Simply Beautiful: Glenn Lewis for the Soul
It begins with those opening bars—déjà vu Stevie circa 1972 . . . “Superwoman” . . . Music on My Mind. And then the voice . . . Stevie? Naw that ain’t Stevie . . . this ain’t 1972. By now the song “Don’t You Forget It” is well known and as ubiquitous as Carl Thomas’s “I Wish” was two blue winters ago. The voice—fabulously mellifluous—behind the song belongs to Glenn Lewis, Toronto native, son of a reggae singing Yardie, self-described shy boy, poised and primed as the next neo-soul poster boy. But to tag Lewis and his debut World Outside My Window with “neo-soul” label, does not do justice to one of the most “beautiful” R&B recordings in some time.
Glenn Lewis’s sound brings the obvious comparisons to Maxwell, the aforementioned Carl Thomas and Stevie Wonder and even Donell Jones. But the laid back neo-‘70s moog groove of World Outside My Window probably best recalls, Love Stories (2000) the very fine and hopelessly ignored recording by Frank McCombs. Whereas the Sony label seemed at a lost at how to plug McCombs into the mix (no dreds so he can’t be neo-soul, and he ain’t a thug lover like Jaheim so he can’t go urban, so it must be smooove jazz), Epic seems hell bent on getting Lewis the wider audience he justifiably deserves.
Audiences were first made aware of Glenn Lewis on the compilation recording Red Star Sounds. Though the recording included new music from Macy Gray, Nelly Furtado, the neo-soul princess India.Arie and Erykah Badu (the lilting gangsta groovie “Today”) and a remixed version of Jill Scott’s “Long Walk”, the recording was primarily a showcase for up and coming (and derivative) acts like Jack Herrera , Lathun and of course Lewis. Lewis’s “Don’t You Forget It” broke through and began receiving heavy radio and video airplay. Not much of a song on first listen, the song literally lulls you into its introspective world if only because of the sheer “beauty” of Lewis’s voice. Like those “pretty” soul boys that came before him—Babyface and Keith Washington come immediately to mind—Lewis eschews the grits and gravy aesthetic, choosing instead a honey-brown delivery. Lewis also turned in vocals on De La’s “Am I Worthy?” from their just released AOI: Bionix, but ultimately it’s the Stevie thing—Lewis sounds like he been listening to Stevie Wonder since he been in the womb. In promotional material Lewis relates the story of singing Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love” at a high school talent show and having folks in the audience think that he was lip-synching the song.
The affinity to Wonder’s vocal style is particularly evident on the lead single, with its “Super Woman”-like intro and the wonderful “It’s Not Fair” which is a loose interpolation of Wonder’s classic “All in Love Is Fair.” The sermonic “It’s Not Fair” is easily the disc’s strongest track. The backing vocals on the song, which at times function as a long sensuous and mournful moan, also recall Wonder’s brilliant “Love’s in Need of Love Today” from the career defining Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Drawn from real-time drama, the song details a salacious relationship between Lewis’s girlfriend and his best friend. While he alternates verses to address each, it is on the song’s bridge that Lewis draws blood and tears skin as he sings on the brink of tears and seeming total emotional collapse, “It’s not fair / After all I sacrificed / For my seeds . . . to give life / With everything, I lived for you to be happy . . . The life and love you breathed into my heart / Slipping away—dying today.” A subtle reminder perhaps, that Lewis wields soft words and his soft voice with a gangsta’s precision. By the time Lewis is heard alternately moaning and hollering, it is all too easy to envision him as broken and shattered. It is the most brilliant moment of a project that is rife with so many accomplished moments.
Lewis’s innocence as an artist comes through on the aptly titled “Simple Things” as he speaks over the string-laden intro “Ai yo, are you recording?” A likely second single—could have been the lead single—“Simple Things” is one of those flutter-thumpers (SUV bumping midtempos) where Lewis’s own vocals are layered behind as backing vocals and the song soars like a rush of caramel ecstasy. On the laid-back groove “This Love” the string arrangements recall the introduction of LTD’s “Concentrate on You”. Produced by Touch of Jazz’s Andre Harris and Vidal Davis (MJ’s “Butterflies” and Jill Scott’s Who Is Jill Scott?), throughout World Outside My Window, Lewis keeps the lyrics simple and accessible ( just like De La trying to punch a hole in your Yankee cap) as he laments in the song’s chorus “This love, your love, my love it used to be our love.” On the gothic styled “Is It True” Lewis challenges his honey about her infidelity (“is it true . . . my man said he hit it too”). The quirky production of “Is It True” is also present on the infectious mid-tempo booty-shaker “Never Too Late”. The song is built around an underwater like thump (think the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds meets Maxwell’s “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).” “Take You High” recalls mid-temp grooves like Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Happy Feelings” and “Golden Time of the Day.”
Other standout tracks include the pleading (not quite beggin’ like Keith), “Lonely”, the bouncy “One More Day” and “Sorry”, which is the only time Lewis “gits grits and gravy”, though more B. Smith’s (upscale and expensive and named after the Afro-Nubian counterpart to Martha Stewart) than Sylvia’s (both NYC Soul Food eateries). Lewis also pays tribute to his young songs of the happy “Beautiful Eyes.”
Like some many neo-soul recordings that are supposed to “change the game” (in my mind only Bilal’s largely ignored 1st Born Second did which speaks volumes about such assertions), Lewis is not the post-modern Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye (always invoked because of a general lack of musical literacy among neo-soul performers), or Donny Hathaway (quiz: name one Hathaway song that wasn’t recorded with Roberta Flack or recorded for the X-mas season). What Glenn Lewis is a fine singer/songwriter whose debut recording is a fitting addition to the modern soul tradition.