Raphael Saadiq: Comfort Music, Reimagined

Originally published on May 10, 2011 12:33 pm

I've been thinking a lot lately about pop music's obsession with the past, because my two favorite records of the year so far both sound like they could have been made in the late '60s. One is Helplessness Blues by Fleet Floxes, a young band that sounds like it was suckled on Crosby, Stills & Nash records. The other is Stone Rollin' by Raphael Saadiq, who wears cardigans and Malcolm X-style glasses, and leads off his latest record with a song Sly and the Family Stone might have played at Woodstock.

But wait a minute: What's that organ drone in "Heart Attack"? It's actually a Mellotron, an old keyboard that was the signature of British prog-rock groups like The Moody Blues and King Crimson. There are a lot of moments like this on the record — like they were produced by that cartoon dog, Mr. Peabody, and his time-traveling WABAC Machine, which always scrambled things up in the process of bringing together past and present.

Then there's a song called "The Answer," which begins with a guitar-chord progression that sounds like Radiohead, then morphs into orchestral soul music that recalls mid-'70s Stevie Wonder.

I often feel that music should always evolve, progress, move forward like everything else. And I feel guilty for fetishizing old styles. But that's as harebrained a notion as thinking music stopped being good after 1972 — or '86 or '93, or whenever you graduated school and got a job and maybe stopped listening to music so closely. Like Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder back in the day, Raphael Saadiq draws from styles and sounds that came before him, which can trigger remembered emotions and also create new ones. It's a lot like comfort food, but reimagined by a really talented 21st-century chef.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Raphael Saadiq is a contemporary soul musician who makes music that sounds like it came from the Motown era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO")

RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) I met this girl named Radio. Said her signal was low. She wasn't getting my sound. She kept the volume down. I told her to turn up the bass, bass. And then she kissed me in my face, face, face. I told her I had a girl.

BLOCK: Here's Will Hermes with our review.

WILL HERMES: I've been thinking a lot lately about pop music's obsession with the past, since my two favorite records of the year so far both sound like they could have been made in the late '60s. One is "Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Floxes, a young group that sounds like it was suckled on Crosby, Stills & Nash records, and the other is by a dude who wears cardigans and Malcolm X-style glasses and leads off his latest record with a song that Sly and the Family Stone might have played at Woodstock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART ATTACK")

SAADIQ: (Singing) It gets you down to your knees. Got me screaming, baby, come on, please. You giving me a heart attack. Girl, I want you back. I just can't stand it no more. You giving me a heart attack. Girl, I want you back. I just can't take it no more. Oh, no.

HERMES: Listen to the ghostly Motown-style vocals on a song called "Go to Hell," which also uses the Mellotron.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO TO HELL")

SAADIQ: (Singing) I can see my name written across the sky. Ravens started flying. I saw tears in their eyes. There was fires in the mountains and storms in the sea. Winds in the valley rushing into me. Knock and it will open...

HERMES: And then there's a song called "The Answer," which begins with a guitar chord progression that sounds like Radiohead, then morphs into orchestral soul music that sounds like mid-'70s Stevie Wonder.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ANSWER")

SAADIQ: (Singing) Stop saying the game is sold and not be told. Try to help the child that's only 4 years old. Why, why would you sit back and relax and watch them kids fall off the tracks? How, how can we sit on the sideline and watch it go down? You, you need to make someone feel really proud.

HERMES: Like Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder back in the day, Raphael Saadiq draws from styles and sounds that came before him, which can trigger remembered emotions but also create new ones. He makes records that are like comfort food but reimagined by a very creative 21st-century chef.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONE ROLLIN'")

SAADIQ: (Singing) Listen. Fat lady shaking, backbone breaking. Come on.

BLOCK: Our reviewer is Will Hermes. The new album from Raphael Saadiq is called "Stone Rollin'," and you can hear the entire album at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONE ROLLIN'")

SAADIQ: (Singing) Come on. This girl of mine. I was just a friend, but she took me in, said come on. This girl of mine. Everything was right. I felt like the light said come on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.