Noel Gourdin - Fresh: The Definition (2011)

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    Noel Gourdin can sing. I mean really sing.

    Noel Gourdin can sing. I mean really sing. Anyone who doubts it only need see him live, or better yet, listen to the spot of country genius that was his debut single, "The River." With cinematic Southern visuals and a hook for the ages, Gourdin wrote and achingly sang that little gem all the way up to #1 on the R&B charts, justifying the deal the then 24 year-old landed at Sony/Epic Records. And, now? Well...

    It was 2008 and from the outside, newcomer Gourdin was off to an audacious start. On his first album, After My Time, Gourdin got to work with top composers and producers, including: Andre and Vidal, Raphael Saadiq, Kay Gee and Salaam Remi. The mix of classic and contemporary sounds landed the album at #4 on the Billboard R&B charts and briefly made it a Billboard Top 40 pop album (peaking at #36). Gourdin was getting his sea legs under him, touring as the opener for more established acts like Dwele and, more recently, Kem. But, ultimately sales for After My Time proved to be too modest at 78,000 units and, based on recent comments by Gourdin, the relationship with Epic was one that was creatively constraining. So, the two parted ways and Gourdin signed with his hometown label of Mass Appeal Entertainment (distributed by E1) for what is supposed to be a new project that's a more "refreshing blend of live instrumentation, organic production and lyrical content is reminiscent of classic old soul yet relatable to current music," says Gourdin. The only thing is, well, that's what his last album was, and one that perhaps better showed off what fans love about Gourdin, the authenticity of his voice and the then freshness of his sound.

    The singularity of Gourdin's pliable instrument and originality of his pen gets lost from time to time on a thoroughly solid project that is never, ever unlistenable (well, the K-Ci and JoJo flavored "Sex In The City" may strain this point), but isn't quite as Massengill fresh as the title rather boldly suggests. Interestingly, his last album's title more aptly describes Gourdin, a performer who's after his time. In the 90s, Gourdin would have aptly done credible chart battle with the likes of Joe, Avant, Ruff Endz, maybe even Carl Thomas. A bit smoother in tone, Gourdin doesn't possess the gravel of an Anthony David or the gruff church of an Anthony Hamilton, but the honesty in Gourdin's voice suggests something distinctively classic soul. There's even a bit of Lionel Richie in his mid-tones. Producers Alvin Garrett, The Heavyweights and Marcus "DL" Suskind here try to mine that something, but can't quite seem to wrap their arms around Gourdin's specialness with any consistency, which isn't frustrating so much as underwhelming in its results. There is very little memorable "ompf" on this genteel album.

    When they do set Gourdin's voice in more amiable audio surroundings, you get a sense of what an enduring artist Gourdin could be. The swaying groove of "Love Is" is such a cut. "Love Is," in realistic lyric, vocal enthusiasm and risk, has the closest relationship to "The River" of any other song you'll find in Gourdin's catalog. With its live jam session feel, light drums, acoustic guitar, and jazzy keys converging for a bit of mid-tempo inspiration, "Brand New" is a perfect starter for your day. "Young Love" provides its own bright atmosphere, with a vocal arrangement and Gourdin's lilting tenor gracefully lifting the spirits with a tale of love celebrating its first year. Of course, there's the formula Top #20 R&B hit, "Beautiful," which has already won over the ladies for its anti-misogynistic message and its vaguely hip hop groove. Jumping eras, "Not Around" whose melody could have been penned in ‘73 and performed by the Al Wilsons of the world, has sweetly familiar chords and lyrics ("Like a ship without a sail?" Really?), and Gourdin's earnest falsetto just barely pushes it out of icky cotton candy territory.

    There is schmaltz here to be certain, of the more cynically calculated kind. The organ and horn-laden "Only You" is sure to be called "real music" by defenders, if only because it reads exactly like a throwaway Al Green ballad they might have once loved. "Been A Long Time" follows Avant's formula for a radio-ready slow dancing groove with strings, plucky keys, doo wop harmonies and even finger-snapping that is solidly performed but cliché in how closely Gourdin here toes that old school performance line. The decidedly more X-rated, equally ‘70s inspired "Puppet" has no relationship with James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet," but it at least has an infectious hook and a head nodding approach to verse.

    Safe and mature to a fault, [Fresh]: The Definition places Gourdin squarely in that very crowded field of Joe/Avant/KJon mid-level group of male soul artists who have consistency and longevity but only occasionally push the musical boundaries of radio Urban AC or their own artistic voices. Which is a shame, because Gourdin's "The River" introduced an artist who could reference the past, but still be what the album title suggests, the very definition of fresh. There is nothing brand new about such obvious references to the classics that move beyond respectful referencing to heavy-lifting, particularly when they're not even of the purposely retro-soul variety (i.e., Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings). However, Gourdin won't have to fret because it's all pleasant to the ear and will work for both traditional soul fans and today's distressingly conservative Urban AC radio programmers. Here's the question for this reviewer: is the album as much a memorable classic as the ones this once very original artist tried to emulate? [Fresh]: The Definition tells me no. Moderately Recommended.

    By L. Michael Gipson

     
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