This week's free single is the title track for his latest album, Lift Your Spirit, Blacc's third solo album. Having listened to samples from each of his three albums I can say that Lift Your Spirit is definitely a change of artistic direction for him. And I think that, regrettably, this is his best-received album yet.
Listen to those funk guitars and handclaps; there is something distinctly Jackson 5 about this song's opening. He leads with the hook to introduce the listener to it, complete with back-up vocals and 70s harmonies. He blends these old influences with modern lyrics, talking about how the times, they are a-changing:
"Times have changed, everything's strange, nothing's what it seems.
Is a friend someone who drops in or a face on a telephone screen?"
I think this conflict between new and old defines this song more than anything else.
I've complained about songs that struggle to settle on an identity before (see my take on Matt Hires' "Restless Heart"). Aloe Blacc has the same malady at an even higher degree. Old school funk influences clash with hip-hop styled "hey-ho"s in the background. 70s style string accents don't jive well with the modern pop style. The anthemic back-up vocals further confuse whatever genre this song is supposed to be.
It's not to say the song is shipwrecked because of it. Aloe Blacc is certainly talented; he plays the trumpet, and he's got a great, soulful tone to rival the likes of Pharrell Williams and other R&B singers that are working on the pop music scene, but I'm already accustomed to hearing Blacc's voice backed by Aviicii's crazy Swedish house music. By comparison, this song and the rest of his new album just sounds... weak.
Now, I nearly wrote Aloe Blacc off as an artist who has cashed his 15 minutes - seven and a half for "Wake Me Up" and seven and a half more for "The Man". But I gave him the benefit of the doubt and listened to his old albums and, guys, it's like listening to a different artist. His first album, Shine Through, is full of artistic references and allusions to his predecessors: Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder. He takes "A Change is Gonna Come" and turns it on its head in a style one reviewer described as trip-hop. This album, released in 2006, uses the kind of sounds - electronic and Latino influences - that Justin Timberlake employed in 2013 on The 20/20 Experience, and Blacc does it well.
His second album, Good Things, is similarly inspired, though it does away with most of the electronic work. Instead he satisfies his genre wanderlust with hip-hop, R&B, reggae, gospel and psychedelic rock influences, and it all sounds good. By comparison, Lift Your Spirit leaves so much to be desired, and I'm certainly not compelled to buy anything off it, not even the album's hit opening track, "The Man", which is playing on radios across the nation.
So I'm glad I listened to Aloe Blacc, and that he's getting some face time on the iTunes featured free single banner, but not because of this new album. If anything, I think I'm moved to see the disappointing influence of the pop music sphere and the negative effect it can have on very talented people. I'd love to see another album from Blacc - hopefully one that aims to share his love for vintage music into the mainstream. Until then, I give "Life Your Spirit"
3 out of 5.