Portrait - Afro Trees

The Los Angeles-based quartet Portrait broke on to the contemporary soul scene in a big way in 1992. The group’s self-written and -produced “Here We Go Again,” displaying a keen knack for smoothly enticing vocal harmonies, ear-grabbing melodies, and a tight groove, rose to the top five of Billboard’s R&B singles chart and just missed the pop top ten. Subsequent releases such as “Honey Dip’ and the romantic ballad “Day by Day” solidified their well-rounded approach to sophisticated R&B with just the right peppering of street smarts; but in less than five years, Portrait had all but disappeared from the musical stratosphere.

Although they quietly released a comeback album in 2003 on the Soul Japan label entitled Share My Love, Portrait’s fifth LP, Afro Trees (also on Soul Japan), is its first widely distributed full-length set since 1995’s sorely undervalued All That Matters. Founding members Phillip Johnson and Michael Angelo Saulsberry have teamed up with Ruben Cruz (from ‘90s trio Po’, Broke & Lonely?) and Law to craft an evenly paced, sensitively delivered menu of respectable and mood-enhancing, mostly slow and midtempo jams—each playing to their strengths of subtly seductive lyrical passages and polished melodic structure. Johnson handles the majority of lead vocal duties, exhibiting the same finesse he did on the group’s self-titled ’92 album, while newest member Law leads two tracks with understated assurance.

The 12 tracks on Afro Trees flow in a manner which few artists are able to execute in terms of cohesiveness and emotional relevance. The opening “Describe You,” a laid back, top-down groove replete with a supple guitar ostinato, a hand-clap drum pattern, and atmospheric keyboard underpinnings, accents Johnson’s breezy delivery of the assured message: “I see the window inside of my mind,I’m not afraid of what I’m feeling inside/I’ve just gotta let you know, this is the first time that I’m willing to show you.”

While Johnson and Saulsberry helm the production of most of Afro Trees by themselves, Raphael Saadiq lends a hand on the the bluesy, finger-snappin’ mid-paced groover “I Feel So Alone”—on which former Portrait member Kurt Jackson makes an appearance. Staccato flourishes of synth-funk keyboards intertwine with a light beat swagg and Johnson’s crisp vocal persuasion. Meanwhile, Law (aka Les Whitaker) takes the spotlight on the inviting “Cum Over,” offering a gently coaxing performance full of ripe passion. 

“Closer,” the opening track on side two of the vinyl pressing of Afro Trees, serves as one of the album’s highlights. The track’s effortless sway and Johnson’s no-strings reading of the straight-ahead words have that classic Portrait vibe embellished with a pinch of spacy keyboard touches strengthening the seduction factor. “Good Love,” one of a select few uptempo cuts on the LP, then, is the set’s most surprising delight. Blending an electro tinge with a sort of after-hours club magic, the selection’s instrumental components ride seamlessly with the masterfully cool vox and dialogue. The only flaw is the cut’s brevity—an extended version is definitely in order!

The closing “Clear” is a dreamy and funky number that brings Afro Trees full circle from its starting point of “Describe You.” With an appearance by Marc Nelson, it’s got a sultry vocal feel that meshes fluidly with the tight rhythmic structure and Japanese melodic nuances. Again, listeners will likely find themselves wishing the song would go on a few minutes longer. As it stands, it’s a succinct closer to a fine album that marks a most welcome return for one of modern soul music’s truly unsung groups. Highly Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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