The soul should always stand ajar
Raphael Saadiq As Ray Ray
Where his friend D'Angelo is stone serious (or just stoned), former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman Raphael Saadiq is puckish and eager for work. He penned the other guy's biggest mid-'90s hit, "Lady," and has since settled into the mostly faceless role of R&B studio jobber--as singer-producer, he's the one degree of separation between the Bee Gees and Devin the Dude. Lucy Pearl, Saadiq's abortive collaboration with Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, yielded the 2002 single "Dance Tonight," a getting-ready-to-go-out anthem that was equal parts Cam'ron and Edith Wharton (best Saadiq line: "Make sure that you look good/Make sure that I smell good"). His solo debut of the same year incorporated the tuba, and a good live release followed. Was a non-sucky sophomore studio album too much to hope for?
Nope. Raphael Saadiq As Ray Ray is a work of impulse craftsmanship so breezy that it drops the dumb blaxploitation theme almost instantly, leaving you to wonder if it was just an excuse to A.) reveal Saadiq's birth name as Charlie Ray Wiggins, or B.) wax goofy. "Rifle Love," a nominal reunion of both the Tonies and Lucy Pearl, rips the melody from "Dance Tonight," but who cares? It also repeatedly samples the cocking and shooting of a shotgun, to hilarious effect, with a sample of someone (the singer himself?) saying, "Damn this sounds good." On "Live Without You," the jaunty muted trumpet accompanying Saadiq's wedding proposal gives way to a coda full of funky strings and odes to honeymoon sex. If the man can have it all in one song, he will. (From Red Flag Media, 2004.)
He sang on a bed before Madonna. And thanks to that 21st Century version of the telephone game known as the Internet, you can read somewhere that he was fired from the Time for looking "too black." In reality, '80s love man Alexander O'Neal never joined the Time, though everyone in the band initially wanted him as lead singer--including Prince, who assembled the funk group out of two other Minneapolis bands in 1980, Enterprise and Flyte Tyme. O'Neal and Prince didn't get along at an initial meeting, so the job went to Enterprise drummer Morris Day. O'Neal's former band-mates in Flyte Tyme spent years making it up to him, and since these musicians and producers included Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Monte Moir, and Jellybean Johnson, O'Neal's hits became touchstones of the "Minneapolis sound" quite apart from Prince. Not just on synth-thwack jams like "Innocent" and "Fake," either: "Saturday Love," the 1986 dance duet with Cherrelle, seems more typical--a classic electro couple skate.
Jam and Lewis wrote 13 of the 15 classic tracks here. Yet amid their vintage clatter, and behind the older singer's vocal muscle, you sense a yearning for something quieter, maybe the light touch of Quincy Jones. Even as Greatest Hits leaves out O'Neal's career as gentlemen oldie--ignoring the '88 Christmas album, the '97 return from UK obscurity, and last year's follow-up, Saga of a Married Man--the singer comes across as a subtle and controlled force, delicately riding his falsetto like a stormier James Ingram. Maybe he was too black for the Time after all. (From Red Flag Media, 2004.)
Pedro the Lion are usually saddled with the twin stigmas "Christian" and "emo"--the hipster double whammy. But the Washington band's moral melancholia is no preachier than Dostoyevsky's, their dark character studies no mushier than Randy Newman's. The only truly zealous thing about them is their live show, which inspires a rapt response: You can imagine Pedro fans in their scattered bedrooms, bonding in anonymous union over the group's majestic drone-rock like the characters singing along with Aimee Mann in Magnolia. Singer David Bazan is, in fact, a fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose rhythms he might have absorbed: The guy sings like a steadycam moves, matching his Kurt Cobain twang and Lou Barlow boyishness to a minimal word count.
"That's not a conscious decision," he says of his slow flow, speaking just as gradually over the phone from his home in rural Washington. "It's something I remember my dad, who's also a musician, commenting on early: 'Man, you've got to bring the pace of those lyrics up.'" Bazan writes what's easy for him to sing, he explains. The effect is both striking and humorous on Pedro the Lion's fourth and best full-length album, Achilles Heel (Jade Tree). On "The Fleecing," every word aches as if it were relinquished only after hours of torture: "I can't say it like I sing it," Bazan croons. "I can't sing it like I think it/ I can't think it like I feel it/ And I don't feel a thing."
Though the singer won't generalize about his audience, that song suggests how wearying the bond with fans can be. Having launched Pedro the Lion in 1998 after kicking around Seattle's hardcore scene for years (he shared a group with Damien Jurado), and built a national audience in 1999 out of what was left of the all-ages circuit, the singer has more recently retreated into the private comforts of marriage, and moved to the Kitsap peninsula in Washington about an hour and a half outside Seattle. (Longtime bassist T.W. Walsh lives ten miles a way in another town.) It was here in his country home studio that he recorded Achilles Heel, 11 songs about men (suicidal fathers, self-righteous evangelists) doing wrong.
Bazin has never been indie-rock's Christian answer man, but being both eminently approachable and openly born-again, he finds fans coming up to him saying things like, "So, how's your walk with the Lord going?" "Those sorts of questions are really inappropriate for strangers to ask other strangers," Bazan says. "People usually want to make some sort of judgment. Like, 'Oh, you've backslidden.'"
Pedro the Lion have an unusually easy rapport with most devotees, however. In concert Bazan actually takes questions from the stage, answering them all, no matter how bizarre (typical example: "Who invented the pencil?"). In private, the singer is a little embarrassed by the effect his music has had: How do you respond, for example, to a man who gives you a picture of his cute toddler daughter, saying she was born with Down Syndrome on the morning of 9/11, and that one of your songs calmed him through the day's panic?
So he finds sanctuary in the more popular American cathedral: the movie house. "When I'm watching movies there's always a lot ideas that come, so sometimes I have to duck out and write for a little bit," he says. "I haven't yet done this, but I want to start going to matinees where there's not a lot of people, and sit in the very back row with a laptop, just a little bit drunk and watch the movie, typing madly." Paul Thomas Anderson would be proud. (From Red Flag Media, 2004.)