Electric Empire - Electric Empire (2011)

Electric Empire

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Electric Empire is a love song to early ‘70s soul. Dennis Dowlut, Jason Heerah, and Aaron Mendoza of Melbourne, Australia mine more than the sounds; they straight lift the spirit and feelings of those times. More than a retro-soul gimmick, the Electric Empire band delivers something authentic, true, but undeniably familiar. Referred to by the band as “soul searching” music (no relation to the classic Average White Band album), in achievement the music here seems to have found what it was searching for. Writer, producer, musician and vocalist Dennis Dowlut does the legacy of his brother and former music partner, Darren Dowlut (of Disco Montego fame), good with songs that echo an era without completely ripping it off. Every complaint made about contemporary radio R&B by fans of organic soul is answered by an album of stellar original tunes that feel as though they’ve always been here, like family.

Electric Empire is a love song to early ‘70s soul. Dennis Dowlut, Jason Heerah, and Aaron Mendoza of Melbourne, Australia mine more than the sounds; they straight lift the spirit and feelings of those times. More than a retro-soul gimmick, the Electric Empire band delivers something authentic, true, but undeniably familiar. Referred to by the band as “soul searching” music (no relation to the classic Average White Band album), in achievement the music here seems to have found what it was searching for. Writer, producer, musician and vocalist Dennis Dowlut does the legacy of his brother and former music partner, Darren Dowlut (of Disco Montego fame), good with songs that echo an era without completely ripping it off. Every complaint made about contemporary radio R&B by fans of organic soul is answered by an album of stellar original tunes that feel as though they’ve always been here, like family.

Independently released, written, produced, arranged and engineered by the Australian trio with co-writing help from Darius Mendoza and Rob Woolf, their self-titled debut has all the technical production and mastering values of a major label offering. Yet, there is an undeniable warmth and nearly a jam session feel to the proceedings. The songs can blend into one another if one isn’t being attentive, but in both chords and rhythm there is definitely musical variance from track to track. It’s just that in an day of schizophrenic albums trying to appeal to multiple audiences it is rare (and refreshing) to hear such cohesion and continuity married to diversity.

Dennis Dowlut’s contribution here makes one want to go search out the Top 40 hits he and his brother, Darren, created as Disco Montego and as a much sought-after production team for such artists as Mariah Carey, Elton John, Daniel Merriweather and Jimmy Barnes before young Darren’s untimely demise from cancer in 2005. It is unclear whether the Dowult-Heerah’s lyrically ambiguous “Brother” is written in memoriam; the emotional tune is itself unusual for seeming to take the perspective of a heavenly brother talking to his lost and grieving brother here on Earth: “Brother, in these words of comfort you will find/There’s a place made of the purest kind/Sending love from up above.”

With seasoned musicians Aaron Mendoza and Jason Heerah joining Dowlut, the band’s musical voice is definite, clear and distinctive, if not always fully its own. At least three songs can be accused of following the 1970s Stevie Wonder template too closely, out Glenn Lewis-ing Canada’s Glenn Lewis on the environmentally conscious “Life Again”; and the reverb-enriched ballad “Then It’s Over” is Innervisions or Fulfillingness’ First Finale ready for a generation that never heard the originals. The country acoustic “Because of Yesterday” could have easily been an outtake of “Happier Than The Morning Sun” from Wonder’s Talking Book.

The hip grind of “Little Things” rivals bluelight-in-the-basement jams like Heatwave’s “Always and Forever.” The sweeter side of Motown on “I Just Wanna Give You” is pure Marvin Gaye, but early Marvin. The audible inspirations are as varied and predictable as any influence roster call you’d hear from any soul artist who’s done his homework, from Mayfield to Green. The difference is these guys actually pull off a kind of roundabout emulation with skill and an easy, laidback approach that belies the 10,000 Gladwell hours it must have taken to master such calculated casual in capturing the Silver era of soul. Think Donnie’s Colored Section, but with diction.

The three men share lead vocal duties and are competent in guiding their particular songs to emotionally satisfying ends, particularly Aaron Mendoza. While never unattractive, the leads’ flights of falsetto fancy are not always pristine and there are the occasional pitch problems. The “pitchiness” on such songs as the bonus track, “Love,” is minor and fleeting, and overall the tonal imperfections benefit the natural feel and sincerity of these male tones. Electric Empire feels like homegrown soul singers instead of manufactured pop stars or riff crazy, church-bred technician. In beautifully masculine harmony, their brash to soothing voices never fail to complement one another, particularly in the flawless acapella opening of “Always.”

Flashes of lyrical genius like the awareness-raising melancholia of “Life Again” and panoramic “Always” or the heartfelt simplicity of “Little Things” and “I Just Wanna Give You” invite eyebrow raises to the comparative Hallmarks of “Baby Your Lovin’,” “Everything I Am,” and “Have You Around.” Though nothing outright clunks, with even the aforementioned compositions’ words and music merging seamlessly; in lyrical consistency there is room for growth.

Nonetheless, artistically so much is right here that the prescient idea that U.S. radio will likely ignore the rise of this musical empire seem like a crime before God. Like their equally brilliant and unsung peers, UK’s Mamas Gun, the potential for timeless excellence is ever present, immediately catapulting Electric Empire into one of the world’s top five soul bands to watch. Highly Recommended

By L. Michael Gipson

 

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