A pure pleasure: doo-wop songs from a unique voice and a perfect band.
Listening to the new album (and Blue Note debut) by New Orleans singer Aaron Neville, I have had trouble keeping a smile off of my face. I’ve listened to it in my car—a lot—and I’ve sent it through the headphones while walking the dog, transforming a winter evening into something sunny. I’ve pumped it through the living room speakers in the morning, and I’ve even tried it out on a difficult day when things were not going so well for me, to some fine effect.
This is an old-school record by an old-school voice. Music fans will know Aaron Neville, of course, as one of The Neville Brothers, but also as the owner of one of the most distinct vocal sounds in American recording history. Now a bit over 70, Neville had hits in the 1960s—most notably “Tell It Like It Is” in ‘67—but has been a consistent presence in US roots music for decades. His signature sound is a sweet, soaring tenor that moves into falsetto with a curious “hiccup” that turns into an exaggerated vibrato that quavers with emotion.
My True Story is a look backward by Neville on doo-wop songs from his young years that, he says, formed his style and sensibility. It is an unabashed callback to another era, but wondrous and hard earned. The band backing him up is stellar: co-producer Keith Richards on guitar (yeah, that Keith Richards, never calling attention to himself), Greg Leisz on guitar, Benmont Tench (of Petty’s Heartbreakers) on organ, Tony Scherr on bass, and George Receli (of Dylan’s band) on drums. Everything was recorded live, most in first takes, and it all sounds perfectly effortless and easy—folks who love this music, caressing it with love, nice and easy.
The songs are classics all. “Be My Baby”, “Ruby, Baby”, “Tears on My Pillow”, “Under the Boardwalk”, “This Magic Moment”. The ones you don’t recognize by title are familiar in sound or because they are part of the DNA or early rock that has crept into every note and syllable of soul and rock as we know it today. For Neville’s voice, this stuff is mother’s milk: what feeds it and features it best. What I like most about the record is that all of this nostalgia is presented without sentiment. There are no strings here, no big orchestra, no long set-ups or over-dramatic moments. Rather, My True Story presents itself like pure luck—like you wandered into a club somewhere and came upon the best band possible with an inspired singer taking a trip back in time. They’re just playing and singing these songs, not presenting them for posterity but just enjoying them. And you can too.
So it’s not overproduced, but the trappings are all there too. “This Magic Moment” is set up as a medley with “True Love”, for example, in a seamless transition, with the necessary-to-doo-wop background singers appearing smooth-as-silk in all the right places. The other singers are built from some of the great old voices (Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five, Bobby Jay of the Teenagers, Dickie Harmon of the Del-Vikings), and they are never too slick. The recording is utterly perfect—the voices blend smoothly but also can tease the individual sounds apart with your ears and hear distinctive personalities there. Where three ought to be a tight little horn section—there it is, punch up the rhythm section with some brassy panache.
But above all the other voices and instruments is Neville, still sounding as flexible and sweet as ever, still sounding just like Aaron Neville for sure. Playing My True Story in my car for the past few weeks, I’ve gotten plenty of friends reacting to his voice. Some know him immediately and delight in him, like an old friend who, in this case, is singing the songs an old friend ought to be singing. Younger folks don’t know him by name but have heard the sound, maybe on a movie soundtrack or maybe just out in the culture. I’ve discovered that a few people are just irritated by his voice, which is actually distinctive enough (or, if you’re like my friend J, annoying enough) to push listeners into one camp or the other.
But for me, this is all just a joy. I’m too young (52—not that young, I know) to hear this music as any kind of soundtrack to my life, but it sounds like the America that I know anyway—soulful and sweet at once, relaxed and casual even as great performers do their work with a beautiful artful, focus on the stories of love and heartbreak and yearning that people have always cared about.
It’s worth noting that this is Neville’s first record on Blue Note, the great jazz label. This is not a jazz record by any stretch, and it’s not “Aaron Neville Does Jazz Standards” or him playing with jazz musicians or anything like that. Blue Note has been bringing in artists like this in recent years, and that trend is continuing under new (since early 2012) label president Don Was. Was was one of the guys behind that crazy band Was Not Was a couple decades back, and he has a background as a jazz nerd, a soul music lover, and a wise producer of many artists across the spectrum.
You might get nervous that Blue Note is now in the hands of a guy like Was, putting out doo-wop records, except that the coming weeks will also feature incredible Blue Note discs by Wayne Shorter and Joe Lovano. Music is a wonderful thing—varied and rich and wondrous. My True Story sits right in the middle of it all, nostalgic but beautiful, distinctive but connected. Blue Note should be proud to be its home.
I’ll be playing it for months to come, even as the weather turns warm and then cool again, with this old music keeping things toasty in my heart.