Singers still chasing after yesterdayTuesday, January 21, 2014
The frustrations of retro R&B
The Washington Post (*)
Are tomorrow’s R&B singers doomed to chase after yesterday?
Nowadays, it sure feels like it. Every genre endures spasms of revivalism, but ever since the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, R&B has proven a particularly nifty field to restage the past. Adele ponders a Dusty Springfield biopic. R. Kelly teleports to 1960-whatever. Robin Thicke pantomimes Marvin Gaye. On and on, we keep going back.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have made a career of it, excavating the sounds of classic American R&B for more than a decade, and with the group’s new album, Give the People What They Want, they’ve arrived at their strongest composite.
This is pop time travel at its most articulate and dynamic, channelling Motown, Muscle Shoals, Stax and James Brown all in one easy stroke. Jones — a 57-year-old who recently beat cancer — sings about stung hearts and fiery farewells, and on Stranger to My Happiness sounds like she was born in the groove.
It’s all rather unsurprising, yet hard to dislike — the kind of music that presents itself confidently, affirms your good taste, then finds shelter under the umbrella of timelessness.
But there are still strange external forces at work here. The magnetism of these songs originates from the same mystery space that gives Renaissance fairs and Civil War re-enactments their weirdo gravity — they all give us the opportunity to feel an approximation of feelings we were born too late to feel.
Is that what the people want?
Funny how throwback R&B can spark nostalgia for the future. More than a decade ago, uber-producers Timbaland and the Neptunes were using alien digital timbres to build love songs that resembled science fiction. They cemented futurism on the list of American R&B’s defining traits, making the genre feel inherently optimistic. As scary as our new century may have seemed, we’d still have Valentine’s Day.
The same idea floats through the California haze in Spike Jonze’s recent triumph, Her, a film that isn’t warning us about the unstoppable march of technology so much as hypothesizing how love might feel tomorrow. Is it unfair to crave R&B tunes that do the same thing? And who wants to sing ’em?
Not John Newman, a pompadoured newcomer from the UK who, like Sharon Jones, consistently puts his powerful voice in service of the past. The singer’s debut album, Tribute, resurrects the vibes of the Northern Soul scene that swept Northern England in the ’60s and ’70s while cranking up the volume for the digital age. The horn section screams, the string section wails, the drums pummel. Among all this bluster is a man in great pain. Newman’s choruses burst violently into existence, making the 23-year-old sound like a heartsick Otis Redding. “Whoever said love was easy?” he pleads to the universe during the roaring chorus of Easy. “You know they told you wrong.”
Newman doesn’t make anything on Tribute sound easy, including his breakout single, Love Me Again. It’s another R&B flashback asking another tortured question — “Can you love me again?” — but it packs a wallop that’s as invigorating as it is frustrating.
As Newman tries to mend his messed-up heart with the sounds of yesteryear, he’s left wondering what comes next instead of showing us.