Aloe Blacc - Lift Your Spirit

Aloe Blacc
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In the creative arts, the ideal is for an artist to constantly be challenging his or her growth, forging ahead in new and unanticipated directions, and pushing the envelope of expectations so that their legacy is one of constant creativity and evolution. Then there’s the reality for far too many who are stale and static, those often of operating in fear, chasing their last hit or the latest trend, following the pack rather than leading it, and cow-towing to notes by the suits. So, the road singer/songwriter Aloe Blacc has traveled, as a consistent musical presence for nearly 20 years, is one of the few refreshingly storied ones alive. Lift Your Spirit only adds to Blacc’s legend, one whose fandom expands with each new adventure.

In the creative arts, the ideal is for an artist to constantly be challenging his or her growth, forging ahead in new and unanticipated directions, and pushing the envelope of expectations so that their legacy is one of constant creativity and evolution. Then there’s the reality for far too many who are stale and static, those often of operating in fear, chasing their last hit or the latest trend, following the pack rather than leading it, and cow-towing to notes by the suits. So, the road singer/songwriter Aloe Blacc has traveled, as a consistent musical presence for nearly 20 years, is one of the few refreshingly storied ones alive. Lift Your Spirit only adds to Blacc’s legend, one whose fandom expands with each new adventure.

Calling Blacc a singer/songwriter only accurately depicts who he is in this particular musical moment, but he’s been everything from a rapper to an old school soul man to a country pop crooner. One of the West Coast’s underground rap staples, Blacc launched in 1995 with groups like Emanon ("no name" spelled backwards) for two EPs and three albums, culminating in 2005’s The Waiting Room. Ambitious even then, Blacc also worked as a member of the Lootback collective and in 2003 was featured on What’s Real… by the French hip-hop group, the Jazz Liberatorz. Stepping out as a solo artist in 2006 with his Stones Throw Records project, the critically acclaimed Shine Through, Blacc was revered by nearly every blue chip music publication on the planet as a singer/songwriter. While the lyricism and original Latin and hip-hop infused productions were strong on Shine Through, Blacc’s then-limited vocals were decidedly less so. What was missing on Shine Through found itself and then some on 2010’s Good Things, where Truth & Soul producers Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman helped Blacc find a sweet spot in his voice and phrasing that was soulfully sincere and distinctively his own. The results was a double platinum album that also went gold in several countries and spawned an international hit that sung our times and became an HBO TV show theme song, “I Need A Dollar.” In between solo projects, Blacc sang on the self-titled debut French alternative music album of Emile Omar’s band, Roseaux, to further overseas acclaim, where Blacc is far more of a success story. Suddenly in demand as a vocalist and a writer, Blacc had a second international hit on his lead vocals appearance on his co-penned country pop smash, “Wake Me Up” by DJ Avicii, hitting #1 in 103 countries.

Now signed to Interscope Records after years as an under-appreciated indie darling, Aloe Blacc’s Wake Me Up four-song EP serves as the foundation for the full-length Lift Your Spirits. Anchored by both “Wake Me Up” and “Ticking Bomb” (a song currently enjoying popularity as the Battlefield 4 game commercial soundtrack), Lift Your Spirits is more rootsy and Americana in some respects than the socially conscious retro soul of Good Things. With sing-a-long rock infused anthems like “Here Today” it certainly is a more pop and country tinged effort than the traditionalism of its soul predecessor. What hasn’t lost an ounce of its soulfulness is Blacc’s instrument, which continues to stretch and gain strength with each new release. On the pulsating dystopia warning “Ticking Bomb,” Blacc channels the deadpan baritone depths of Johnny Cash; but he belts like a siren on the hopeful and brassy “Eyes of a Child,” where Blacc demonstrates his increasing prowess by holding long, powerful notes with ease. The Orange County, California singer with the Panamanian roots extends his exploration with western flavors to a ‘60s SoCal beach party groove on “Can You Do This,” smashing two genres that shouldn’t mash well but inexplicably do with resulting infectious fun. The throwback, genre mishmash works less well with the title track, despite its catchy choral question of “Who’s Got Your Back?” The cut’s melding of funk, hiphop, and Motown doo-wop achieves less believable results, but should be lauded for its ambitiousness. A retro effort that does sing with clear, occasionally falsetto conviction is “Red Velvet Seat,” a torchy ballad whose straight-ahead traditionalism could have been holdover from Good Things. The light-hearted and melodically winning “Wanna Be With You” marches with lots of love, feel good manly declarations, and its own tongue-in-cheek take on the vamp out of Stevie Wonder’s “As,” telling listeners all the ways Blacc’s love will endure.  

The most contemporary R&B of the productions is on trend with the latest disco revivalist movement, which finds its expression with the Pharrell produced four-on-the-floor of “Love is the Answer” and would be right at home with the butterfly collars and bellbottom flairs decorating any ‘70s roller rink. On the socially conscious single, Blacc is delivering his best Bill Withers at the discotheque impression. The unabashed soul continues with plenty of triumphant strings and hip hop beats for the fist-pumping choral anthem, “The Man,” an epic song already featured on the national Beatz by Dre headphones commercial. The testosterone propulsions and more palatable braggadocio that thread much of the male-centric Lift Your Spirit is at its most cinematic on the funky “Solider in the City” which sports the kind of Blaxploitation scoring elements that personified such film soundtracks as Shaft and Trouble Man, if slightly brighter in tone.

Like former label mate Mayer Hawthorne and his recent magnum opus, Where Does This Door Go, Blacc has delivered a stellar, panoramic album reflective of all of the artist’s disparate influences, interests, and experiences and is competently held together by the steady surety of its lead. As unexpected as it is melodic and cohesive, on the album Blacc only drops a few breadcrumbs to connect his three solo projects, largely only in its nod to the past, even as none appear wholly reverential or stuck there. If there are two consistent themes to the journey of Aloe Blacc its that socially conscious music need not bore and everything is on the table when it comes to an artist challenging his own boundaries and limitations in an effort to reach for something more, something true. Cheers to Blacc for continuing to reach. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson 

 

 

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