It's been a big summer for Sade fans. No, Sade herself hasn't dropped anything since 2002's Lovers Live (which was a live album, no less), but the musicians who compose her accompanying entourage have been very busy. Her longtime engineer and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Matthewman dropped his solo debut X Amounts of Niceness -- recorded under the alias Cottonbelly -- back on June 22nd. (I wrote some nice things about the album here.) But just a scant seven days before X Amounts of Niceness dropped, Sweetback released their second album, the aptly titled Stage 2.
The core of Sweetback is composed of three longtime veterans of Sade's band: Matthewman on guitars, saxophone and keyboards in addition to programming duties; Andrew Hale as both a keyboardist and programmer; and Paul Denman on the bass. The group is augmented by a handful of complimentary talents, including the voices of Chocolate Genius and Naked Music's Aya. Chocolate Genius, AKA Marc Anthony Thompson, is one of the most underrated singer/songwriters currently in circulation. 2002's Godmusic is one of the oddest records I own, but his trademark soulful rasp is an endlessly engrossing treat. On the other hand, the presence of Aya causes me no small consternation. It seems that ever since I panned her debut album a few months back (go here for the grisly details), she's has been popping up with frightening regularity. Well, someone seems to like her, just not me.
Aya's presence does not prevent Stage 2 from being a modestly enjoyable album, although her presence on eight out of the thirteen tracks is definitely a shortcoming. The dominant mood is tasteful funk, with just a hint of darker, dubby flavors always stirring beneath the surface. The album begins with "Voodoo Breath (Master's Love)", a sultry slow-burning R&B number sung by Chocolate Genius with help from Aya and Ivana Santilli on the choruses. Anyone familiar with Sade's sound will undoubtedly feel right at home.
Unfortunately, Aya is no Sade, and hearing her at the fore of numbers like "Lover" and "All My Days with You" is quite jarring. Sweetback seem to have their distinctively smooth deep soul sound down to a science, but when they hew too closely to the path they trod with Sade, it becomes obvious that something very vital is missing. The farther afield they wander, the stronger the material seems in comparison. It's hard to ignore that "All My Days with You" suffers from the fact that it would sound a lot better if Sade were singing it.
But, as I said, the further away from their history, the better. "Circles" is a great track, because it serves as a showcase for Sweetback's more luxuriant orchestration and Chocolate Genius' effortlessly engrossing singing. Despite the tepid lyrics, "Mountain" is another strong effort, plumbing the depths of minimal dub -- almost like Pole with a stronger sense of organic melody.
"Things You'll Never Know" is the album's biggest surprise, a mid-tempo rock track with a strong, sweeping chorus. Disappointingly, the superb "Blue Heights" is one of only three instrumentals on the album. I say that this is a disappointment, because shorn of the necessity of providing muted backup to a vocalist they show a strong instinct towards semi-abstract space rock.
"Love Is the Word" is the album's biggest misstep, managing to sample the worst elements of both Andy Gibb's "Grease" theme and the Isley Brother's "Between The Sheets" (the latter of which also had its hook stolen for the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa"). Skip this one and head to "Jesus Girl", featuring another strong vocal contribution from Chocolate Genius.
"Round and Round" is a pleasing deep house workout, with a sufficiently pliant bassline snaking up its backbone with a stridently psychedelic hint of dub. The album finishes with "Shining Hour", another instrumental that doesn't work nearly as well as "Blue Heights" on account of a rather tepid saxophone line.
Stage 2 is not what I would call a bad album, because it is generally pleasant and, in a few parts, very good. But it's hardly an artistic triumph. The strident tastefulness that makes Sade's material so smoothly enjoyable can be regrettably boring without the proper guidance (i.e., Sade's). Combined with a hit-and-miss ear for collaboration, Sweetback have crafted a sophomore album that will ultimately prove as forgettable as their material with Sade is enduring.