Anderson East’s voice belongs on a jukebox. Granted, he’s relatively young, but he sounds like the cigarette you swore you wouldn’t smoke after a night of whiskey and long neck bottles. Fair enough, Encore, his second major label release, might be a premature title for someone so early in their career. Also, you can’t deny that the album’s cover – black and white, East staring pensively into the camera, pseudo-intimate cursive script – feels a little more Brooklyn than Nashville. Still, make no mistake: this all belies the album’s soulful collection of tunes, each one delivered with confidence and poise.
East specializes in a heartsick-tinged rhythm and blues. Standout track “If You Keep Leaving Me” is a grinding 6/8 ballad that Charles Bradly would have loved. With the support of tight background vocals and a B3 organ, East sells the heartbreak sentiment with ample conviction. Leadoff track “King for a Day” is an easygoing slice of vintage blues backed up by a solid horn frontline. “Sorry If You’re Sick” kicks off with a serious funk groove, possibly one of the most energetic moments on the album.
“Girlfriend” might be the weakest spot on the record. The song itself is fine as a towering slice of pop-funk, and East doesn’t exactly sound out of place singing about longing for a buddy’s girl. Overall, in relation to the rest of the record, it just doesn’t feel as honest. It almost sounds as if East is suddenly trying to strut when the rest of the album simply wants to take its time walking. “Surrender” deals in the same energy, but even its retro-soul vibe feels more sincere than “Girlfriend.”
Coming out of Nashville the production value is obviously top quality. Tunes like “Surrender” and “House is a Building” work in part because the overdubbed backing tracks are clear and interlocked in the texture behind East. While nothing on the album sounds like a complete miss, the producers could have valued the “less is more” philosophy when dressing up a few songs. “Without You” feels a little awkward and overdressed with its added orchestral strings; perhaps the tune would cut through more with just a stripped down rhythm section. That all said, the strings on “All on my Mind” work rather well; they make the sauntering groove sound dirtier. While Encore may falter here and there from excessive studio production, the album holds up as an overall product, one that implies how tight East and his band would be live.
Occasionally, it’s a little odd to hear so many songs of yearning coming from such a young guy. East has the voice for the record, and aside from “Girlfriend” he owns each tune from top to bottom. Even the final track “Cabinet Door” works as a heartbreaking ballad to close out the album. It’s a simple but brutal song about becoming a widow after 50+ years of marriage, taking in the sudden emptiness of life after losing a spouse. No one would mistake this for East’s firsthand account, but his sincerity and empathy make the song work as a serious tear jerker.
If more singers like Anderson East being to fill up the pop music zeitgeist we’ll all be the richer for it. Early in his career but loaded up with soul, East honors rhythm and blues by respecting its sonic traditions while moving it closer to the commercial stage.