Gabriel Tajeu - Southern Skies (2016)

Gabriel Tajeu
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From the Grammy-earning Alabama Shakes to the combustible rock-soul unit of St. Paul & the Broken Bones, a new crop of Alabama-bred new-gen soul survivors raised on a diet of Stax are capturing the ears of music lovers. This renaissance is also raising the spotlight on FAME Studios, the legendary music studio in north Alabama where Rick Hall cut classic records on the likes of Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and yes – even the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones. With the help of the Greg Camalier-directed documentary Muscle Shoals, a new generation of musicians are learning of the often overlooked studio and are now cutting their records there; some of those names include Jason Isbell and Anderson East.

From the Grammy-earning Alabama Shakes to the combustible rock-soul unit of St. Paul & the Broken Bones, a new crop of Alabama-bred new-gen soul survivors raised on a diet of Stax are capturing the ears of music lovers. This renaissance is also raising the spotlight on FAME Studios, the legendary music studio in north Alabama where Rick Hall cut classic records on the likes of Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and yes – even the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones. With the help of the Greg Camalier-directed documentary Muscle Shoals, a new generation of musicians are learning of the often overlooked studio and are now cutting their records there; some of those names include Jason Isbell and Anderson East. After dropping an impressive debut LP with 2013’s Finding My Way, Birmingham-based singer-songwriter Gabriel Tajeu is joining the club by making the humble pilgrimage to the soulful oasis of FAME to cut his highly-anticipated sophomore album.

Aptly titled, Southern Skies is a bit of a detour from the heavy R&B sheen of Tajeu’s first record. This time around, he opens up to a slew of encouraging experiments with musical styles, playing with lightweight soft rock (“Forever”) and comfy frontporch folk, best experienced on “Out Here Tonight” and the twangy title cut. The musical performances are also overdosed with music legends like the Swampers’ keyboardist Spooner Oldham and bassist David Hood, and even appearances from bassist David LaBruyere (John Mayer, Shawn Mullins) and David Crenshaw (Maxwell). But “That’s What I Want” is clearly the album’s apex. It’s a slow cooker, starting out on a hazy acoustic country time melody. After all the verses are played out, the final chorus ushers in a dramatic drum climax that cozies up to the one heard on David Foster’s arrangement of “I Will Always Love You.” It seriously steals the show, pulling off a kind of performance that deserves to be a scene stealer in a piece of blockbuster cinema.

While floating through a constellation of relaxed styles and sounds, Tajeu acts like a master of all trades on this round. Still, he works seamlessly when playing host to rhythmic soul. Although his smooth and easy-listening style makes it almost impossible for formatted urban radio to squeeze him into their rotation, his unique fusion of Stevie Wonder and John Mayer songcraft – blessed with pop savviness, lyrical aspiration and R&B rhythms – allows him to stand out in the crowd of Southern indie soul newcomers. He raises his fist on social injustice and Donny Hathaway’s “Everything is Everything” politics inside the brass-blessed message song “And the Beat Goes On.” There’s also “Not My Place,” a song that possesses a potent instrumental jam segment where the Hammond organ swirls with Al Green magic and the rhythms show off a steamy Southern soul. That same energy is replicated on “Someone to Love,” which is highlighted inside the Barry White-meets-Sade boudoir atmospherics. The add-on of otherworldly synths alongside Tajeu’s serenading (“Cause you been wanting, you been wishing for someone to love”) maximizes the glowing adulation of this adventure.

At the end of Southern Skies, Tajeu walks into another poignant gem with “Icarus.” With the song’s title referencing a glowing tale in Greek mythology, he soaks his warm vocals in a tub of universal inspiration (“I’ve had my share of disappointments, but I know, said I know, that I know it would be alright”) and baptizes the ending with a rapturous instrumental reprise decked out with a New Orleans jazz flair.

With much of the album’s character acting like an endless midtempo cantata, it’s not difficult to suggest that Tajeu is coasting a little on this record. The sepia-toned Southern charm of the record means that he is totally absorbed in a world of comfort. But it’s not exactly a creative step back; it just means he’s sipping on sweet tea of Amos Lee/Marc Broussard craftsmanship. It’s a pleasantly warm disc, a continuum of Tajeu’s refreshing artistry. In some ways, it could even be suggested that Southern Skies plays like a concept album. It’s unapologetically southern, despite it not being a continuation of some of the infectious soul and bold rhythms of his first record. Ranging from Americana to reverential, soul to coffee shop pop, Southern Skies is a pleasant scenic trip worth experiencing. Earnestly recommended.

By J Matthew Cobb

 
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