The trio Soulive has the kind of groove-centric sound that you’d imagine goes over quite well with traditionalists as well as a young, hip crowd. Featuring organ, guitar and drums (and horns occasionally), and deftly mixing jazz with soul and funk, their sound calls to mind a Starbucks-saleable Booker T. & the MG’s with a hip-hop edge. That sound has won them fans and a wide range of collaborators that includes Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli and jam-band king Dave Matthews.
To my ears, the band’s sound has never totally been able to translate into a completely great album. Live, they’re great (I saw them about ten years ago at the outset of their career and they smoked), but unless there’s a guest vocalist on board, their albums don’t serve much of a purpose beyond being decent background music.
On their latest effort, the cleverly titled Rubber Soulive, the band takes on the sturdy (and oft-covered) Lennon/McCartney (and Harrison) songbook. It’s not a risky move-after all, you can’t go wrong with Beatles songs. Hearing some of these classics redone in a funk/jazz/soul context, however, at least adds a new wrinkle to these well-worn classics. It’s also fairly interesting to hear the songs without vocalists. Guitarist Eric Krasno takes care of most of the melody lines, and his solid playing underscores how great the Beatles songs were from a melodic standpoint.
For the most part, Soulive plays it straight with the song choices as well as with the songs themselves. The only track a casual Beatles fan might not immediately recognize (and even this is a stretch) is Abbey Road’s ”I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which is tastefully copied by Soulive. Actually, if you were to assign just two words to Rubber Soulive as a whole, it would be ”tasteful copy.” The rare curveballs that they throw are a mixed bag. Not sure who thought it would be a good idea to take ”Revolution1″ and turn it into a peppy funk jam. As a Beatles fan, it’s very hard for me to not hear the original version in my head as I’m listening, and the two versions are completely opposite in mood. The result just messes my head up, as does the band’s rendering of ”Taxman,” which reminds me a little too much of the theme from Adam West-era Batman.
Soulive’s unquestionably a tight band-these guys can play their asses off, and there are minimal overdubs on the album, so there’s definitely a live band feel, which is refreshing in this overly processed musical landscape. Whether Rubber Soulive is a worthwhile purchase for you honestly depends on a) how big a Beatles fan you are and b) how much of a fan you are of the genre that these songs have been re-recorded in. I don’t know that many (if any) covers albums serve much of a purpose beyond compelling the listener to go back and check out the original renditions, but I’ll bet that hearing this album played live would be a pretty amazing experience.
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