The very first thing you notice about Break Out in comparison to previous Soulive records is the fact that this record sounds appreciably different. Whereas past records — pretty much the group’s entire output for previous label Blue Note — emphasized the group’s trademark mixture of jazz and steady funk, this album is definitely more of a soul record. The boys have discovered the blues and R&B in the space since 2003’s self-titled album, and the result is… well, different. Not to say bad, necessarily, just different than what anyone familiar with the group’s consistent output may have been expecting.
In the past, the studio has tended to render Soulive’s recordings somewhat antiseptic. Their playing was exquisitely reproduced, but fidelity came at the expense of atmosphere, creating a claustrophobic effect. The first thing you hear on Break Out, “Interlude I” comes on with a classic blues swagger, with Neal Evans’ keys sounding every bit like a church organ. The next track, “Reverb”, couldn’t be more accurately named, because if I had to guess I’d say that’s exactly what Soulive used in the studio to give these rhythms such a warm, lived in feel — it sounds like the guys are playing in a warm, wood-paneled room, with the music bouncing off the walls and reverberating down your spine.
But the discovery of soul has not occurred in a vacuum. The group’s once-intricate rhythms appear to have fallen victim to a more orthodox construction. Whereas in the past Soulive have been very careful to keep their jazz M.O. very visible, here the structure seems more similar to traditional blues. The rhythm usually stays in lockstep throughout the entirety of the track, and the keyboard and guitar solos stick for the most part to straightforward melodic improvisation. Harmonic improvisation, never the group’s strong suit, seems to have entirely disappeared. Both Evans and guitarist Eric Krasno acquit themselves well as blues players, but as a result the music loses some of its characteristic playfulness and intricacy. Instrumentals like “Cachaca” and the title track are more low-key than Soulive has traditionally been, and the presence of horns on the latter track reduce Soulive to the role of supporting players in their own song.
But when the album takes the new format and runs with it, the results can be occasionally gratifying. “Got Soul” features a lead vocal by Ivan Neville that conjures an effectively gritty blues vibe, while the rhythm — punctuated by keyboard and horn bits — brings to mind one of Kanye West’s more subtle, groove-oriented productions. Neville returns on “Take It Easy”, which is appropriately laid back… but perhaps to much so, as it seems almost an afterthought. Again, the horns dominate the soloists’ presence.
Pedal steel Robert Randolph shows up for a cover of Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic”. Hendrix covers invariably never work, and this is no exception — the guitar playing is good but the solos — seemingly in the Hendrix vein, with lots of reverb over thick, trebly 1/32 notes — fall short of summoning the master’s spirit. “Vapor” is straight-ahead blues, with some of Krasno’s best guitar playing over a gentle mid-tempo stroll. “What Can You Do”, featuring Reggie Watts voice, is the best example of songwriting to be found on the album, featuring a hook that opens up like vintage Motown to reveal a surprisingly expansive color palette. If they tried writing in this vein more often, the results might be interesting.
But more of their collaborations resemble “Take It Easy” or “Back Again”, featuring Chaka Khan. It’s a good performance, don’t get me wrong, but it sounds like the kind of track a band like Soulive and a singer like Chaka Khan could write in fifteen minutes, probably while eating lunch. There’s very little heft, no thrust at all — just a mid-tempo slouch and some low-key noodling on the part of the soloists. Chaka belts a few lines and everyone gets to go home early.
So Break Out definitely sounds better than any other Soulive studio effort to date, but in terms of virtuosity it pales in comparison. With a good half of these tracks featuring vocalists, I have to wonder if this is some kind of attempt at a “crossover” album for the group — the jazzy solos have been deemphasized in favor of a generic blues vibe. Perhaps there’s a hit on here, but if they turn into Norah Jones’ next backup band I wouldn’t expect the fans who’ve stuck with them from the beginning to be very happy about it.