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Received wisdom tells me that when the hurt comesthe kind that seeps down to the deep tissuesyou got to call on the fallen but holy for balm. Chapter and verse: The sermon is called “Love and Happiness,” a flawed man’s meditation on grace gone sour. Listen: That’s the sound of the pre-ordained Al Green, down on his knees copping a smoky tenor plea to a woman he done wrong. Mea damn culpa, baby, but if you just give me one more chance…Even way down here, in mood indigo, those notes on “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” still come down on you like a shot of cortisone to the soul. I bear witness.
It could be that my current ZIP code on the South Side of Love has me looking at the world through sapphire-tinted glasses, but I’ve been thinking lately that, R&B-wise, at least, it ain’t really about the love no more. I speak of the neck-rolling exhortations of such fare as “No Scrubs” and “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Save for the lacerated soul that R. Kelly bares on his more substantial work and the urban grace of Maxwell, old-style exhortations coming to you from sorrow’s kitchen are hard to come by right about now. Listen to Marvin Gaye’s blue-light offering “If I Should Die Tonight”or even Prince’s “Adore”then listen to Joe. You’ll know where my head was the first time I listened to Dave Hollister’s Chicago ’85…The Movie.
Funny that a brother would select 1985, midway through the decade of bad music and worse style, as the setting for his meditation on love. Unless you were a city kid during your first tenuous explorations of that four-letter word, you might not dig where he’s coming from at first. But, from the opening seconds of this album, you would know that his chosen title is superfluous: Hollister comes in the wake of his aesthetic and geographic sibling, Kelly, and the stylings he offers are that of the emerging Chi-Town sound. But Hollister is hardly a Kelly knockoff. His songs are far from the ephemeral praise of flesh. If Hollister occasionally commits the sin of musical resemblance, you can chalk it up to Kelly’s indelible impact on the whole genre in which he works.
Hollister is not a pyrotechnic singer. He has neither the growl of a Teddy Pendergrass nor the whiskey-distilled grit of a Bobby Womack. But, more than many of his contemporaries, Hollister has cultivated a vocal smoothness that, on the best of his ventures, gives his style a whole ‘nother hue. Hollister is, or at least sounds like, a man willing to meditate on the idea that maybe there really and truly ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone. On Chicago ’85, his collaboration with EPMD alum Erick Sermon has yielded a cross-fertilized, organic funk that serves Hollister well. This is a man who confesses to his woman that “Even when we’re in the middle of an argument/Cussing each other out/In my heart I’m admiring your feisty ways.” Such is the nature of his jones.
Listen to “One Woman Man,” his tale of a chance meeting with an ex-lover, and you know that Hollister’s sung through some real blueness. This is where he catches a nostalgic eyeful of curvature before hipping a sister to the fact that “Everything is different now/I finally have settled down/And became a one-woman man.” Moments later, on “We’ve Come Too Far,” he’s begging for redemption. Given a sparse guitar and down-tempo percussion to work with, Hollister pleads his case before a woman who’s all but through with his tired ways. This is the sound of a man learned enough to understand that there is a thin line between love and hateand a man who has a marrow-deep hope that he hasn’t been banished to the latter.
Excepting the ghetto fare of “Yo Baby’s Daddy,” Chicago ’85 explores the terrain between the charged first glance and the sorrowful parting of ways. “You Can’t Say” conjures thoughts of words wasted and fruitless dialogues past. The sparse bass-and-guitar tapestry of “Doin’ Wrong” frames a head-in-his-hands soliloquy; Hollister ain’t even going to try to justify how he’s been livin’ on this one: “I hated that I put you through/
What Mama always said I’d do,” he confesses. “On the Side,” with keyboard arrangementsnot to mention subject matterthat have Kelly’s fingerprints all over them, is the least of these offerings. The ensuing “A Woman Will” is similarly Kellyesque. But on the blaxploited asphalt meditation “I Don’t Want to Be a Hustler,” with its morosely funked bass and guitar riffs, Hollister works through street themes in the tradition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman.”
I felt Chicago ’85 deep down not because Hollister’s sound is fuller than that of his musically gaunt peersor even because of my nostalgia for those soul-soothers of oldbut because the disc’s 14 meditations on love lost are still coursing through my gray matter. Taken in succession, they’re compelling enough to make you question received wisdom. This is no Stax or Motown classic, and Hollister’s no holy man, but I felt his sermon because Chicago ’85 made me a slightly lighter shade of blueand made me think that, in spite of everything, maybe it’s still all about the L-word. CP