If you ask me about modern R&B music, I don’t have much of an opinion. Most of it is satisfyingly below my critical radar. When you consider most modern R&B — folks like Usher and KC & Jojo — they’re a cheerfully deathless bunch. They don’t share as much with R&B godfathers like Marvin Gaye or Al Green as they do with pop confections like N’Sync or the Backstreet Boys. The target demographic is the same, and there’s no coincidence to the fact that most teenybopper ballads are indistinguishable from your average boilerplate R&B single.
Considering the confluence of teen pop and R&B, the prospects for serious “old school” soul singers have not been good. If you don’t sing for the slow dances at the suburban proms, you’re singing in a strange sort of neo-soul vacuum. Artists like Maxwell and D’Angelo are focused so hard on channeling Marvin’s ghost that they have nothing but the deepest disdain for the pop crooning of their more lucrative peers. Artistic credibility in the realm of modern soul music seems to lie in direct proportion to the humble obeisance paid at the altars of their forefathers. When it works, as with D’Angelo’s spectacular Voodoo, it works well. When it doesn’t, watching paint dry can be more compelling.
This is the context in which Joseph “Amp” Fiddler has released his solo debut, Waltz of a Ghetto Fly. Fiddler has been around the block a few times, most notably as the keyboard player for George Clinton’s P-Funk. Tellingly, Clinton’s peripatetic musical influence shines through despite the sheen of orthodox soul. Fiddler’s taste for exotic texture manages to elevate Waltz of a Ghetto Fly above the level of your average neo-soul revival meeting.
There’s a crisp snap to the production that imbues the proceedings with a vaguely European air. Whereas most contemporary soul seems to hail straight from downtown Philadelphia, Amp Fiddler would be equally at home in the Berlin of !K7 records. As it is, Fiddler currently resides in Detroit, in the Conant Gardens region of 7 Mile — hardly a nexus of funky soul activity.
The album’s first track “I Believe In You”, also the first single, is a decidedly minimal funk workout, with a deceptively heavy synthesized bassline rolling deep under a tight scaffolding of funk guitar and popping rim shots. It’s the perfect introduction to Fiddler’s distinctively hoarse falsetto. His voice is somewhat similar to Maxwell’s — the only difference being that Fiddler possesses a spry tension quite at odds with Maxwell’s sleepy languor.
The album’s most immediately satisfying cut is “Superficial”. It’s a clever track, a half-winked salute to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” that injects a cosmopolitan house flavor into the high funk template. “Superficial” is followed by “Possibilities”, a repetitive slow jam with loose orchestral noodlings offset against a funky wah guitar. It’s one of the album’s weaker tracks, but the precisely tuned rhythm section still rewards close inspection.
“You Play Me” features Slum Village’s original producer, J Dilla, and borrows some of that group’s left-handed funk. “Eye To Eye” is another early ’70s period piece, featuring a guest appearance by Stevie Wonder’s longtime collaborator, the Fender Rhodes keyboard. It does such a great job of conjuring up mental images of that particular musical era that you almost expect to see an controversial Republican president facing a dicey reelection campaign in the face of a divisive foreign war … oh, wait. Never mind.
After a couple listless tracks, the album ratchets up the tension as it rounds the bases towards the final third. “Love & War” brings to mind some of Curtis Mayfield’s yearning political songs, set against a Latin house backdrop and featuring Fiddler’s son Dorian on the muted trumpet. “If You Can’t Get Me Off Your Mind” is one of the album’s more predictable tracks, with a ramshackle jazzy soul vibe that reminds of Soulive’s recent soul crossover.
The album’s final track, also the title track, again invites comparison to Mayfield’s social commentary, this time by presenting a double-edged portrait of the “Ghetto Fly”. It’s a fitting climax to a well-heeled and at times very subtle exploration of modern soul. If the album feels bloated in places, so much more the pity — but in so being it reflects the state of modern R&B all too accurately.