion, with drum kicks, hand claps, horn arrangements, guitar strings, lush backing harmonies and Saadiq’s soulful vocals culminating in a rather enjoyable listen. The Psychedelic Funk-sounding “Just Don’t” featuring Yukimi Nagano [of Little Dragon] sees Saadiq in fascinating story-teller songwriting mode accompanied by a really lovely vocal performance from the R&B/Soul legend along with a two minute moog synths-led solo by Larry Dunn at the back end of the song that’d make for superb lounge music.
Mellotrone keyboard-backed “Go to Hell” begins to grow on you after a good few listens and it’s possibly because of the lush orchestral arrangements and background vocal harmonies on the song that easily give off a Gospel-influenced vibe. “Day Dreams” – which according to Saadiq was influenced by Ray Charles and Johnny Cash – is another one that grows on you after a few listens. The lyrics are catchy about buying what you cannot afford for your significant other, with exquisite keyboard chords and drum claps adding a nice touch to the arrangement.
Lead single “Radio” isn’t even remotely tolerable to my ears anymore and easily falls into the “skippable” box while I simply do not know what to make of the album’s title track “Stone Rollin’”; whilst it sounds rich, organic and very bluesy with great sounding instrumentation from the harmonica, guitar and string arrangements to the drum patterns, somehow these do not quite add up to make for a good song. The album’s opener “Heart Attack” fuses classic Rock & Roll with Soul music and is led by a four-on-the-four drum pattern (Disco, Electronic Dance) and driving bass guitar in a clear homage to one of Saadiq’s idols, Sly Stone and is heavily reflective of the classic Sly & the Family Stone sound
Let’s take a moment to dwell on the songs of Stone Rollin’ that I particularly really like: “Good Man” is as passionate and emotive as a record should be. Compelling lyrics combined with a hauntingly capturing drum-led musical backdrop along with Saadiq’s deeply emotive vocals plus (and enhanced by) Taura Stinson’s captivating vocals on the hook, that simply just suck you in to the story behind the song. While it could be said that the accompanying visuals that were released to the song do bring it to life, this record really does come alive all by itself.
“The Answer” on the other hand is – as Saadiq says himself – exactly how an album should come to an end. This song is faultless from start to finish in my opinion. Saadiq’s vocals are commanding right from the start, in addition to the hard hitting marching band drum kicks and snares that form the foundation for the song’s musical backdrop as well as the deeply meaningful and heart-capturing lyrics – all coming together rather perfectly for what is easily my favorite song on Stone Rollin’.
Plus if you let “The Answer” continue playing, you’ll bump into hidden bonus track – “The Perfect Storm” – which features legendary singer, songwriter and musician Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone, Graham Central Station). The bass guitar-led song sounds the most modern and minimalistic of all the songs on this record. It easily sounds and feels better to me than half of the entire album and is such a shame that it was resigned to play a hidden bonus track role. Granted on another day and another Raphael Saadiq album, it would or might fit the mold of a “hidden bonus track” but on Stone Rollin’ with quite a few average [a couple bordering on mediocre] songs, this “hidden bonus track” comes across as fresh and memorable (certainly more memorable than should be the case I would have thought).
Without being overly critical of Saadiq, the final four songs (five if you include the hidden bonus track) are pretty decent songs and are full of repeat play value and to be honest; they all fall into that slow to mid-tempo Soul groove that Saadiq superbly revels in (so much for eclecticism). Now if you add “Only You” which I absolutely adore to that mix, then you have six songs out of eleven that I’d certainly recommend so you could say that translates to a decent album effort right? Like I said above, it’s Saadiq and we’ve grown to expect more.
I know Saadiq wants to pay homage to those eras in music that have influenced him in his career and take us all on a journey back in time with this record – a journey in which “old souls” and Soul music aficionados and appreciators with deep record collections will definitely bask in – but it is a risk. He knows this and by naming the record Stone Rollin’ he clearly points out that the record is a huge gamble.
He is taking a chance with different styles of music which is commendable really but half the time, this album simply sounds like Saadiq is stuck in that era (or those eras) and refusing or is not able to progress and be progressive with his music. One could say that this doesn’t detract from the quality of the music and whatever notion of what I think Saadiq should be doing – i.e. being progressive with his music (and moving the music forward) – shouldn’t weigh in on what I think of his Stone Rollin’ record… and on some level one might be right, except some of these songs just do not cut it in my opinion.
Still definitely worth a listen and worth exploring and half of the album is certainly worth having on repeat.