Apologies for not posting much new stuff over the past few days; we’ve been wrapping up the next issue of Uncut. One thing I have written, though, is this piece about, sort of, Raphael Saadiq, which was destined to be my Wild Mercury Sound column in the mag until various advertising movements rendered it, perhaps fortunately, surplus to requirements. A pretty convoluted path to “Stone Rollin’”, but just about worth posting, I think…
A strange month, this one, considering that the most forward-thinking music I played turned out to be nearly two decades old. “EPs 1991-2002” by Autechre packs five CDs of synapse-knotting electronica into an austere grey box that could be passed off as a 2001 monolith. Countless moonlighting physicists may have subsequently had a go at replicating Autechre’s granular processes, but much of “EPs 1991-2002” still sounds fiendishly, uncompromisingly alien.
In contrast, a lot of new electronic releases feel comfortingly familiar, envisioning the future in a very old-fashioned way. There have been plenty of recommendations in this column over the past year or so for music indebted to the throbbing ‘70s ambience of Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Manuel Gottsching and so on. This month, it feels as if the kosmische revival has reached some kind of critical mass, with decent to excellent releases from Mountains, Rene Hell, Roll The Dice, Mark McGuire, Mist, Forma and Hatchback, plus a bunch of things in the same zone that I haven’t checked out yet. Science-fiction nostalgia, it seems, is the default setting for a good few avant-garde musicians at the moment.
It’d be churlish of me to complain about this, of course. A neurotic pursuit of the new hardly guarantees great records, and I’d struggle to hold down a job at Uncut if I only wrote about musicians who actively strived to distance themselves from the possibilities offered by history and tradition. Nevertheless, plenty of people would argue that the past, ultimately, might prove to be an evolutionary dead end. It’s a criticism which has been fired at Raphael Saadiq frequently over the years, and one which I must admit I’ve used myself against a bunch of his backwards-looking soul contemporaries like Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed, Aloe Blacc and Sharon Jones. Evidently, and not a little hypocritically, I must prefer retro-futurism to mere revivalism.
Saadiq is not an obvious fit for a column that purports to focus on underground music: he was first seen in the multi-million-selling ‘80s R&B group, Tony! Toni! Toné!, and was recently spotted playing a Solomon Burke song at the Grammys alongside Mick Jagger. I last saw him onstage in London a few years back, sheepishly leading the band behind a mentally disintegrating Joss Stone. To be honest, I’ve sketchy coherent argument for including Saadiq here – I guess one or two tracks on his new album, Stone Rollin’, have a notionally psychedelic shimmer – or for privileging him over those aforementioned soul revivalists.
Other than to say that “Stone Rollin’” is tremendous. Saadiq’s recent solo records have positioned him as a kind of vigorous archivist, assiduously referencing vintage, sharp-suited soul in his impeccable new songs, climaxing with 2008’s terrific and Motown-rich “The Way I See It”. “Stone Rollin’” doesn’t exactly find Saadiq abandoning this remit, but he does spread the net a little wider to draw conscious inspiration from Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, “What’s Goin’ On”, The Temptations and southern soul (the burnished slouch of “Good Man” would work pretty nicely as a soundbed for a Ghostface Killah rap).
Saadiq plays most everything on the album, but this time he pushes his guitar to the fore, so that a few frenetically twanging tracks (chiefly “Radio”, oddly redolent of The Surfaris’ “Wipeout”) also suggest he’s taken to studying The White Stripes as much as Stevie Wonder. Perhaps he’s re-imagining the past rather than creating a pastiche of it? Or perhaps I’m just struggling to explain why “Stone Rollin’” is such an uncomplicated pleasure, derivative or otherwise?