Toshi Reagon: Have You Heard

Will Layman

An Artist Deserving Wider Recognition puts her wounded joy front and center.

Toshi Reagon

Have You Heard

Label: Righteous Babe
US Release Date: 2005-10-04
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate

Toshi Reagon, by all accounts, lives and breathes music. The daughter of two Freedom Singers from the civil rights movement, she grew up in DC surrounded by the harmony of her mom's a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Since 1990, she has been releasing her own music -- an ecstatic blend of every American style there is -- to small but knowing audiences.

Ms. Reagon is a classic "talent deserving wider recognition" -- not just a hipster's oddball taste. It's a safe bet that she'll never be a superstar as she shows zero interest in bending herself to fashion, glamour or trend, but her talent is as accessible as it is huge. Boasting a voice that can be either confessional or soul-shout broad and a bona fide songwriting talent, Toshi Reagon is a treasure waiting to be found.

Have You Heard is a title likely meant to echo a fan's pitch to a friend. Have you heard Toshi Reagon? And that fan is likely to add that, really, you haven't heard her until you heard her live. This new album seeks to create live groove in the studio, using members of Ms. Reagon's band (Big Lovely) and few if any studio frills beyond some soulful backing vocal tracks. As a result, this disc comes from a working band as much as a solo artist -- a group that knows how it locks together under the vision of a remarkable leader.

It's worth mentioning that this disc was produced by Craig Street, the signature-sound wizard behind much brilliant work by Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright, Chris Whitley, and k.d. lang. Here, however, Mr. Street's funky-folk "sound" -- a crisp and layered blend of acoustic string instruments, jazz harmony, and roots-rock directness -- is subordinate to the artist's strong personality. Put another way -- Ms. Reagon's eclectic vision is well complimented by Mr. Street's sheen of smart, keen Americana. The voices, mandolin, scratch-happy guitars, subtle organ and lightly funky percussion come from the past the way The Band did on Big Pink but also come pleasantly from nowhere -- music so fresh that you need to listen to it right away so the flavors remain strong.

Though Ms. Reagon's triumphant voice is a strong through-line, Have You Heard divides easily between introspective folk songs and funky rockers of various stripes. "Have You Heard" starts things with gospel-driven groove, a tambourine driving forward a blues-rock version of faith: "I got chills in my eyes from lookin' above / I am sure it's a sign of the Lord / . . . Did you breathe the silky air, the breath of life / I am sure it's a sign of the Lord." The spirit of Sweet Honey in the Rock is there from the start, but it's updated by soul-music harmonies and the strummed acoustic groove of sixties rock. The very next track, "22 Hours", flips the coin neatly over: a secular song of love/sex that drops Ms. Reagon's voice lower and darker, with layers of Prince-ly harmonies and a greasy funk topped off with wailing harmonica on the tag. "Didn't I Tell You" is a snap-to-it bassline-driven come on that gives Ms. Reagon bragging rights as a successor to Aretha. When she sings "didn't I, didn't I, didn't I" and lets a series of "baby- baby, ooooh"s leak out of her well of desire -- all made more dangerous by Glenn Patscha's insinuating organ -- you become a fan straight away.

Ms. Reagon's softer side is equally believable. "You" is a wounded confessional that whispers over a picked guitar pattern but slowly builds thanks to quiet vocal harmonies and an atmosphere of keyboard sounds that remind us that Mr. Street is also associated with MeShell Ndegeocello. On "Dream", the quiet pattern is closer to acoustic blues, but the gentle bed of wordless vocals eventually turns into Sweet Honey-ish off-kilter harmony. The most surprising quiet song, however, is the one cover, "Heartbreak Hotel". Ms. Reagon transforms the familiar melody by abstracting it into a slyer bent-note blues sung over the most minimal of acoustic accompaniments. The use of background vocals to repeat "So lonesome I could die" takes just enough of the Elvis-swagger out of the tune and puts it directly in Toshi's sweet spot: wounded optimism. Has anyone ever sung more convincingly from the bottom of the heap or sounded more like her hope alone could lift her up? Sure -- Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight. That's the kind of vocal company Toshi Reagon keeps on this record.

But the best tracks may be those that go straight at a more grooving vein of musical gold. "Ooh Wee" is straight funk, goosed by Patcha's wah-ed clavinet and piano and featuring an array of background vocals so hot that they actually give the song its name. "Soul 'n' Deep" is an electric-guitar track with staccato vocals that sounds like the best thing, say, Sheryl Crow, has ever done -- pop bright but layered in soulful vocal tracks that echo and bounce through the mix seductively. "Building Blues" is even better. Ms. Reagon's first syllable and first line -- "Ehhhhh-aahhhh-I, see the sun go down" is a symphony in one measure. The funk-blues groove is chasm-deep, with Mr. Street's production creating just the right frayed sound as the vocals gorgeously split into harmony on the chorus: "Baby, won't you please stare outside this window with me / We gots to stay high to see."

Have You Heard keeps you high just listening, and it keeps you wondering how this kind of neo-soul, neo-rock still sells so few copies. But, of course, this stuff is aimed at adults, hyped on NPR rather than TRL, and we adults -- we don't buy music in bulk any more, right?

Do yourself (and Toshi Reagon, and -- really -- all of us) a favor: buy a few copies and whip them out at your favorite holiday gathering this year. "Have you heard Toshi Reagon?" you can ask, making you the hippest person under the mistletoe. And with Toshi rather than Perry Como on the hi-fi, you'll digest your turkey better.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.