Thursday, October 21, 2021

Southern Avenue - Be The Love You Want

Let’s get straight to the point, eh?  Or to two points, to be more accurate.  To wit:

1.   At their best, Southern Avenue evoke classic Memphis soul à la the heyday of Don Bryant and Ann Peebles, for example, but in a modern style of their own.

2.  They’re a damn fine, tight ensemble, the whole exceeding the sum of their parts.  But their trump card is lead singer Tierinii Jackson.  Seriously, we’re talking about a Superbowl standard vocalist who can go from gossamer light to stratospheric power while maintaining the purest of tones.

Smile along with Southern Avenue

All of which is evident on the title track of Be The Love You Want, which opens with some rattling percussion triggering staccato guitar chords, before slipping into a more comfortable groove propelled by rubbery bass and bright horns.  Meantime Tierinii Jackson starts warming up her tonsils, and right off the bat they’re delivering something special, topped off a fizzing guitar break from Ori Naftaly.
The following ‘Control’ takes it easy on the verses, with Ms TJ slipping and sliding around the melody, over cool bass lines from Evan Sarver, fluid horns, and offbeat drum patterns from TIkyra Jackson – who also contributes to the spot on vocal harmonies on the lively chorus.  ‘Don’t Hesitate (Call Me)', meanwhile, dials things down into dreamy mode, Jackson delivering her vocal over minimalist backing, with injections of more sumptuous harmonies, while Naftaly works up a melodic guitar motif that steps out of the everyday soul/blues vein en route to a brief but sparkling solo.
The backwards shuffling rhythm of ‘Push Now’ carries hints of North Mississippi hill country – little surprise perhaps, with the writing contribution of North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson - but is still stamped with Southern Avenue soul.  There’s some edge as the tune strains against the rhythm, while Jeremy Powell brings warm piano and Naftaly adds another interesting solo.  ‘Fences’, in a different vibe, really is like an old-fashioned soul track from the late 60s/early 70s, with Jackson stretching herself into an ethereal domain worthy of Minnie Riperton, and Naftaly adding another nifty little supporting solo.
As the tracks go by though, I begin to find the relentless presence of the horns somewhat irritating – smooth and slinky too often for my liking, as on the rather flimsy soul-pop of ‘Love You Nice And Slow’ for example, and leaving little room for Jeremy Powell’s keys to contribute.  And with its floating vocals over shimmering guitar, ‘Too Good To Be True’ is a sophisticated enough ballad without the horn interpolations that nudge it in the direction of easy listening.  Southern Avenue have enough clubs in their core five-piece bag without needing the assistance of brass at every turn, as ‘Heathen Hearts’ demonstrates with its gospel-like vocal delivery by the Jackson sisters over backing that consists of little more than rhythmic clapping and a whomping kick drum.
Still, ‘Move Into The Light’ is a bubbling chunk of funk, with another restless, offbeat rhythm, and ‘Pressure’ derives some satisfying oomph from its staccato feel, Jackson’s occasionally edgier vocal, and some gutsier guitar from Naftaly.
Be The Love You Want demonstrates all the quality that brought Southern Avenue a Grammy nomination, ten-a-penny though those may be.  I’d like to hear Naftaly spread himself a bit more on guitar just once or twice, and a couple more killer hooks wouldn’t go amiss.  But this is a classy album, no doubt, with an impressive strike rate of winning songs – and Tierinii Jackson’s astonishing voice always ready to knock you sideways.

Be The Love You Want is out now, on Renew Records/BMG.

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