In a year that has brought a number of surprise comebacks of classic soul singers, the return of O'Bryan has to be one of the most unexpected. An underrated vocalist who released a series of decent albums two decades ago, O'Bryan had a brief moment in the sun but didn't appear to have the kind deep fanbase that would lead to a return in the 21st Century. But the drastic reduction in the cost of music production and distribution has opened the door for talented but well-past-their-commercial-peak singers to re-emerge as independent artists, beneficiaries of the brave new musical world that technology and the internet have created. It is the silver lining around the dark clouds that hover over traditional major record companies, re-opening doors that were once locked tight and leveling the playing field for artists considered carnage in the 15 year transition of the music business from a "music first" to a "business first" medium.
The last couple years have brought quality, deserving returns of artists such as Junior, Ray Parker and the Whispers, and O'Bryan joins this group with F1rst, his first independent project. And in many ways, it is as if he never left. F1rst has the feel of a mid-80s release, with the same strengths and weaknesses of O'Bryan's most popular discs. While always a quality singer with an attractive, melodic voice, O'Bryan never showed much vision as a lyricist. Okay, he got the point across that he liked making love to women, but generally didn't get much past trite come-ons. And that's the biggest flaw in F1rst. Opening with two musically solid but lyrically tired cuts, "Just Like Doin' It" and "Can I Kiss Your Lips," he nearly sinks the disc before it has a chance to travel far.
Fortunately, the album rises from there, beginning with the excellent "Man Overboard," which begins a string of attractive cuts that rise above the relatively mechanical production and show O'Bryan to be artist who can still bring it in 2007. The mid-tempo "Caught In the Middle" and "Let Me Be the One" sound as good in 2007 as they would have in 1987. His sense of melody has always been strong, and O'Bryan displays it with aplomb throughout F1rst. And while the album shows its limited budget in the electronics-dominated arrangements (and would have certainly benefited from more organic instrumentation), the overall sound is tolerable and allows O'Bryan's voice to go front and center.
F1rst is not a perfect album, but certainly shows O'Bryan to be both relevant and talented long after he was set aside by the music industry. For his nostalgic 80s fans, this will be a sure-fire hit. But even for modern adult soul fans unfamiliar with O'Bryan's past glory, this is a worthy offering with enough bright spots to warrant a listen.
By Chris Rizik