Retroism is nothing new in modern music. In fact, mining the past for ideas has been a major element of the past decade, for both good and bad. Some acts make their intentions less obvious; only nicking a particular sound, or distilling their sound from multiple sources.
Then you’ve got Raphael Saadiq.
Stone Rollin’ doesn’t exactly borrow elements from Motown and 70’s R&B as much as present those sounds in the form of a modern record. The mix might be a bit too clean for true authenticity, but the organic instrumentation of Stone Rollin’ and Jack White style vintage production make it a damn good fake. The bluesy stomp of opener “Heart Attack” gets the album off to a good start, and the string-bedecked “Go to Hell” (a song that sounds much prettier than its name would imply) keep the good vibes going.
But it’s not until the stop-start classic rock ‘n roll “Radio” that the album becomes fantastic. Drums, bass, and guitar (all played by Saadiq) create an absolutely infectious groove with call and response vocals, and Saadiq sounds like he’s having the time of his life on the vocals. That energy stays up on the melancholy “Over You”, which sports an absolutely stellar drum beat. Even though the number of actual people involved on each track might be relatively small, some of these songs sound like full party affairs. The title track features plenty of layered vocals, guitars, and an absolutely kickass bassline; a standout.
But the project would fall apart without Saadiq holding it together. Aside from playing and arranging instruments and whip-smart lyrics, Saadiq’s also a versatile and capable vocalist. He can sound sticky sweet on “Heart Attack”, playful on the Ray Charles-inspired “Day Dream”, and heartbroken on “Good Man”. His level of craft on Stone Rollin’ is also commendable; the arrangements are clever and natural, and each song is incredibly well put together.
The end of the album is propped up by string of three excellent songs. No other song stretches as much musical muscle as “Just Don’t”; intricate guitar riffs, thumping basslines, string sections, and gang vocals bounce around the song’s first half before the listener is treated to an extended outro jam (discounting the silence between “The Answer” and the hidden track). “Good Man” gets a little darker, and the song is much less grounded. Even with a strong beat and a genuinely downtrodden vocal by Saadiq, “Good Man”‘s best quality is the female-sung hook. Continuing on that dark path, “The Answer” finds Saadiq reflecting on his city upbringing, but supported with a marching band drum beat and up and down strings that help the song rise and fall.
But despite the seriousness of those last songs, Stone Rollin’ never feels anything short of a damn good time. The only criticism I can level against it is that it can sound a little too singular at times, but when the music is this good, I’m willing to enjoy a little sameness. And that sameness doesn’t quash the infectious groove of “Radio”, the old school seductiveness on “Stone Rollin'”, or the determination of “The Answer”. Everyone whose ever had the slightest inclination towards Motown will adore Stone Rollin’, 5/5 stars.
tl;dr: Raphael Saadiq makes one of this year’s best records by looking to the past, 5/5.