An invigorating slab of "garage soul", R&B shouter Reed's latest album, My Way Home, is a gospel-fused reinvention.
A brief sampling of any of the four albums Eli Paperboy Reed released between 2005 and 2014 would prove his skills as a soul/blues shouter worthy of comparisons to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. Despite the fact that he was born decades after the deaths of these two giants, his singing, guitar playing, and horn-fused arrangements and compositions culminate in an authentic throwback to ‘60s R&B that comes along only once in a blue moon (or twice, if you want to include the late Ms. Winehouse, which you should).
While his pedigree doesn’t exactly fall in line with blues tradition (he was born and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, the leafy Boston suburb that birthed soul titans such as John F. Kennedy and Conan O’Brien), Reed eventually moved to Mississippi and immersed himself in that region’s musical roots. Four albums and a slew of critical huzzahs later, Reed was eventually dropped by Warner Bros. in 2014. He happened to spend the previous summer working with at-risk youths as part of the non-profit Gospel for Teens program in Harlem, and this deep immersion into traditional gospel music informed much of what would become his new album, My Way Home, released on Yep Roc, the roots-loving indie label that was born to crank out this kind of stuff.
The album was tracked over a period of four days in a Brooklyn studio loft, and if that sounds like a change of pace from Reed’s previous efforts, it most certainly is. While he still belts ‘em out with the best of them, the music has taken a stripped-down, raw approach, paired with a definite gospel flavor in the often soul-searching lyrics. The classic pop sheen of his earlier albums has been replaced with a gritty atmosphere that makes it sound like a slew of bonus tracks from the Rhino Nuggets compilation. Call it "garage soul".
Thankfully, Reed’s primal soul influences are still present; for instance, “Cut Ya Down”, one of the album’s stronger tracks, is a muscular slab of the kind of soul/funk that Wilson Pickett used to toss off with stunning regularity in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “Tell ‘em God almighty’s gonna cut ya down,” Reed shouts, and I’m willing to bet Wicked Pickett’s looking down and smiling about it.
The title track is a searing, pleading R&B ballad fused with a heaping helping of Sam Cooke’s more spiritual pursuits. “When I can’t run anymore, I will walk / When I can’t walk anymore, I may stumble / When I stumble sometimes, I might fall / And down on my knees, I will crawl," he sings. The song is stunning in its simplicity and eloquence, and like on the rest of the sequence, Reed’s crack band (J.B. Flatt on organ, Michael Isvara Montgomery on bass, and Noah James Rubin on drums) backs him faithfully, whether it’s simmering ballads or urgent funk. This is truly an album from another time -- with the exception of the modern, save-the-environment plea of “What Have We Done”, which is a bit lyrically hackneyed, but thankfully saved by the impassioned performance.
The dark, bluesy gospel of “Your Sins Will Find You Out” is just as deadly serious as its title implies, and Reed drives his point home with stunning conviction reminiscent of classic Eric Burdon and the Animals. It’s odd (yet refreshing) that Reed’s most raw, quickly banged-out release is also his most diverse and mature.
“I’d rather be alone in this world of sin / Than surround myself with sinners that won’t be saved," Reed croons on “I’d Rather Be Alone”, a song about following your own path to salvation. But he’s been quick to point out in the press that he’s not advocating any particular creed or religion. “Salvation in this case is about getting out of a bad situation, about finding yourself in a tough spot and trying to find your way through it," he explains.
Pop charts and singing contest game shows are rife with artists claiming to be throwbacks to a bygone era, but Reed is the real deal, and he doesn’t need Christina Aguilera to tell him so.