Vegetarian Soul Food
The release of His Name Is Alive’s new album was held up, according to the 4AD website, by “near legendary” problems with the cover. The image of the sleeve on the 4AD website looks cooler than the version I received. The stock is a rough textured, wheat-colored, earthy, organic-looking card overprinted with shady, monochrome, landscape photographs. It’s probably just the color adjustment on my monitor, but on the 4AD website version, a deep blue tint seems to run through the wheat shade instead of the dull, eggplant on my copy, which only makes the photographs look dim in a non-mysterious way. The cobalt blue tint is much cooler. With it, the combination of photography, cardstock and tint illustrate the album’s title, but the duller tint on the review copy reflects the music more accurately. The blues promised on someday my blues will cover the earth are not really there; instead, we have a murky, brown-purple, substitute: eggplant music.
someday my blues will cover the earth is not a bad album; “nothing special”, “write my name in the groove”, and the title song are gorgeous melodic pieces with lyrics that bypass the typical R&B cliches, or skew them in a dreamy, hallucinatory direction: “Write my name in the groove / Write my name in the groove / My heart is filled up with holes / And they spill all over you”. The album is expertly paced and slips effortlessly from one mellow, midi-sequenced groove to the next. Lovetta Pippin’s voice has depth and texture and the artist formerly known as Warren Defever (he now spells it “Warn”) is a talented arranger and writer. So what gives someday my blues will cover the earth the eggplant blahs?
The problem partly consists in the genre that His Name Is Alive have chosen to explore on this album. Post-millennial R&B is the African-American equivalent of country & western: gushy, cheesy, overwrought, ear-sugar, with all the charisma and sex appeal of a soggy Depends. It is hard to imagine a less interesting musical direction for His Name Is Alive, with the possible exception of reggae. Warn is undoubtedly inspired by Lovetta Pippen’s voice and the challenge of writing and arranging in a genre alien to His Name Is Alive’s ambient-goth-acoustic roots. As far as contemporary R&B goes, someday my blues will cover the earth is a creditable effort, but contemporary R&B just doesn’t go very far. It is a formulaic, convention-laden, profit-driven, popular genre that takes no chances and aims to produce predictable, platinum, product. Warn, understandably, does not attempt to revolutionize the field on his first outing, he tries to fit in. His Name Is Alive do not imprint their indie seal on the genre or expand its rigid limits significantly. Instead, they are transformed by the genre’s dreary conventions (mid-tempo beats, bass-heavy, keyboard-driven ballads, synthesized strings, silky backing vocals) into a redundant simulation.
One of the album’s most interesting moments comes when Warn invokes the experimental spirit of early His Name Is Alive for a snatch of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”, with Lovetta singing over sparse piano and guitar. The track is evidently taken from a lo-fi source and the rain in the background makes the recording sound like a crackly old ‘30s jazz side. All too soon, however, the smooth, sequenced beats of “write my name in the groove” intervene and we are back to the serious business of simulating R&B.
R&B has two emotive modes: sexy and sad (there is also a twofer combo: sexy-but-sad). We are either sexing somebody up, bawling our eyes out because somebody’s sexing somebody else up, or getting over somebody by drying our eyes and getting ready to sex up somebody else. Beck took the sexy route on Midnight Vultures. The advantage with that trajectory is that it is never far from funny (Barry White, Rick James, Prince). With the sad mode, however, if you don’t succeed in being heart-breaking, there’s nowhere to go beyond depression and boredom, which brings us back to the serious, deep purple aspect of this eggplant music.
The Duke Ellington reference, the “near legendary” cover art and the extra portentous hype that 4AD are spreading over this release, clue us into the suggestion that His Name Is Alive have produced a major statement this time: something classic and timeless in a smoky, bluesy, Lady-Day-Meets-Chet-Baker, sad-you-up-to-ecstatic-heights-of-melancholy vein. Three songs have the word “blues” in their titles, as if to underscore the idea that some serious emotion is written in these grooves. But neither Warn nor Lovetta sound as if they have ever had the blues about anything more serious than a bad cold. Lovetta sings nicely on her own “Happy Blues” and on Warn’s “Karin’s Blues” (an uninspired retread of the “been down so long it looks like up to me” riff), but she has some living to do before her voice develops the emotional range to match its technical capability. To turn Warn into a funky soul man, on the other hand, this CD only needs to go platinum. That is a distinct possibility, because someday my blues will cover the earth is pleasant, sellable, blues-lite: genuine, real-deal, earth muffin feel, take-me-seriously, men-have-feelings-too, pc, hemp fired, eggplant-enriched, vegetarian soul food.