Toshi Reagon, by all accounts, lives and breathes music. The daughter of two Freedom Singers from the civil rights movement, she grew up in DC surrounded by the harmony of her mom’s a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Since 1990, she has been releasing her own music—an ecstatic blend of every American style there is—to small but knowing audiences.
Ms. Reagon is a classic “talent deserving wider recognition”—not just a hipster’s oddball taste. It’s a safe bet that she’ll never be a superstar as she shows zero interest in bending herself to fashion, glamour or trend, but her talent is as accessible as it is huge. Boasting a voice that can be either confessional or soul-shout broad and a bona fide songwriting talent, Toshi Reagon is a treasure waiting to be found.
Have You Heard is a title likely meant to echo a fan’s pitch to a friend. Have you heard Toshi Reagon? And that fan is likely to add that, really, you haven’t heard her until you heard her live. This new album seeks to create live groove in the studio, using members of Ms. Reagon’s band (Big Lovely) and few if any studio frills beyond some soulful backing vocal tracks. As a result, this disc comes from a working band as much as a solo artist—a group that knows how it locks together under the vision of a remarkable leader.
It’s worth mentioning that this disc was produced by Craig Street, the signature-sound wizard behind much brilliant work by Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright, Chris Whitley, and k.d. lang. Here, however, Mr. Street’s funky-folk “sound”—a crisp and layered blend of acoustic string instruments, jazz harmony, and roots-rock directness—is subordinate to the artist’s strong personality. Put another way—Ms. Reagon’s eclectic vision is well complimented by Mr. Street’s sheen of smart, keen Americana. The voices, mandolin, scratch-happy guitars, subtle organ and lightly funky percussion come from the past the way The Band did on Big Pink but also come pleasantly from nowhere—music so fresh that you need to listen to it right away so the flavors remain strong.
Though Ms. Reagon’s triumphant voice is a strong through-line, Have You Heard divides easily between introspective folk songs and funky rockers of various stripes. “Have You Heard” starts things with gospel-driven groove, a tambourine driving forward a blues-rock version of faith: “I got chills in my eyes from lookin’ above / I am sure it’s a sign of the Lord / . . . Did you breathe the silky air, the breath of life / I am sure it’s a sign of the Lord.” The spirit of Sweet Honey in the Rock is there from the start, but it’s updated by soul-music harmonies and the strummed acoustic groove of sixties rock. The very next track, “22 Hours”, flips the coin neatly over: a secular song of love/sex that drops Ms. Reagon’s voice lower and darker, with layers of Prince-ly harmonies and a greasy funk topped off with wailing harmonica on the tag. “Didn’t I Tell You” is a snap-to-it bassline-driven come on that gives Ms. Reagon bragging rights as a successor to Aretha. When she sings “didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I” and lets a series of “baby- baby, ooooh"s leak out of her well of desire—all made more dangerous by Glenn Patscha’s insinuating organ—you become a fan straight away.
Ms. Reagon’s softer side is equally believable. “You” is a wounded confessional that whispers over a picked guitar pattern but slowly builds thanks to quiet vocal harmonies and an atmosphere of keyboard sounds that remind us that Mr. Street is also associated with MeShell Ndegeocello. On “Dream”, the quiet pattern is closer to acoustic blues, but the gentle bed of wordless vocals eventually turns into Sweet Honey-ish off-kilter harmony. The most surprising quiet song, however, is the one cover, “Heartbreak Hotel”. Ms. Reagon transforms the familiar melody by abstracting it into a slyer bent-note blues sung over the most minimal of acoustic accompaniments. The use of background vocals to repeat “So lonesome I could die” takes just enough of the Elvis-swagger out of the tune and puts it directly in Toshi’s sweet spot: wounded optimism. Has anyone ever sung more convincingly from the bottom of the heap or sounded more like her hope alone could lift her up? Sure—Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight. That’s the kind of vocal company Toshi Reagon keeps on this record.
But the best tracks may be those that go straight at a more grooving vein of musical gold. “Ooh Wee” is straight funk, goosed by Patcha’s wah-ed clavinet and piano and featuring an array of background vocals so hot that they actually give the song its name. “Soul ‘n’ Deep” is an electric-guitar track with staccato vocals that sounds like the best thing, say, Sheryl Crow, has ever done—pop bright but layered in soulful vocal tracks that echo and bounce through the mix seductively. “Building Blues” is even better. Ms. Reagon’s first syllable and first line—“Ehhhhh-aahhhh-I, see the sun go down” is a symphony in one measure. The funk-blues groove is chasm-deep, with Mr. Street’s production creating just the right frayed sound as the vocals gorgeously split into harmony on the chorus: “Baby, won’t you please stare outside this window with me / We gots to stay high to see.”
Have You Heard keeps you high just listening, and it keeps you wondering how this kind of neo-soul, neo-rock still sells so few copies. But, of course, this stuff is aimed at adults, hyped on NPR rather than TRL, and we adults—we don’t buy music in bulk any more, right?
Do yourself (and Toshi Reagon, and—really—all of us) a favor: buy a few copies and whip them out at your favorite holiday gathering this year. “Have you heard Toshi Reagon?” you can ask, making you the hippest person under the mistletoe. And with Toshi rather than Perry Como on the hi-fi, you’ll digest your turkey better.