Not to be awful but if my name was Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, I’d probably choose a super-smooth pseudonym like Aloe Blacc under which to release my R&B/Soul music as well. It seems like if you had a functioning set of ears in 2010, there’s little chance you didn’t encounter his breakthrough hit I Need a Dollar somewhere in your travels and this month he returns with his third LP Lift Your Spirit – his first with major label Interscope records.
There’s a definite sheen to this record that was present on his 2006 debut Shine Through and this seems like a strange move since it was the raw, Stax-influenced immediacy of 2010’s Good Things that brought Blacc to notoriety. First track Wake Me Up was released back in September 2013 and features co-writing from EDM superstar Avicii and a surprising appearance by Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger. You wouldn’t imagine these three people in a room together coming up with something that sounds like a Mumford and Sons offcut, but somehow that’s exactly what has happened. There are rich strings and handclaps but the overall country vibe is kind of unsettling and honestly, not a great start. Loose beats and triumphant brass underscore the “You can tell everybody” hook lifted directly from Elton John’s Your Song on second single The Man but as a chorus, it doesn’t really hit as hard as it should and despite a gospel choir for the last chorus, the energy only really gets to about 7 throughout.
Like a lot of pop albums, the singles on Lift Your Spirit are placed front and center at the beginning and the rest of the album provides a bit more room for lateral movement. It seems to pick up by track 3 with the slinky funk march of Soldier In The City before 2014’s musical King Midas aka. Pharrell Williams appears as producer on the slick groove and backing-vocal heavy retro-soul jam Love Is The Answer.
Here Today ticks all the boxes for a rousing, fist-waving Top-40 ballad and is destined to appear at the end of the second act of a forthcoming romantic-comedy sometime this year, while Wanna Be With You quite deliberately “rocks” a little harder but still has that great behind-the-beat stomp and clap combo and showcases some of the more ambitious vocal licks in Blacc’s range. Whereas the title track has a real ‘70s soul feel to it but it’s a little overcooked and polished to within an inch of its life however Red Velvet Seat slows things down to a chilled, doo-wop pace and it’s a relief to hear. The urgent surf-rock of Can You Do This? is kind of a strange fit for someone as smooth as Blacc, but he definitely rises to the challenge and the slow-burning future-blues of Ticking Bomb is a much better fit for the “Aloe Blacc Unplugged” premise explored on the lead single. Closer Eyes Of a Child (and no, it isn’t a version of Michael McDonald’s closing credits from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) is rich in tasteful brass and definitely pays homage to Michael Jackson’s crossover from straight up soul to pop music.
In all, Lift Your Spirit is the next logical step for someone like Aloe Blacc: He had a lot of buzz surrounding him a few years back and took the time to make a record aimed at the top of the charts. While a goal like this will no doubt polish out a lot of the charming immediacy that makes “soul music” what it is, Blacc has managed to come up with an album that is both artistically fulfilling and poised to make a lot of people a lot of money.