“You know, I’ve heard it said to thine own self be true,” exclaims Carlton Jumel Smith at the beginning of his new album, 1634 Lexington Avenue. There is some irony in this introduction, as Smith spends the rest of the album staying true to iconic soul stars and styles. Ultimately though, Smith’s on-point tribute to the old school soul is how Smith stays true to himself.
The truth of the matter is that 1634 Lexington Avenue does not sound like an album made in 2019 or even in the 21st century. Filled with musical and production references to record labels like Motown, Hi, and Curtom, this album clearly could have been recorded in 1974 and sent to 2019 via a time machine, if such a machine existed.
1634 Lexington Avenue, named after Smith’s childhood address in Harlem, was recorded with Cold Diamond & Mink, the production team/house band of Timmion Records. The album is a joint venture between Timmion, based in Helsinki, Finland, and Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, the label home of the late, great Sharon Jones. The label affiliation makes sense since Smith and Jones share the same retro soul aesthetic.
Retro soul can seem like a cynical ploy to dress up a nondescript singer’s vocals in a sound that will go down easily with listeners of a certain age or listeners of any age who say things like “nobody makes music like they used to”. This is a plot that sometimes works, though there will always be listeners who are wary of new wine in old bottles.
Generally speaking, Smith avoids these issues on 1634 Lexington Avenue, in part because of his own history. Smith was eight years old when he saw James Brown perform in his own neighborhood’s iconic Apollo Theater in the late 1960s. Brown’s performance that day inspired Smith own journeyman career as a soul singer who has released independent albums. Smith eventually played James Brown in the 1999 Barry Levinson film, Liberty Heights. 1634 Lexington Avenue feels like the sum total of Carlton Jumel Smith’s life experiences.
Smith has written a smart set of songs that are a natural fit for Cold Diamond & Mink to play and produce. His voice is warm and engaging, greatly enhancing the album’s vibe, especially on upbeat tracks like opener “Woman You Made Me” and “This Is What Love Looks Like”. There are occasional moments on the album that perhaps stick a little too close to an older blueprint, creating a bit of a paint-by-number effect. The craft seems to overshadow the inspiration, but these moments are the exception and not the rule on this album.
1634 Lexington Avenue finishes strong with the penultimate song, “We’re All We’ve Got”, an empowerment anthem that brings Curtis Mayfield’s social conscience to 2019, where it’s needed just as much as it was in the 1970s. The lyrics aren’t specific, but they’re given a boost by the driving, horn-driven music and Smith’s impassioned vocals. The final song, “I Can’t Love You Anymore” effectively adds a shot of the blues to Smith’s soul balladry.
Chances are that giving 1634 Lexington Avenue a spin will lead to further enjoyable listens for retro soul fans. Ultimately, though, Carlton Jumel Smith’s album will probably remind people to pull out their old copies of Al Green’s Greatest Hits, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, and Motown late 1960s/early 1970s compilations. Carlton Jumel Smith would undoubtedly be OK with this. He clearly didn’t record 1634 Lexington Avenue to make anybody forget his soul heroes. He recorded to remind us how much the work of those soul heroes continues to inspire.