Monday, April 11, 2005

Senseless Criticism: The Rebel

Somewhere in the middle of "Daily Bread", when the lite jazzy guitar lines and throaty vocals fall suddenly into a vicious flangey distorted guitar riff, a thick horn line, and slap bass, it hits you: this is way more than a Neo-Soul Album. It's Martin Luther's Rebel Soul Music. Quoth the liner notes: "Right now, Martin Luther is one of those musicians that you have on in the background and people ask you who it is, and you get to play like you're eclectic." Bizarre boast. But it works.

The first time I saw Martin Luther it was at a Roots show at the 9:30 Club on December 28th, and he was one of the two guitarists. He also sung all the vocal choruses from all of their albums that required any RnB vocals. During the Roots' four-hour extravaganza of a concert, he got an opportunity to play three of his own songs, just him and his guitar, the Roots' bassist Hubbard, and ?uestlove. And he held his own. What Martin Luther does is play a type of soul that isn't the wishy washy R&B shit gracing the airwaves and rolling off Usher's tongue, but more the kind from Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and maybe a dash of earlier Prince thrown in for good measure. Rebel Soul Music is exactly something that pulls this tradition together with modern production, throwing in the appropriate modern influences of hip hop and, occasionally, some grunge rock. Martin Luther's guitar isn't a decoration, and he takes the instrument seriously. His riffs, not just clean, but sometimes distorted to a Jimi Hendrix level, feature almost as prominently as his vocals. Better, his vocals are classy stuff, done with minimal ridiculous inflections and vibrato that make a lot of R&B and neo-soul singers sound like vocal caricatures.

Rebel Soul Music starts out with the the afore-mentioned "Daily Bread" a song that starts like any ordinary piece of soul and transforms into a funky, punky croonfest. "Home" is another standard soul piece, until its distorted guitar turns into a bridge that's almost. . .punk rock? You heard me. The bluesy shuffle of "Prodigal Son" is another one that hits with a textural richness. I would say if the Roots made neo-Soul, they'd sound like Martin Luther, but for one I'm not sure the roots could make neo-Soul as good as Martin Luther at all. For my white-boy money, the best moments on the album are "Sleep Walking" (feat. Silk-E), that switches between a wah-wah guitar verse and grungy chorus with a riff that could've come straight out of a Soundgarden song with uplifting solid vocals the whole time, and the title track "Rebel Soul Music," a masterful piece of fast funk-rock. At times I feel like this album was made for every crank like me who likes the quality of R&B and neo-Soul vocals, but can't stand the production and backgrounds. Martin Luther takes the style back into its roots of bands, guitars, and keyboards, all the while alluding to as many different styles and genres as he can fit along the way. It's mellow, it's aggressive, it's sweet, and it's raw, often in the same song.