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Aloe Black: Good Things (Stones Throw)

Hands up, who remembers the 1970s? OK, now who’s gleaned a vague but evocative interpretation of the 70s through its music? Inevitability, the latter group is going to eventually outnumber the former group, and eventually the archivists and revisionists and reinterpreters will be all that’s left. And while it’d be nice to think that this group of historical translators is going to do that weird, alternately maligned and lionized pop-music era justice, it’s easy to overlook just how received some of that wisdom might be. Yes, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were great– but they were great when there wasn’t an established standard for what Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were yet. Following their lead might take you places, but you don’t sweat too much when shadows that tall give you shade every step of the way.

Aloe Blacc’s recently taken this classic-soul path after years of laboring under an intriguing indie-rap jack-of-all genres approach. And while he clearly studied the vintage R&B greats before creating Good Things, he’s content just building a reasonably convincing backlot replica of classic soul rather than putting a new twist on it. Blacc doesn’t display the sweet vocal flair of a Raphael Saadiq à la The Way I See It, or the modernized post-hip-hop touch of Ne-Yo in “Back Like That” mode. What he does have is a sort of straightforward emulation of that certain R&B singer-songwriter vibe, a modest, filed-down compromise somewhere between Bill Withers’ raw, aching warmth and the smooth, subtle intensity of Donny Hathaway. That voice isn’t without his strengths, and lead single-slash-How to Make It in America title theme “I Need a Dollar” is the best exhibit: His voice is strong enough to push back against the spring-step backbeat and turn the chorus into an earworm. If it’s the song people know him for from here on out, he could do a lot worse.

While Good Things is well-constructed and boasts some inspired touches (the backbone-shivering strings on “Take Me Back” and “Life So Hard”; a slick, skulking reggae groove on “Miss Fortune”), it lacks the foggy, borderline-sinister allure of the best El Michels Affair compositions it strives to match. And with Aloe Blacc’s lyrics skewing toward sentiments that straddle the line between “universal” and “so what else is new,” Good Things doesn’t do much to catch you off guard. He can tug at your heartstrings when the opportunity presents itself; good luck listening to “Momma Hold My Hand” without getting a lump in your throat when he sings, “Momma used to be strong, but she ain’t now.” But enough of his lyrics lean heavily enough on generations-old songwriting tropes– pouring his heart out for a woman by telling her that “you make me smile”; lamenting about “families in the street with nothing to eat/ Little baby boys and girls, no shoes on their feet”; calling politicians “hungry wolves dressed like sheep”– that genuinely human and heartfelt ideas, even sung as warmly as they are, come across through their words like slogans you’ve long since tuned out.

Complicating things is the fact that Aloe Blacc’s last album, 2006′s Shine Through, was an inspired and often-innovative shot at pushing hip hop-inflected R&B forward; there were a few baffling moments, but he was defiantly ambitious enough to do some pretty out-there things to minimalist disco, Tropicália, and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. The one time Good Things actually hits on a comparable throw-out-the-blueprint moment, it’s with an unlikely cover– in this case, the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale”, re-envisioned as a satin-suited ballad for slow dances. That’s a neat bit of unconventional thinking that this album could’ve used a little more of– less by-the-book horn charts and worn-out homilies, more era-hopping hybrids and unexpected detours. As it stands, Good Things feels like hopping into a time machine, dialing it to 40 years ago, then forgetting to bring a stack of recent 12″ singles with you to completely blow 1970′s mind.

— Nate Patrin, September 30, 2010