I was fortunate enough to jump on the Soulive train early. I can’t remember where or when I first saw them live, but it was definitely early-mid-2001, around the time their second album (and first major label effort), Doin’ Something dropped. I became a fan immediately. Not only did the New York based jazz/funk trio have serious chops, but they knew their way around a groove. I hustled to buy Doin’ Something afterward (and bought the two albums they released following), but the albums never seemed to give me the same vibe that their stage show did. I’ve always had a boredom issue when it came to listening to instrumental music on record. Unlike on stage, where the band can catch a groove and take it to unexpected places, on records I just kinda sit there and wait for a melody or a hook to pop up somewhere. My favorite moments on their albums were the ones on which guest vocalists were enlisted, and God bless ‘em for having great taste in guest vocalists. Talib Kweli, Chaka Khan, and Dave Matthews—all favorites of mine—were among the artists who took time out to bless Soulive with their vocal talents.
Well, someone up there heard my pleas. For their fifth album (and their first on the reconstituted Stax label), what does Soulive go out and do? Get themselves a full-time lead vocalist. Boston-based singer Toussaint joins original members Eric Krasno (guitar) and brothers Neal (Hammond B-3 organ) and Alan Evans (drums), and the result? Well, if you run a record store, you should definitely pull Soulive out of your jazz section. They’re… well, what are they exactly? Whether you think they’re more in line with R&B, funk, rock, or they belong in the jam band category that claims everyone from The Roots to Dave Matthews Band, you can’t dispute one fact: No Place Like Soul is good!
To those who are worried that the addition of a lead singer would make Soulive sound more like a traditional R&B band, don’t fret. I’d say they have more in line with a band like Robert Randolph & the Family Band, pulling from a variety of genres while having a solid soul base. In addition to R&B and funk, Toussaint’s husky voice occasionally slips into a reggae cadence, while Krasno’s guitar is similarly versatile: He’s obviously listened to his share of both Hendrix and James Brown records.
Highlights include the simmering, island-spiced “Callin’”, on which Toussaint sounds like John Legend after being inhabited by the ghosts of Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, and the acoustic-kissed “Mary”, which combines a mellow groove with vaguely religious lyrics. The lovelorn “Never Know” is a swaying ballad, which should find it’s way onto quiet storm play lists next to artists like Musiq Soulchild.
That’s not to say the band doesn’t fare as well when the tempo is turned up. “Yeah Yeah” is funkier than 3-day old drawers, with blistering bass, drums, and quotes from Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and Brick’s disco classic “Dazz”. The hilarious “One of These Days” is sort of a 21st century, righteous funk groove update of C&C Music Factory’s “Things That Make You Go Hmm”.
One could say that the addition of two purely instrumental tracks on “No Place like Soul” is playing it safe, but that feeling would only last until you heard the thundering groove of “Outrage”, a jam that’s as fiery as its title indicates. The album’s other instrumental cut, “Bubble”, proves that Soulive has been checking out some classic rock. Krasno’s guitar wails are very reminiscent of Purple Rain-era Prince, while Alan Evans pounds his drums with the force of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. There’s even a bit towards the middle of the song that will give all of you Zep fans “D’Yer Maker” flashbacks.
No Place like Soul is easily the band’s best album yet. In one fell swoop, Soulive has gone from a great live band that makes okay albums to a band capable of bringing it on the stage and on wax. Turns out that a full-time lead singer is just what the doctor ordered.