Publisher's Note: This review is reviewing the album delivered digitally from the label themselves and appears to not be the one that was originally released on October 25, 2013, which features a markedly different song order and songs not on the original version like "Chasing," "The Hand Is Quicker" and "Owe It All."
Believe it or not, Aloe Blacc is no overnight wonder. In fact, the 35 year old musician and one-time business consultant has been doing this thing for quite a while, spawning two previous albums, including 2010's eventual breakout Good Things. But it wasn't until last year when music fans got to know Blacc when he was the lead vocalist for dance sensation Avicii's breakout single "Wake Me Up." That earned him a very key product placement later that year when "The Man" became the basis for a certain Beats By Dre commercial starring San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (and later on Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman right after their Super Bowl win). All of this has now led to his long-awaited major label album debut...so what is Lift Your Spirit like?
Well, for starters, the album's title is very much appropiate as he strives for positive vibes, positive thinking and in his own words, "something that could potentially lift your spirit."
While previous release "Good Things" was a decidedly darker and fuller affair, highlighting the struggles of modern life, Lift Your Spirit again strives for generally the exact opposite and even in the album's comparatively darker moments, Blacc still manages positivity around it. Also while Good Things is rooted in modern R&B/Soul with touches of his socially conscious hip-hop past, Lift Your Spirit revels in 50s, 60s and 70s style soul/rock.
The album kicks off with breakout hit "The Man," which expertly uses the first couple lines in the chorus from Elton John's "Your Song" is an expose within itself. The song's chorus itself will have you lift out of your seat and exalt while Blacc's smooth silky vocals will turn your frown into a big smile at least halfway through the swaggering piece. 80s-style Stevie Wonder is liberally explored in next song "Love Is the Answer," complete with seamless horns and soaring choral lines but one cannot help but wonder if Blacc on a vocal level is a bit out of his league in this one. In this instance, the musicality is flawless (Pharrell produced this one, otherwise the album's production is in the hands of DJ Khalil), but in this reviewer's mind, the vocal execution in this one seemed a little stretched.
"Wake Me Up" was one of Avicii's first breakout hits that propelled him into international superstardom but it is interesting to note that the vocals and the lyrics were actually sung and penned by Blacc himself but in its original incarnation, he got no credit on this one and remains uncredited for the moment. But that might change with his acoustic take on the hit single that really showcases Blacc's voice. "Here Today" might be the polarizing song in the entire album because you either love it or you don't and this reviewer does not like it. If one listens to Blacc's previous works, one can take that he is not one for blatant cliches and "Here Today" comes off as one, complete with an overused chorus line, both lyrically and sonically. And like "Love Is The Answer," one cannot shake the feeling that Blacc is straining a little bit on the vocals.
While "The Man" can stand on its own as a power single, one of the really true highlights of the album and showcasing the entire current Aloe Blacc
experience is "Can You Do This." The song starts with a 7 second guitar strum to set the listener up for a wonderfully retro explosion of sound that harkens back to 1950s/early 1960s fast-moving soul, the kind of music that influenced greats like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry but Blacc also lends a decidedly modern spin on it. Some may call it creative overreach but this reviewer believes "Can You Do This" is a surprising but refreshingly creative spin.
Next track "Chasing" has Blacc actually in negative territory, proving he still can delve deep into life's struggles but he also gets into Sam Cooke territory here. Like the late Cooke, Blacc spins some rather dark and cynical lyrics that appear to call out gold-diggers that chase his money but surrounds it with a strangely positive musical vibe, complete with the hand-clapping chorus and refrain, something Cooke mastered early on in his career. The negative emotional impact from the lyrics juxtaposed with the feel-good positive musical vibe makes for a wonderfully created music paradox you can't tear yourself from! It's that good.
and Bill Withers would be very proud on next track "The Hand Is Quicker" as Blacc combines the 70's big-band Motown sounds from Stevie with the deep, come and get me vocal delivery of a Bill Withers. Speaking of the late and great Bill Withers...
"Ticking Bomb" feels like a complete tribute to the music great. reveling completely into Withers' versatility in country, soul and rock. The opening
guitar strum/bass drum line combined with a low-gravelly baritone vocal delivery lends an awesomely eerie feel (can you see this played during shows like "Supernatural" and "The Walking Dead?"). The final minute and 10 seconds is well worth the listen as he goes into full soul-wailing mode, lending a sort of weirldy calm urgency.
If you like come-hither romantic soul, then "Red Velvet Seat" has that covered for you although after multiple listens, one cannot shake the rather subtle sarcasm laced in what appears to be the aformentioned come-hither romanticism, perhaps a nod to the late and great Marvin Gaye and maybe even Barry White. Final track "Owe It All" is a sort of personal thank you letter on lyrical level but the sonic taste in this one is jarringly modern, something out of John Legend's playbook and considering the retro streak Blacc was on in the previous 5 tracks, its akin to a sonic slap in the face.
Lift Your Spirit is a solid major label debut, a long-awaited on at that considering it has been four years between releases. He would have broke out sooner if not for getting uncredited on the original "Wake Me Up," but "The Man" really set things in motion for the 35 year old musician. For the most part, he accomplished his goal of bringing some old school soul into play but this album had 3 major clunkers that keeps this album from scoring a near-perfecto. A solid start, but Lift Your Spirit has some rough edges to it that hopefully will be smoothed out on his second major label effort.