You will hardly find a band more defined by the covers they play than the Devonns on their self-titled debut album. The Chicago quartet led by singer-songwriter Mathew Ajjarapu delivers an exquisite fusion of their hometown soul heritage with Motown delicacy in eight original songs and two covers. Take the 1970s ballad “So in Love With You” by Leroy Hutson, remade in a slightly more orchestrated version, and you get the tone of the record. Sleek harmonies, elegant and flawlessly arrangements, a distinctive voice enhanced by romantic lyrics about the sensual devoted love archetype shaped by Al Green.
There is no doubt that Hutson and the rich musical legacy of their city were a huge influence on the band. Ajjarapu explains, “A lot of the labels specializing in soul were based in Chicago, and we even had our own sound known as ‘Chicago soul’. Through several years of crate-digging, it surprised me how many songs I loved were recorded in this city.”
The opening track “Come Back” carries the features of Chicago soul, like the orchestration, strings and soft yet alluring lyrics to a beloved ex-girlfriend. “What I think all the times / She would let me come back to her place / In her eyes love shine / I’d do anything just to see that face / We would sleep and wake again / Catch the sunrise through her window.” The second cover, “Green Light” from the 2008’s Jim by Jamie Lidell. A peculiar choice since Jim is already a tribute album to soul music, but the band don’t rely on a pure replica of the past.
Although The Devonns sounds like a vintage album, it has a warm modern twist in the recording and avoids to feel artificial. Ajjarapu needed two years to finish the recording, and it wasn’t until Paul Von Mertens (Mavis Staples, Paul McCartney, Elton John) and Ken Stringfellow (R.E.M.) came in that he achieves the right sound. A tale of perfectionism that pays off.
Track after track, the Devonns unfold glimpses of various soul genres, an act of respect to Black music in honoring its past. The single “Tell Me” is the uptempo song with a catchy Sound of Young America vibe you wish to dance on a Northern soul dancefloor. “More” is a disco-inspired track, while “Blood Red Blues” shifts away from the love themes and embrace the protest song tradition. “Blood runs on the parking lot / Cops said another boy’s been shot / Mama walks for the house she got / But the bank came along everything she got / What’s going wrong? / How long must we wait for the time for us to live as one?”
Aiming to homage the city, the history, and the music they breathe and love, the Devonns release a soulful album in the most emotional meaning of the word. A record truly defined by its inner intention, from the choice of covers to the meticulous arrangements. Still, the band prove to have the mind and the imagination to master it effectively.