The first sound you hear on Angie Stone’s fifth album, Unexpected (Stax/Concord), is a sample of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” the hit single from that band’s fifth album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971). The R&B veteran promises “unexpected soul” on the following ten cuts (plus a reprise of the title track), but nothing on her new LP comes out of left field the way “Family Affair” did 38 years ago, unless you count the overcranked Auto-Tune employed on “Tell Me.” When a voice as naturally warm and inviting as Stone’s is being enhanced with studio trickery for the sake of a trendy club anthem, that is unexpected.
However, when Stone settles into a groove and simply does her thing, Unexpected works its charms, although nothing here comes close to her 2001 hit “Wish I Didn’t Miss You” or her 2004 collaboration with Betty Wright, “That Kind of Love.” The first single, “I Ain’t Hearin’ U,” is reminiscent of old-school Stephanie Mills classics like “What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’,” and Stone asserts her themes of self-empowerment and self-congratulation further on “Hey Mr. DJ” and “I Don’t Care,” with the latter track’s laid-back rhythm making the lyrics sound matter-of-fact instead of defensive (“To all of my haters, yet still I rise / I wanna thank you ’cause I recognize / Without you I wouldn’t be relevant / Because of you I know I’m heaven-sent”).
The skittering synthesizers on “Free,” much like the Auto-Tune on “Tell Me,” work against Stone, but luckily Unexpected ends with the ’60s girl-group stylings of “Think Sometimes” and the ’90s girl-group stylings (think SWV) of “I Found a Keeper.” Stone occasionally goes against the norm on her latest disc, but when she keeps it midtempo, intimate, and light, her songs are exceptional, if not unexpected.
Now, on the surface, who would you expect to sound more soulful — ’70s-inspired neo-soul siren Angie Stone or some white guys from France? Soul music comes from underneath the surface, of course, where it doesn’t matter if your eyes or brown or blue or any other shade on the color wheel. But even though Stone’s former musical and romantic partner, D’Angelo, may end up on a lot of music critics’ best-of-the-decade lists because of his earnest, overlong January 2000 release Voodoo, does anyone else remember when soul music was, you know, fun? Why do Caucasian crooners Robin Thicke, Sam Sparro, Jamie Lidell, and Tahiti 80 frontman Xavier Boyer sound like they’re the only ones enjoying themselves these days?
While Tahiti 80′s Wallpaper for the Soul (2002) and Fosbury (2005) contained ridiculously catchy pop-soul songs like “1,000 Times” and “Here Comes …,” respectively, the lesser tracks took away from the overall experience. But in 2007 Boyer released his first solo album under the anagram Axe Riverboy, and somehow the jumbling of letters ended up straightening out his and Tahiti 80′s sound for the better. On the band’s fourth full-length, Activity Center (Human Sounds), they finally deliver an album that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Their latest LP seduces the listener slowly, with none of the electronic hip-hop beats that cropped up throughout Fosbury. Instead, Tahiti 80 embraces more vintage types of R&B, such as the doo-wop harmonies heard on “Brazil” and the soft soul of ’70s vocal groups like the Stylistics and the Chi-lites, which deepens the impact of “Fire Escape,” Activity Center‘s slow dance for spurned lovers who refuse to move on (Boyer’s expressive falsetto would make Curtis Mayfield and Eddie Kendricks proud). The album’s next-to-last track, “Come Around,” adds zigzagging horns and another R&B staple, a wonderfully corny phone call, to the proceedings.
“I know the best has yet to come / I feel it in my bones,” Boyer sings on the chorus of the guitar-fueled opening song, “24×7 Boy.” Earlier this year, Phoenix, another French band adept at buoyant English-language pop, finally broke big in the States with their fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. But despite Wolfgang‘s strengths and the hype that helped push it to #37 on the Billboard 200, Activity Center is a better album from start to finish.
Then again, the chorus of “24×7 Boy” ends with Boyer singing, “This feeling won’t last for long.” There was a 14-month gap between Activity Center‘s release overseas and its arrival on our shores (the U.S. version comes with two bonus tracks and four remixes), though that’s still an improvement over the 21-month journey Fosbury took to get here. America needs to show some hospitality to its well-traveled foreign guests — it’s time for this country to embrace Tahiti 80.