[7 December 2009]
Eric Roberson is a star, which sounds strange to people who only listen to black music via BET and Top 40 radio and have never heard of him. But make no mistake, Roberson’s fan base is considerable, and rabid.
After six well-received, well-constructed independent releases, songwriting for the likes of Vivian Green and 112 (his “Funny Feelings” remains one of the strongest songs that group ever recorded), and constant touring, Roberson can rightly be called the king of underground soul. That’s if he cared about such labels. He’s all about the music and his fans, and his new album, Music Fan First, gives his fans more of what they expect: melodic soul with his usual subtle shifts in pacing and rhythm, romantic but not maudlin or condescending lyricism, and inspired collaborations.
In fact, what is most notable about this new album is how his lyricism has grown even sharper since we last heard him on …Left two years ago.
Take “She”, a stunningly beautiful love song that opens, “Woke up, reached over and noticed that she’s not here / If last night was a dream, then life is so unfair / I dug my head in the pillow and suddenly smelled her hair / As I heard her footsteps coming back up the stairs”. Roberson’s singing perfectly conveys the feelings one gets with a burgeoning love affair. It is, by turns, plaintive and insistent as new love can often be. Or take “A Tale of Two”, an affecting song about two people who fall in love even though they both have relationships. Better still, take “The Power that Kisses Hold”, where he schools brothers who take their women for granted with clever lines like “Now you just reach whenever you wanting / A little piece, but you missing something / Think back when you were lost in the newness / You act as if somehow now you’re clueless”. “The Power that Kisses Hold” is a great example of Roberson’s approach to songwriting. This is a funky jam, with a thrilling horn arrangement, made to get folks up and moving. It’s an inspired move to make a song that chastises men who take advantage of their women the funkiest joint on the record. It’s clear that the song is as much for the brothers as it is for the sisters.
Music Fan First is an accomplished work and there is much to love on it, including his ode to Howard University women, “Howard Girls”, which features Brandon Hines, Geno Young, and Aaron Abernathy; his truly infectious collaboration with funk/soul genius Sy Smith on “Celebrate”; and the slight electronica-inspired production on “Bad For Me” and his Lalah Hathaway duet, “Dealing”.
The only real problem, then, is that the album, at 17 tracks (18 if you get the Itunes download), is just too long for anyone to really get through in one sitting, which means that people would be likely to miss some of the best songs. Shaving off one or two songs (starting with the oddly generic “Breakitdown”) would significantly increase the enjoyment factor. But this is ultimately a minor concern. Eric Roberson has released his 7th straight quality recording, making him one of the most consistent black musicians currently recording. And, like I said he’s a star. A slightly overlong album isn’t going to change that. Nor should it.