From the über-self-referential beginnings of “Blazing the Crop” (sample lyric: “Rae and Christian / Blazin’ the Crop / Don’t stop y’all till the break of dawn”) it is apparent that Rae & Christian are making a well-heralded return, awaiting praise like football heroes returning home after winning the cup. Arrogant, indeed, yet like their neighbors, Manchester United, Mark Rae and Steve Christian have earned the right to boast.
Rae & Christian’s 1998 debut Northern Sulphuric Soul was so stylish—astutely meandering through house, Northern Soul, hip-hop and disco—that it gave the duo cross-over cred with both the hip-hop and indie crowds in a way that only Roni Size and Portishead have managed to achieve in recent memory. Because of their production skills and versatility, Rae & Christian have been the remix choice for heavyweights like Moby, Red Snapper, Eagle Eye Cherry, The Pharcyde and Lamb and the debut featured guest spots by Jeru, The Jungle Brothers and Qball among others.
After making their lively entrance on “Blazing the Crop”, Rae & Christian roll out an even loftier team of collaborators. “Hold Us Down” is a slinky, creepily appealing cut showcasing the long lost cult reggae act, the Congos (many will be familiar with their 1977 touchstone Heart of the Congos, but like me, wonder just where in oblivion Rae & Christian were able to find them?).
The Pharcyde then payback Rae & Christian for the remix favors on “It Ain’t Nothing Like” (The Pharcyde returns on the eighth track “Let it Go”) While the track is short on frills and tricks, it is also some of the most effective hip-hop I’ve heard in some time; the rhymes are tight and clean and a catchy looping bassline works in perfect compliment. While that track is excellent, the first real show-stopper comes with Bobby Womack’s appearance on “Get a Life”. The song is an odd assemblage; acoustic guitar—seemingly of the singer/songwriter variety—begins the track then remains at the melody’s foundation before the exasperating Womack vocal spins a sordidly delicious tale of a telephone stalker. Yet, it is the change of style that does Rae & Christian so well. They easily phase from Womack’s wilds to the stoned, orchestral, trip-hop cool of “Not Just Anybody” with lilting vocals from Kate Rogers.
Then, as if Womack and the Congos weren’t enough, R&C employ the Brazilian jazz singer Tania Maria backed by a 40 piece orchestra to churn out the sultry “Vai Viver a Vida” in her native Portugese. After the Pharcyde’s soulful “Let It Go”, R&C batter through the album’s most hostile track, “Ready to Roll”—slamming across genres on this instrumental as only they can. However, that track is a mere tease as Sleepwalking reaches its peak when Womack returns for an inky, wrenching cover of “Wake Up Everybody”, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ 1975 R&B smash.
Normally, an artist would have a hard time following Womack’s cover with anything, but R&C are again worthy of the task. The record closes with “Salvation”, an epic comedown, courtesy of a massive vocal by Siron, R&C’s liveshow frontwoman. Soothing piano and Siron’s equally tranquil vocal blend for a grabbing melody then quickly duck-out short of the three-minute mark just as they seem to be taking hold for the long run. Such an abrupt end is testament to Sleepwalking‘s unrelenting desire for boldness and ability to execute such grand designs. Again, unflinching confidence of this variety is generally only possible when deserved.
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// Notes from the Road
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