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As a movement, neo-soul has drawn power primarily from the decline of traditional R&B. The death knell was probably first sounded when Bell Biv Devoe decided to do “hip-hop smoothed out on an R&B tip with a pop-feel appeal to it,” back in the early ’90s. Then came groups such as MoKenStef and Total, which, no matter how much they professed to know about kickin’ beats, seemed utterly uninformed about the concepts of pitch and key. It quickly became clear that mainstream R&B was degenerating into the ugly bastard child of hiphop.
From that dung pile rose the earnest and retro movement of neo-soul. Those of us fed up with the reign of Puffy found all-too-easy solace in the form of Groove Theory, D’Angelo, and Erykah Badu. What followed was a spate of artists who could be counted on to cite Donny Hathaway when asked about their influencesand then play up the eclecticism of their music: “My album is sort of rock-slash-classical-slash-soul with a jungle feel.” The results, however, have been more mixed than eclectic.
The upper tier of neo-soul releasesD’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Jill Scott’s Who Is Jill Scott?has offered a welcome left turn for black music in recent years. But the also-rans have been numerous, and even the best of neo-soulites have yet to solve one simple problem: Why listen to neo-soul when actual soul is so often so much better? Yet just because the marketplace has been flooded with Stevie Wonder lite doesn’t mean that there aren’t artists out there doing legitimate neo-soulit’s just that almost nobody calls it that. For my money, even Björk’s Homogenic, an album-length homage to the power of deep, throaty vocals, could be considered neo-soul.
That’s a notion not lost on Spacek, a group that has earned a reputation as “the Radiohead of soul.” The South London trio’s sophomore LP, Vintage Hi-Tech, clearly takes some cues from the stylings of Hathaway, but it’s also a much-neededthough flawedplaybook for dodging the neo-soul bullet. Instead of aping black crooners from the ’70s, Hi-Tech aims for a particular laid-back ambience. The album almost sounds like soul for the lounge crowd, an updated Sam Cooke at the Copacabana. In this sense, Hi-Tech harks back texture-wise, if not sonically, to Everything but the Girl’s Walking Wounded LP.
But Spacek’s sound is much leaner, befitting a group whose debut, 2001’s Curvatia, drew so much inspiration from contemporary electronica. Whereas neo-soul often takes pride in its ability to combine as many elements as possible, Hi-Tech is an exercise in minimalism. Indeed, if the tracks were any
sparser, the disc would sound like tumbleweeds blowing across the Sahara. It’s a novel concept for soul, but it wouldn’t be half so compelling without the buttery vocals of frontman Steve Spacek, a satisfying mix of Ronald Isley and Al Jarreau. Wisely, the group constructs all of Hi-Tech’s songs with Spacek as the centerpiece.
At a brief nine tracks, Hi-Tech’s less-is-more approach more or less works, particularly on “Motion Control,” a track marked by its slight but bouncy drums and some barely there synth squiggles. “Don’t you rush me,” sings Spacek. “Let me lose control/You need to trust me/I need your motion control.” It’s one of the best exhibitions of the Spacek aesthetic and a great example of one of the many directions soul might be taken in the future.
Equally impressive is “Time,” on which smooth background vocals alternate seductively with Spacek’s lead. Meanwhile, bandmates Morgan Zarate and Edmund Cavill conjure a backdrop of little more than electronic hand claps, bass burbles, and a few jagged bits of synth. “I Know a Girl” and “Amazing” offer similar approaches, tipped a little more toward stuttering drum ‘n’ bass and Boards of Canada-style leftfield electronica, respectively.
Unfortunately, Hi-Tech runs out of juice toward the end, mainly because Spacek can’t seem to find enough ways to employ its musical formula. Cuts such as “Starz,” which compromises the group’s usually sharp sound with some truly mushy sentiment, and “123 Magic,” which is repetitious even by Spacek standards, are really nothing more than throwaways. Granted, given that its sound is basically the product of only four elementsdrums, vocals, synth, and bassSpacek might be at a disadvantage compared to its more conventional neo-soul contemporaries. But the first half of the album holds enough promise to make you believe that there are other ways to use the group’s sound.
Give Spacek props for at least attempting to more aggressively and creatively pay homage to its soul forefathers. On their own, Hi-Tech’s best cuts are proof that there’s more to neo-soul life than eclecticism for eclecticism’s sake. But to make its stripped-down renderings work over the course of a whole album, Spacek has to make music that isn’t simply variations on a theme: By the time Vintage Hi-Tech plays out with “La Bougie,” it’s clear that you can marry electronic bleeps to beautiful vocals only so many times. CP