Tuomo - Reaches Out For You (2009)

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My nephew, who spent the greater part of his youth listening to pop and rock, once asked me during one of my music inoculation sessions: what is soul? The question caught me off guard. I had spent much of our time together introducing him to R&B, jazz, soul, and gospel as kind of a crash course on black music. He was asking because I called Lewis Taylor, a favorite white British musician, "soul," but would not extend the same privilege to, say, a Justin Timberlake or Michael Bolton. I went through a litany of high-brow examples, including a primer on oft-used chords and rhythms, tradition and lineage to blues, gospel, field and work songs. Wanting to avoid white stereotypes of black music, I tried desperately to sidestep adjectives like: raw, gritty, pained, or even "suffering." I certainly didn't want to start speaking in food allusions ("It's like greasy fried chicken and gravy"), lest he think I was ordering from KFC.
But when confronted by nephew's unconvinced expression, the unsatisfactory descriptors of soul tumbled out of my mouth as if I had Tourette's. He walked away from the conversation, smug with self-satisfaction. To him "soul" was now just another subjective concept whose authoritative definition adults refused to admit as ultimately resting on the individual. Being something of an authoritarian, I was crushed at my own clumsy explanations, until Tuomo rescued me.

Tuomo defies every stereotype about what soul is suppose to be. He is white, Finnish (yes, Finland!), looks a bit of a nerd, is a classically trained child prodigy, a self-defined jazz musician, has little rasp in his timbre and doesn't appear to know his way around a gospel run. Yet, one listen of the multi-instrumentalist's self-produced sophomore project, Reaches Out For You, no other definition but "soul" suffices. The self-penned Reaches... is certainly more soulful than his 2007 multi-award-winning debut, My Thing, which strained hard - too hard - to musically follow the soul greats. Perhaps even less than fellow male blue-eyed soul artists like Lewis Taylor, Jamie Lidell or James Morrison, Tuomo no longer audibly strives to sing like Stevie, Marvin, Curtis, or Donny. Vocally, his unassuming tenor now has more in common with Lenny Kravitz or Jason Kay, the Jamiroquai frontman, than the Stevie he attempted on My Thing. Yet, his project oozes soul, offering me new revelations of the term's meaning.

Tuomo's songwriting is pure, often nude, filled with a blues man's self-recriminations and the comedian's self-effacement. He has a storyteller's gift for painting pictures, as displayed in the melancholy bar ballad, "Good Night." Like most soul men, Tuomo is lyrically preoccupied with romantic love and relationships, the dominant topic of Reaches Out For You. His work often explores the sweeter side of those experiences on cuts like the subtly funky "Firsts," the welcoming "Sweet With Me," and his observational "Fear of Love," a song whose composition merges the pop of Holland-Dozier-Holland with the brightness of Gamble and Huff's early, more golden Stylistics.

When Tuomo does go dark and moody about love, it's introspectively so, as with "Ordinary," where he shares a multitude of insecurities and an abiding fear of being discovered by a love as only "ordinary." On the crown jewel of the project, the aching opus "Reach Out For You," Tuomo exhibits a touching solidarity to other struggling brothers. In sensitivity and verse, the title track has much in common with "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," with half the sanctimony and twice the sweep. It's so inviting you could almost mistake it for a love song, and in many ways it is.

While much of Reaches Out For You relies on sumptuous ballads and atmospheric mid-tempo grooves like "Love & Friendship" to make its points, Tuomo does know how to pep it up a bit. With a brassy strut, the uplifting "Head Above The Water" offers everyman secrets for treading life's troubled waters with a smile. The frenzied 60s rock meets a hard driving church revival in "The Grant," where Tuomo boasts: "my application is in for the good life." While confident on its face, "The Grant" is a Moe's boast of yearning. 

Most of Tuomo's music is about yearning: yearning for love, for wealth, for self-respect, for survival. Tuomo's ample references to Motown, his competence at blues and jazz chords, and his compositional prowess for crafting classic rock or epic blaxploitation scores are just familiar doorways he uses to let down our guard and enter our soul with his poetry. It's Tuomo's ease with sharing his yearnings and his intelligence in understanding how to share them with resonance that makes his music soul. His sincerity touched this listener's heart with a voice whose imperfections are as soothing as they are accessible. And yet what makes Tuomo's Reaches Out ForYou as soulful as Donny's cover of "Giving Up" or Aretha's "I Never Loved A Man" isn't really his growing voice. No, the soul comes in Tuomo's willingness to communicate his experience, introspections and vulnerabilities with us, reflecting and affirming our own. That his ingenious compositions are beautiful enough for us to escape inside, allowing us to cathartically join this artist in mutual expressions of love, life and pain-in humanity, is almost as good as buttermilk biscuits and gravy. In his generosity, Tuomo, like other mediums we've been gifted for healing, has demonstrated the true definition of soul. Now, where's my nephew; I've got some words for him. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson


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