Soulive has always been one of the go-to bands if you want to enjoy the stimulation of both your mind and your booty. Unsung heroes of the groove-funk-jazz band in the jam band scene, these master musicians have made a name for themselves all over the country as the best and the brightest stars in the Jimmy Smith-inspired instrumental soul funk trio subsections of jazz and rock. They bring class and wisdom to two-day hippie festivals and ass-shakin’ rhythms to tired jazz clubs. They were one of the main reasons I started to enjoy the “jam band” at all.
Their new album Break Out brings them to a different place from where they started on their debut, but not so different that it will gather dust in my vast CD collection. With a band like Soulive you can’t help but compare any studio offering with the live experience and while this album has plenty of soul, it just doesn’t hold up to what they can really do.
The disc starts off with the first of three instrumental interludes that immediately excited me with the impression that while this album may not be just the straight-ahead instrumental jazz-funk trio that I’ve been such a fan of for so many years now, but would also be highly flavored with a tasty brand of soulful R&B that harkens back even more towards the golden age of music otherwise known as the 70s than their sound already comes from (the guest appearance of Chaka Khan certainly indicates this goal). It would be wrong to say that the following 11 songs disappoint based on this impression, but unfortunately the album isn’t as “solid”, as they said back when, as any effort from these boys should be.
“Reverb” keeps the album rolling in high gear with the classic deep grooves and instrumental technique that Soulive has become known for, and the album cruises along in near-top form for a few tracks. “Got Soul” isn’t just a song title, it is in fact a statement. It sounds like what Bill Withers might sound like if he was still making music and felt the hip hop vibe as comeback performers so often do. “Cachaca” gives us one of the more interesting songs on the album with Eric Krasno providing lyrical Spanish guitar riffs that leave you eager to move your dancing feet and what almost reaches repetitiveness is broken in the best way you can break up anything – a quick fluttering Spanish piano burst. It could have stood for less repetition of verses and more from the rest of the band, but it’s still a great tune.
This leads directly into what is unfortunately the only real showcase of Rashawn Ross’s trumpet soloing in this song which is still mistakenly left in the background. It’s always hard to fully accept the sound of a great live band translated into a polished studio recording, but when you’re truly missing an essential element due to production it becomes more than just a necessary sacrifice but rather a glaring flaw on what could be a consistently good album. Production aside, I do love that song.
There are a number of other quality booty shakers tunes and songs that make your soul smile and that smile is due in large part to the sweet vocal stylings of Reggie Watts. “She’s Hooked” has been in my head since I first heard it and is one of those songs that you enjoy hearing so much that you neglect the rest of the album for a few days. You might know Reggie from his work in Maktub… but then again you might not. Another soaring guest star is Robert Randolph, the incomparable steel/slide/pedal guitarist who makes anything he does glow. His work on the rocking cover of Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” is jus t perfect and it adds up to one of the stand out tracks on this album, not just because it’s a powerhouse instrumental. The same can be said for the Krasno composition “Vapor” which also gets repeated spins because of its creative form and instrumental interplay. Unfortunately there isn’t more of this and the album lacks the telepathic interplay and musical variation that it needs but replaces it with sometimes stale guest vocal spots.
Reggie Watts isn’t the only guest singer on the album and though some are welcomed, too many guest singers on a soulfunk instrumental bands album can slow things down rather than get things moving. Though Chaka Khan’s vocal contributions are a highlight the first time around, her song, along with “Take It Easy” and “Back Again” all start to sound the same and like “Freedom” are utterly forgettable in the scope of the band’s career. Ivan Neville is a great singer and his talents are appreciated, but when you know the talents of the musicians are so great you can’t help but be disappointed with less than stellar vocal pieces. This also gives the album the quality of the reprehensible “smooth jazz” sound that true jazz and funk and jam fans detest for good reason. The production of the album doesn’t help this tragedy and sometimes muffles many of the outstanding instrumental work (drums, horns) going on in the background.
Overall Break Out is a moderate effort from an outstanding band. Soulive is a great power in their own genre and in any genre but while the vocal pieces are fun many of them add very little and often take away too much. The album closes with “Interlude III”, the last of the Interludes that do little else than overshadow the album and in comparison to their entire sum of 2:23 seconds of awesomeness against the whole albums 52 minutes you can’t help but wish there were 3 awesome vocal interludes and more awesome instrumentals.
Soulive’s new album is recommended for those who like to groove but not necessarily for perfectionists. The two are usually mutually exclusive, but you know what I mean. It is definitely worth a listen for its key tracks which are, to be generous: Instrumentals: “Crosstown Traffic” and Robert Randolph anywhere, “Vapor”, “Cachaca” and “Glad To Know Ya” for it’s party potential and excellent rubbery horn sections. Vocals: Reggie Watts on “She’s Hooked” and Ivan Neville on “Got Soul”. If you force it, you’ll really enjoy this album. If you’re a harsh critic you may look back towards previous efforts.
Also check out Reggie Watts at www.reggiewatts.com