At 26 years old, Eli “Paperboy” Reed has already walked the path of soul crooners three times his own age. His resume is littered with references to mornings spent sweeping up after Gospel service up in Chicago and evenings spent grinding it out in Juke Joints down in the Mississippi Delta. If this kid told you he got himself around the country hopping train cars, you probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Already a minor sensation in his native New England, Reed has garnered international acclaim as of late, due in no small part to his incendiary live show. Backed by a crackerjack eight-piece who go by the handle True Loves, Reed leaves stages in splinters and routinely draws comparisons to Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. While his fellow soul revivalists over at the Daptone label continue to utilize archaic recording methods, Reed has joined forces with hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo for Come and Get It, his high-resolution major-label debut.
Although Reed is clearly reverent of his genre of choice, his first release for Capitol has more in common with Amy Winehouse than anything that came out of Stax during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Come and Get It contains 12 concise, razor-sharp tunes, almost all of which are smothered in Top 40 gloss by the album’s producer. Mike Elizondo is known outside of the hit-making crowd he usually collaborates with (Gwen Stefani, Maroon 5) as the producer who took Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine away from Jon Brion, stamping the life out of it in the process. By trying to make an album full of vintage sounds palatable to a modern day audience, Elizondo nearly robs Come and Get It of its most essential ingredient: soul.
Though the performances on the album, from the rhythm section on down to the strings and horns, are of the highest caliber, they aren’t organically presented. Bass and guitar lack presence while drums are particularly problematic. Elizondo has placed the drums high up in the mix yet compressed them to such a degree that they provide only the flimsiest of backbones. This is an album that should evoke images of a cramped, stifling hot basement full of musicians trying to get a track down to tape before the sun comes up. Instead, when the band tears into the ferocious live staple “Explosion”, one can’t help but hear the track being pieced together on Pro Tools in some studio out in Burbank.
Reed’s infectious songwriting, along with his formidable voice, are what keep this project from sinking under the weight of its lumbering production. Realizing that soul music is supposed to be a universal experience, Reed plays a steady mix of barnburners and ballads and keeps his themes simple. He lays out his mission statement on the title track, when he sings “if you want the love of a man, come and get it.” He doesn’t offer many new insights on lovin’ and squeezin or a kissin’ and a pleasin’ but he knows his way inside of a catchy chorus, as he proves on the sure to be often quoted “Name Calling”. He tips his cap frequently to heroes like Sam Cooke (the thankfully unfussy ballad “Pick your Battles”) and Tyrone Davis (“I Found You Out”) and pays tribute to late unknown Boston singer Frank Lynch on the leadoff track, “Young Girl”. The album climaxes just four songs in with the smoldering “Just Like Me”. While the band locks into a nasty groove that should have listeners wrinkling up their noses in approval, Reed closes the track out with a series of orgasmic, Princely shrieks. The excitement level is rarely as high again.
As long as the Paperboy keeps rolling his crew on down the road, unsuspecting audiences should continue be his for the taking. As a recording artist, however, he needs to offer up more than the plastic soul of his major label debut if he wants continue to find his name mentioned in the same breath as the masters of soul.