The tiger is back to his tricks.
Toiling in his den at Trans-Yank Studios in London, the tiger and his claws have concocted a follow-up on par with the supreme soul music stylings of Soul in the Hole (2009). Shawn Lee, the man behind the creepy yet fetching tiger mask, helms a production that includes no less than 10 guest vocalists and collaborators. On Sing a Song, Lee produces and plays on a dozen tracks that reveals a reverence for late ’60s/early ’70s soul but wisely and ever-so-carefully sidesteps a sepia-tinged nostalgia trip. Instead, he updates that era’s lexicon by incorporating some strands of psychedelia and his own special, secret sound effects, making his latest Ubiquity Records offering more than a just another soul homage.
Sing a Song further underscores that Shawn Lee is one of the best-kept secrets on iTunes. (A secret to listeners, anyway. Hollywood, high profile ad agencies, and the video game industry have all called upon Lee’s production savvy on a number of occasions. CSI: Miami, Desperate Housewives, and Ugly Betty are just a few of the vehicles to feature Lee and his instrumental side project, The Ping Pong Orchestra.) Lee takes great care in adorning his songs with just the right elements — yes, those are real strings — and that extends to finding the best voice for each song.
The Wichita-born, London-dwelling producer enlists one of the finest features from Soul in the Hole for Sing a Song — the voice of Fanny Franklin. Lee and Franklin duet on the album’s slow-burning opener, “Shut Up and Learn”. Their voices naturally suit one another to render the declarative tone of the lyrics. It takes two to make the song the sumptuous spread of soul that it is.
Winking to that very quality, “It Takes Two” is also the name of the album’s second song. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston Motown hit from 1967 of the same name. Sonically, it boasts similar attributes, but this is a completely original Lee production, which features guest vocalist Marcus Malone. In his detailed liner notes about each song, Shawn Lee explains that Malone was, in fact, signed to Motown’s publishing division in the late ’60s. “It Takes Two” cannily appropriates “The Sound of Young America” for the sound of 2010.
“Who Are You?” keeps Lee’s soul train chugging alone. While Bing Ji Ling’s vocals are kept to a minimum — essentially, he’s called upon to intone the song’s title with different phrasings throughout the track — the incessant movement of the song illustrates Lee’s rhythmic aptitude. Imagine the musical accompaniment for an early 1970s Sesame Street lesson on the function of question marks, and you’ll approximate the colorful kaleidoscopic charms of “Who Are You?”
The Superimposers, also known as London-based duo Dan Warden and Miles Copeland, join Shawn Lee on a pair of cuts, “Fade Up” and “Don’t Let That Feeling”. Comparatively ambient in tone to the more rhythm and blues-infused cuts, the tracks herald Lee’s full-length work with the duo as both a band member and producer of their Sunshine Pops! (2010) album.
The album’s best tracks, however, arrive in the second half of the album. “Older”, which would kick off Side Two if Sing a Song was released during the era it salutes, features a low-key but effective performance by Miles Bonny, a rapper/singer/producer/trumpeter who hails from Shawn Lee’s home state. The layering of fuzzy guitar and flügelhorn (played by Bonny) over Lee’s hypnotizing groove produces one of the most compulsively listenable four minutes on the album.
Those who only have three minutes to spare should advance directly to track number 10, an appropriate number for a flawless track. “Lucy Lucy” ushers the album into the territory of irresistible horn, bass, and drum-driven soul. The slightly congested quality of Jeremiah’s voice is but one of many assets the track has going for it. In a more balanced world, where independent labels are accorded the same support as major labels, “Lucy Lucy” would be the summer jam.
By the close of Sing a Song, with the soft and understated “Meadow in the Summer”, Shawn Lee has escorted listeners through a dozen different chutes of his particular genius. Not everything may suit everyone’s taste — the novelty of “Christopher Walken on Sunshine” wears thin after a few spins — but Shawn Lee is not trying to propitiate the masses. To paraphrase the album’s opener, school’s in session and some folks would do well to shut up and learn something from Shawn Lee.