The unlikely pairing of contemporary producer Jack Splash and AOR icon Bobby Caldwell results in an interesting mix of old and new, the majority of which largely succeeds in its reverent treatment of an otherwise parody-prone genre.
When he released the brilliant AOR in 2013, Brazilian musician and noted record collector Ed Motta sought to replicate period correct versions of the titular genre. Having scoured his sprawling collection for inspiration, Motta and company managed to deliver a record very much in keeping with the legacy of studio savvy AOR artists who saw brief commercial success in the late 1970s and early ‘80s before becoming a pop cultural punch line. And while Motta managed to bring in like-minded musicians to help realize his very particular artistic vision magnificently, the majority of the album’s players were at least a generation removed from AOR’s original practitioners, having come to the genre well after the fact.
Taking a similar AOR-themed approach to smooth, vaguely funky sophisti-pop, Cool Uncle goes straight to the source. Cross-generational and straddling the lines between AOR and contemporary R&B, Cool Uncle is made up of producer Jack Splash (Jennifer Hudson, Cee Lo Green, Jazmine Sullivan) and AOR survivor, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Bobby Caldwell whose “What You Won’t Do For Love” could easily serve as a template for the whole of the genre. Because of this, the project is wisely built around Caldwell’s smooth, soulful vocals and deft keyboard work, all of which helps add an air of legitimacy to Cool Uncle.
Easily capable of falling into ironic pastiche or worse, Cool Uncle instead maintains a level of reverence for the source sounds to create an amalgamation of the old and new that sounds at once contemporary and strangely timeless. In this, they enlist the help of like-minded contemporary artists Mayer Hawthorne (“Game Over”), Cee Lo Green (“Mercy”) and Jessie Ware (“Break Away”), while also bringing in another ‘70s survivor in the form of soul great Deniece Williams (“Breaking Up”). In the case of Green, hearing him paired directly with Caldwell one can hear the overwhelming influence the latter has had on the former, making it all but impossible to delineate between the two, vocally.
It’s in these pairings of influence where Cool Uncle succeeds, sticking close to the source style while adding flourishes of contemporary production and studio tricks. When paired with a more modernist sound reliant on electronics and heavier production, Caldwell largely becomes lost and the whole of the project threatens to collapse under the weight of its own combination of the old and new. When Eric Biddines appears seemingly out of nowhere to deliver an overbearing, rapped verse on “Breaking Up", it suddenly jolts the listen back squarely into the present, something which Motta fully avoided on AOR.
Because of this, Cool Uncle’s strengths lie in its reverence for the period it seeks to ape, functioning as a continuation of Caldwell’s original sound. The lilting funk-soul ballad “Embrace the Night” plays best to Caldwell’s strengths not only as a vocalist, but also as a musician, relying on delicate electronic piano and punchy bass to temper the strings. Similarly, “Game Over” could easily pass for an outtake from Caldwell’s What You Won’t Do For Love were it not for Mayer Hawthorne’s falsetto vocals. It’s in this approach that Cool Uncle manages to sound like just that.
At nearly an hour, however, Cool Uncle tends to feel a bit bloated and lost within itself on tracks like “My Beloved", “End of Days” and “The Cat Came Back” with their electronics-heavy production approach. More suited to a 21st century club than those frequented by Caldwell, it feels forced and ultimately finds him lost in a sea of production flourishes ill-suited to his particular style. Fortunately it serves as little more than a brief detour before returning with the exceptional “Break Away". The first release from the duo and the track that helped create interest for the release -- thanks in no small part to Jesse Ware’s simmering vocals -- “Break Away” is a clear highlight, sounding phoned in from the late '70s.
Ultimately, Cool Uncle works best when remaining in Caldwell’s aesthetic comfort zone. While Jack Splash certainly deserves credit for trying to bring Caldwell back into the public conscious, he’s better served doing so with a style that works for Caldwell rather than vice versa. When placed within the context of Splash’s decidedly 21st century production, Caldwell simply sounds lost.
Were they to pare the album down, losing some of the studio excesses, Cool Uncle would easily stand non-ironically with some of the best AOR has to offer. As it stands, the album holds a number of fascinating ideas and carries an inherent reverence for both Caldwell and his era that keep things from falling into parody. With a little self-editing, Cool Uncle could yet deliver an album of AOR that could rival Motta’s in terms of 21st century revivalism. Until then, Cool Uncle offers a tantalizing glimpse of what could be.