All words: Jeb Gavin — All photos: Lauren Bulbin
There are rules about this sort of thing. You don’t give yourself a nickname, for example. You don’t wear a band’s shirt to their concert. In a conversation, you don’t favorably, unnecessarily compare yourself to some great figure unless someone else has already made that comparison. Let’s collect all of them under a single, unifying title, and call it “the rule of self-reference.” In fact, whether or not your career is entirely built on self-promotion and a positive mental attitude, you simply do not draw direct parallels between yourself and the greatest figures of a genre, style, medium, or field in which you happen to operate. It’s not just a matter of not living up to impossible standards- it sets in the mind of your audience a contrast in which you are already at a disadvantage. It also happens to drive anyone with a modicum of awareness up a damn wall. So on Friday night, when Aloe Blacc stood front and center on the stage at the 9:30 Club and told the audience he thought of himself like Sam Cooke, or Bill Withers, or most notably Marvin Gaye, I vomited a little bit. Despite Blacc’s best efforts, the Prozac-laden cream cheese frosting he considered soul music did little to ameliorate the taste in my mouth.
For the unaware, Blacc plays saccharine-sweet pop soul, and while the above may seem harsh, the music itself it isn’t half bad. Live, and off the leash, his backing band is crackerjack. Of particular note was the saxophonist and trumpeter, who took every opportunity to wander their respective registers with verve and a swagger lost in the scripted material. The breaks shook loose the rigidity of the songs, though they were few and far between; it was like watching a old timey kinetoscope with 99% of the material blacked out, just waiting for those few brief frames of life to flicker.
Paradoxically, Aloe danced throughout and is quite a showman. But he would routinely stop singing between or in the middle of songs to have a sort of “remember to eat your vegetables” moment with the audience. Were this an after school assembly, or some sort of motivational seminar, I wouldn’t find this odd, but it’s a Friday night, and the crowd came to dance. Blacc wants so badly to be a socially conscious soul singer, not only are his songs ham-fisted in their relevance (echoes of the robot devil from Futurama hollering, “Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me angry!”) but Blacc feels the need to interrupt his songs with stage chatter on the same topic as the song itself. Further, the audience seemed blissfully unaware the songs were supposed to have any deeper relevance, and nodded along to the asides with an earnestness which implied they would never think about any “message” espoused beyond the scope of this concert.
As I said, the music isn’t terrible, but there’s this presumption on the part of Aloe, that making soul music and intending to impact the world for the better somehow equates to creating socially relevant soul music. He treats the history of the style as though Sam Cooke composed, “A Change Is Gonna Come” on a whim, with no instigating cause. The effect is as though you’re listening to 100 minutes of elevator muzak during which someone is trying to explain to you all the ways you’re failing in your community responsibilities.
I’m really trying not to be savage here, because there were a few highlights. In addition to the killer breaks and horn solos, an inexplicable bass solo mutated into a wonderful, slow jam cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. But then Blacc turns around and just a song later wallows through one of the worst “Femme Fatale” covers I’ve ever heard. When a “serious” soul singer plays a mediocre version of a good Lou Reed track, written at the behest of Andy Warhol about Edie Sedgwick, it’s like watching gold, which had been transmuted from lead, turned back into lead.
Days after the fact, I find myself not angry but frustrated: this is one of those rare cases where honesty in music comes without depth. The show went fine, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, but only because everyone involved was under the impression that showing up was all that mattered. The audience wanted to dance, and seemed devoid of any knowledge of the genre or its history, as though they’d spent their entire lives subsisting on a diet of top 40 pop rock hits produced between 2000 and 2009. The prevailing sense was that music can change the world, all you have to do is be aware of this power, and it would magically occur. Blacc sort of floats on this belief that all you need are the right melodies and good intentions, and you can leapfrog the pathos necessary to connect an audience to music permanently.
Finally, a note to Sub-Radio Standard: not bad. Nothing groundbreaking, nothing too exciting, but a hell of a lot of energy and enthusiasm (particularly the drummer,) and you can most certainly play. That said, fellas, you’re in a unique position: you’re young, you’re capable, and you appear devoid of the responsibility that comes from trying to make a living playing music. I’m not going to try to steer you away from pop music, because despite it being a favorite straw man of asshole music critics, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pop music. But your talent and dearth of commitments places you in a class of boundary-less amateurs. You have the opportunity to make some truly weird
music, following absurd whims. If you find something ludicrous and fascinating and manage drag it back with you, to incorporate it into the pop music you seem to love so much, the world will beat a path to your door to hear it. If your experiments do nothing but reinforce your love of uncomplicated melodies and guitar/piano instrumentation, hopefully it will give you the experience you need to write timeless music far past the usual pablum. This isn’t some cock-eyed graduation speech. Judging from the act you preceded, the kids aren’t all right. But you could be. You can make it better.