No Place Like Soul – Soulive
While most jazz artists spend their careers laboring for a coveted deal with the elite Blue Note label, Soulive has had the rare luxury to use that podium as their launch pad. Signed to Blue Note less than two years after their inception, the question facing the trio since 2001’s Doin’ Something has been ‘what’s next?’ Next seemed to be the answer in 2002, but the hit or miss collaborations (reprised on 2005’s Break Out) did little to liberate the band from its original billing as a soul-jazz outfit. Their most cohesive studio album to date, it’s easy to call No Place Like Soul a deviation, especially in light of single-named vocalist Toussaint’s (allegedly) permanent status in the quartet, but this is a road Soulive has been traveling for quite some time; this time they may have actually arrived somewhere.
When the name Soulive was first bandied about, it was often in exclamatory comparison to names like Jimmy Smith, Groove Holmes, Melvin Sparks, and Booker T & the MG’s. Signed to Stax Records for its 50th anniversary relaunch, the band has officially joined ranks with legendary label-mates Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Isaac Hayes. While the restrictive climate of label demands often provide a catalyst for indignant experimentation, it may well be the time-tested template of Stax that serves this time as the band’s greatest focusing agent. All things vintage have always been Soulive’s bread and butter, but even the neo- prefix has been shed for this — a dyed-in-the-wool soul album.
It is the addition of Toussaint — former vocalist for the Boston-based reggae group The China Band — that undoubtedly sets No Place Like Soul apart from previous Soulive recordings. And while vocal tunes have long been a part of Soulive’s oeuvre, their collaborative nature has often seemed more of a musical handshake than an earnest attempt at reinvention. With Toussaint there is no push or pull. Musicianship is still the name of the game, but composure and support (like a good defense) is the new game plan. ‘Mary’ and ‘Callin’‘ are the kind of sunny day crooners that best represent the turn. Brothers Neal (on keys) and Alan Evans (drums) set an uncharacteristically relaxed tempo behind Toussaint’s hook-laden vocal lead. Guitarist Eric Krasno opts for the acoustic, and if thoughts of Isaac Hayes come to mind, they may well have been carried in with Neal’s synth-strings.
This is not to say that the album lacks tobasco. Krasno seems the preferred soloist, taking a more blues-oriented tack with this material than with previous. All those years of covering "Crosstown Traffic" pay off on the Hendrix-esque "Outrage," one of two instrumental tracks. The driving "Waterfall" proves that the band doesn’t need to blow their tops every time to move a tune, and that Toussaint can when he chooses to. Most surprising, perhaps, are the two reggae tracks "Bubble" and "If This World Was a Song." The former, an instrumental, finds Toussaint’s influence seeping into an otherwise common trio formula, while the latter features Toussaint in the territory he knows best.
If No Place Like Soul has a fault it comes in Soulive’s propensity to smooth out the slower tracks and let a bit of schmaltz bubble up to the surface. But this is soul music after all, and none of the artists in the Stax catalogue have ever held back when it came to matters of love. Baby-making music? Sure. That’s what the falsetto’s all about.