Can a white man sing soul?

Warp has released a soul record. Yes, that’s right; the label that brought you inscrutable electronic music from the likes of Autechre and Squarepusher has released a record of pure (minus all the electronics) blue-eyed soul. Which is weird enough, but then add to that the fact that the man responsible for this soul record, Jamie Lidell, used to be in an avant-garde, electronic group called Super Collider, and you have one of the weirdest releases this year.


While listening to Lidell’s Multiply, one word kept running through my head: Thicke. As in Robin Thicke, the endlessly, irritating, soul-singing son of actor Alan Thicke. Remember that Sprite commercial where he rides around on his bike with his little bike messenger bag slung over his shoulder, drinking Sprite and handing out profundities like “Music is my thing”? I imagine at least 80 percent of the people who saw that ad wanted to beat him senseless, or at least watch him die in a horribly freakish bike accident. And that’s all I kept thinking when I was listening to Jamie Lidell: this sounds like Thicke.


But I can’t fault Lidell for that; he’s probably never even heard Thicke. And he most likely made Multiply because he legitimately loves soul music. Multiply certainly sounds like an old soul record from the 1970s, albeit with quite a few electronic touches. On the album’s first track, “Yougotmeup,” Lidell uses a clavinet, an electric piano, an electric bass, a saxophone, and most importantly, live drums, creating a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a K-Tel Disco Hits of the ’70s CD compilation. Except that most songs from the ’70s that sounded like “Yougotmeup” had lyrics about putting on your “soul shoes” instead of inane couplets like “You’re my cup of tea/That’s how I’d like to beeeee yeah.”


While reading the liner notes to Multiply, it became quite clear that all the best tracks were co-written with some guy named D. Salole. Whoever this guy is, he can sure write a hook. Check out the vibe-tinkling chorus of “What’s The Use” or the funky, yet breezy, guitar work on title track “Multiply.” “Multiply” especially reminds me of those obscure Atlantic and Stax soul songs hidden in box sets and compilations, the songs that sound like classic songs but for some reason never became hits.


But this collaboration makes the songs Lidell wrote alone pale in comparison. Tracks like “Newme” and “The City” fail to capture those off-the-cuff hooks and effortless-sounding arrangements great soul songs require, opting instead to pile on instruments in an attempt to trick the ears into believing they’re hearing a catchy song. And “A little bit more” is a total dud, an experiment by Lidell to see if he can write a song with only vocals and drums. This forces him to create a melody out of vocal loops, which would have worked had he used more than one loop. Instead, the only melody the song has is Lidell repeatedly saying “A little bit more” in the background.


The album’s final track, “Game of Fools,” really epitomizes how far Lidell has to grow before he can truly be compared to his influences. Blessed with slow, soulful contrabass melody, the song is Lidell’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” moment and he blows it by hitting too many unnecessary high notes. Instead of saving his high notes to add drama to the end of the song, he uses the first chorus as an opportunity to show off how high his range is.


Considering Multiply is one of the first neo-soul records I’ve heard that even comes close to doing justice to classic soul music, it’s a shame Lidell can’t emulate the masters a little more and serve the song instead of his ego. However, that being said, the five tracks co-written with the shadowy D. Salole are some of the best neo-soul you’re going to hear this year.