CD Reviews: Angie Stone, “Unexpected”; Tahiti 80, “Activity Center”

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.

Angie Stone, “Hey Mr. DJ”
Tahiti 80, “Brazil”




  • http://jusiper.blogspot.com sini

    Her album covers are better than her songs, alas.

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    You like the cover of “Unexpected”?

  • http://jusiper.blogspot.com sini

    I didn't dislike it…. For me it's more like music that's meant to establish a certain mood rather than being actively listened to, you know what I mean? It would be great as background for a scene in a movie, or maybe at a party.

  • http://jusiper.blogspot.com sini

    The Tahiti 80 song was definitely better.

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    The cover of the album just strikes me as odd, but maybe that's the point — it's “unexpected.”

    You're right about Stone's music being mood music, but her voice draws me in more than, say, D'Angelo's or Erykah Badu's. Neo-soul artists in general seem to take themselves very seriously, as if they want to pay homage to the tone of “What's Going On” without honoring the tempo, arrangement, or melody of the song. They practically drain the life out of their soul.

    Maxwell's music can also get sleepy, but when he took a cattle prod to it on “Now” in 2001, I loved the results (http://popdose.com/sugar-water-procrastination-…). Then he took an eight-year break, of course.

  • http://jusiper.blogspot.com sini

    You're a lot more generous than I am.

    I always used to wonder what happened to all those Renaissance styles, and why people just stopped painting that way. Sometime (maybe the late 1980's?) that happened to soul. It just up and died, and creative energies just went elsewhere. There hasn't been a soul album anywhere near as good as “It Takes A Nation of Millions” in the last 20 years. I'm pretty sure there won't be any time soon either. Sigh. I wonder if the same will be said of rap in 2030.

  • http://jusiper.blogspot.com sini

    None of which means that there aren't cool songs being put out here and there.

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    The '70s is my favorite decade for soul, but even then you had lots of albums with filler, especially the Philadelphia International stuff. Of course, PIR was a producer-dominated, not artist-dominated, label. The neo-soul artists couldn't really use that excuse, even if a record executive did come up with the term “neo-soul.”

    Lots of people love “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and “Voodoo,” but I think one problem with lots of '90s and '00s albums is that no one cut these guys off after 45 minutes of solid material was collected. Instead, they wound up with 77-minute behemoths, where the good stuff is diffused by all the meandering tracks. (Those albums are like my self-edited posts here at Popdose, but I'm doing this for free, so I have TOTALLY legitimate excuses.)

    Oh yeah, and I much prefer “Fear of a Black Planet” over “It Takes a Nation,” but that's just me.

    When did you start Jusiper?

  • http://jusiper.blogspot.com sini

    I hear you about Fear of a Black Planet. I'm not going to make the big argument that Nation was better, and besides, my favorite PE song is 2007's “Harder Than You Think.” If that had come out in 1989, it would have been a #1 hit.

    You are so right. 77 minutes used to mean a double album. There weren't too many of them by soul artists in the 1970's. The exceptions were huge: Amazing Grace and Songs in the Key of Life,, and a couple of live albums by the Spinners Jacksons, Marvin Gaye (and Here, My Dear, which is telling and funny).

    In the end I'm more of a song than an album person anyway, so the MP3 age suited me very well, since there aren't too many albums on the charts that have more than two songs I want to hear over and over again. I was happy with my three or four great songs from Miseducation, though eventually I broke down and bought the album. Then I ended up going back to the same handful of songs anyway.

    JUSIPER started with some friends in the runup to the 2004 election. It started out more academic, but over time I ended up being the only one writing, so now it's just a forum for anything I want to write.

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    I haven't heard “Harder Than You Think.” I'll have to look for that one.

    I bought that Spinners double live album back in August. I love what they produced with Thom Bell guiding them. Did you ever hear the songs he produced for David Byrne's “Look Into the Eyeball” in 2001? They're throwbacks to his '70s work, but they're fantastic. I loved his sound.

    I'm more of a song guy too, but I wish the neo-soul artists would inject more peaks into their albums to balance out all the valleys. It's like when you're making a mix tape or CD (or, these days, just a Zip file with no particular order for the songs): nobody wants to hear a bunch of slow songs in a row, so make sure you vary the tempo. A great album, to me, is really just a well-sequenced collection of great songs that makes you feel like there's an emotional through-line even if there isn't.

  • http://twitter.com/gingerliu Ginger Liu

    Angie Stone's listening event at 7 Bar & Lounge Listening Event Norfolk, VA. Cool!!

  • http://jusiper.blogspot.com sini

    Harder than you think/It's a beautiful thing.

    I wish we had more recordings of Philippe Wynne; he's one of the greatest soul singers of all time, and one of the deepest too. I love “Love Don't Love Nobody” from the live version. I love how the crowd recognizes the song from the first note, long before the vocal starts in. And this is crazy: I love the ending, with the applause. Then the Spinners thank them, and someone (Philippe?) says, “Thank you. Beautiful people! Thank you.” And then the horns start on “Mighty Love.” What I would give to have witnessed the transition alone, what to speak of the songs.

    David Byrne recorded with Thom Bell? That's nuts. I know Elton John did.

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    You can hear Wynne's first post-Spinners album here:

    http://blogsportsoul.blogspot.com/2009/02/phili

    He really was an awesome singer, and a terrific improviser. I love one of his ad-libs near the end of “Could It Be I'm Falling in Love” the most; it goes something like “I used to sing 'cry cry cry' / But right now I feel so good, I sing 'la la la la.'”

    The Spinners were the first Philly soul artists I knew and loved thanks to several of their songs getting lots of play on the “easy listening” station where I grew up. “Could It Be,” “The Rubberband Man,” and “I'll Be Around” still sound great.

    According to Bell, when he was first contacted about the project that was eventually released as “The Complete Thom Bell Sessions,” John told him he didn't want to do anything except sing the songs; he refused to even play the piano in the studio. I guess that's what Philadelphia freedom means to Elton John.

  • http://jusiper.blogspot.com sini

    My first Spinners album was this red greatest hits album. I think it was red, anyway. The first song that got me was “One of a Kind (Love Affair).” Something about the vocal leading up to that sudden piano riff in the middle always got me. There was an uplift, which only got more intense because the next song was “Mighty Love.”

    “Philadelphia Freedom” was my first Elton John song. It was on a K-Tel compilation. I like that song “Three Way Love Affair.” Isn't that on the Thom Bell album?

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    Yes, “Three Way Love Affair” is on that album, as is “Mama Can't Buy You Love,” which I first heard in sixth grade and immediately liked. I didn't know Bell was behind it until many years later.

    The Spinners and Thom Bell have provided a lot of uplift over the years.

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    Yes, “Three Way Love Affair” is on that album, as is “Mama Can't Buy You Love,” which I first heard in sixth grade and immediately liked. I didn't know Bell was behind it until many years later.

    The Spinners and Thom Bell have provided a lot of uplift over the years.

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