For some reason, the song that stays with me from Goapele’s super-sultry debut Even Closer is the not-so-sultry, but purportedly uber-sultry deep soul groove, “Romantic”. Obviously, this is one of those songs that belongs in a live setting: smoke swirling, bassist eyes-closed jamming, keys player bobbing along to his thang, and Goapele — the beautiful 26-year-old singer whose emerged from the Bay Area underground to save neo-soul — curling her lips and swaying her hips to the rhythm. In that environment, the song’s chorus of “you’re so fucking romantic/ I can’t stand it” would have just the right ratio of sex appeal to humor to naughtiness that I could just envision it getting the crowd all hot and bothered, whoops and claps and sly smiles flickering through the room. But on record it sounds — how do I put this? — cheap. It just doesn’t work. Despite the description that surrounds it (a bit cliché, but surely positive), you’re not sure what to do with the “fucking.” Should it be interpreted in the “aww shit” way or the “playfully sarcastic” way or the “just plain sarcastic” way? Is the narrator a woman who likes romance, can’t stand it, or recognizes its sometimes-lameness but appreciates the effort? “Fucking” sounds more like the work of a bad lyricist rather a bad kitty.
Whew. Now the negative part of the review is over, and I can join the chorus of music writers who have lavished critical praise upon Goapele since this album surfaced in 2002 on Skyblaze, her own independent label. And rightly so, because Goapele is amazing. In the school with Van Hunt, Cody Chesnutt, Jill Scott and Angie Stone, Goapele is taking R&B simultaneously leaps and bounds forward and back to its saucy roots. And with appearances by Soulive, Zion I and Pep Love, among others, Goapele is keeping herself in good company with some of the more innovative soul and hip-hop artists currently recording.
This is an album that will kill you softly; its magic is not in overwhelming production tricks or trendy beats but in its simple confidence to take a step defiantly away from these gimmicks, at times sounding more like a jazz chanteuse or homegrown blues belle than a singer trying to ride the wave to commercial R&B stardom. In this way, it has the same lack of pretence not unlike that initially wowed audiences about Norah Jones. You turn it up, expecting to hear a level of gloss so often present in R&B, like the mirror that reflects the genre back to itself and tells it what it ought to be. But it’s not there. Breathe a sigh of relief. This is the real thing.
The remarkable string of songs “Catch 22”, “The Daze” and “Things Don’t Exist” showcase Goapele’s range and are among the strongest evidence of the power of this album. “Catch 22” is bittersweet and slow-spun, Goapele’s opulent vocals diving over the piano and drum machine loops like a bird descending in flight. People often compare soul singers’ voices like hers to decadent, viscous sweets — honey, butterscotch, melted chocolate, etc. But Goapele’s voice is more akin to mercury, maintaining its liquidity whether the environment is hot or cold, with a shiny, spectacular beauty that’s at once a sure thing and a mystical puzzle. When she sings “it’s a catch-22/ damned if I don’t, damned if I do” over and over, you can’t help but nod along. “The Daze”, which follows, begins with overlapping a capella harmonies before building up into a pulsing, danceable jam with slight reggae leanings. The appearanceof Zion I and Casual provide a smart match for Goapele’s down-to-earth singing style on this song, which demonstrates that she can roll with the boys just as well as she can take it on her own. “Things Don’t Exist” finds her aria joined by pared-down, piano heavy instrumentals, reminiscent of the purity of early Whitney Houston. Her pipes are certainly as refined as the mega-diva’s (that is, pre-rehab, of course).
For an artist who has emerged strongly thanks to her own resolve, Even Closer is a promising testament to a certain talent. This is a record people will be talking about for quite some time. But I’d suggest maybe skipping track three.