Linking quartet gospel to soul music is easy. Before becoming a pop sensation and birthing the earliest of soul, Sam Cooke first led the Soul Stirrers through big hits like "Jesus Be a Fence," "Be With Me Jesus" and "Touch the Hem of His Garment." Cooke was not alone, Lou Rawls and Bobby Womack crossed paths with Cooke while traveling gospel's chitlin' circuit before exiting gospel to pursue rhythm and blues. Whether you're a big fan of the traditional quartet gospel sound or not its influence remains great and unshakable.
The Mighty Clouds of Joy, one of the youngest groups from that golden era, has one of the richest and distinctive legacies of quartet gospel. Steps ahead of their peers, the Clouds - led by the charismatic Joe Ligon - ushered in a contemporary sound that included electric instrumentation, synchronized choreography and color-coordinated wardrobes. They weren't afraid to touch disco or Philly soul, leading them to their Dave Crawford-produced crossover hit "Mighty High" in 1975. Today, they remain one of gospel's distinguished and most decorated vocal groups; working strong relationships with pop and rock icons like the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Marvin Gaye.
Fifty years since their inception, the Clouds celebrate both their past and their compassion for contemporary innovation on At the Revival with the incorporation of R&B superstar producers Raphael Saadiq and DeVante Swing (Jodeci, Montell Jordan), both fans of the genre and the Clouds.
Saadiq, who handles most of the album's production, has found remarkable methods in recapturing yesterday's classic elements, best archived on The Way I See It. On Revival, Saadiq takes the Clouds back to a sound and production that makes you feels like time lapsed back forty years. Saadiq's productions are lush with with effervescent rhythms, hard drums, vintage amps and simple instrumentation, including: bass, drum, tambourine, guitar and the occasional organ. "Stop to Praise God" and the title track is quintessential Mighty Clouds.
The lyrics on At the Revival are familiar praises and Sunday morning devotions, but they feel good and snug around Saadiq's picture-perfect sound and Ligon's bluesy shouts and spirited groans. "Jesus Kind of Man" bubbles with a Stax-like, breezy melody illuminated with lots of soulful guitar. Swing slides some urban R&B punch, templates from the Isleys, into "I Love You Lord" and "Just Love Somebody." The latter has the ring of a Staple Singers message song adjusted into a modern R&B groove. It's appropriate on the gents and carefully highlights their heart for modern trends.
The James Cleveland/Cassieta George classic (and a staple at Mighty Clouds' concerts) "Walk Around Heaven" is revisited by the late Mike Cook delivering an effortless falsetto. A befitting contribution, but the song is marred with deplorable production and an insensitive feedback that feels more like a TV-to-MP3 than pristine CD quality audio. But, Cook's presence and memory is thankfully preserved on "Hard Times;" which tastes like a gospel doo-wop version of Saadiq's "Calling."
With Saadiq and Swing mostly regulated to the background, there's still a lyrical unevenness that plagues most of ...Revival. Saadiq's a songwriter and a splendid collaborator; one who has given standout compositions to Mary J. Blige, Earth, Wind & Fire and John Legend. What could have been the equivalent to Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama's distinctive There Will Be a Light - an original project steeped in the Bob Dylan gospel tradition and justly hailed-ends up sounding more like too many incomplete, yet appetizing jam sessions.
Swing does contribute to the writing process, but the R&B maverick never really gives the Lord his all. Falling far short of the magic he provided during Jodeci's Forever My Lady platinum period. Still for the Clouds, At the Revival remains their best studio effort in quite some time. The group has had so many gospel producers pulling and sifting at the legends' style that they've lost some of their edge and luster over the years. Saadiq and Swing, two R&B pros, help place the Clouds back in their element and in more familiar territory. Certainly the album could have been so much more. Lyrically it's a bit tepid and sterile when compared to heartier offerings from albums like Changing Times, Live in Charleston or 1978's Live and Direct, a personal favorite. But, on the brighter side, there's no better way to celebrate 50 years in the biz but with a wondrous re-adaptation of a sound that never fails. Recommended.
By J. Matthew Cobb