JSoul: Love Soldier
Local singer/songwriter JSoul, nee Jamal Smith, is one of the living testaments to what Fertile Ground has sown in Baltimore music. He honed his skills in the open-mic Organic Soul Tuesdays, the six-years-and-running weekly event sponsored by Fertile Ground's Blackout Studios. There, Smith struck up alliances with FG multi-instrumentalists James Collins and Joel Mills, and together they hatched JSoul's 2004 debut, Urban Retrospective, a silky 1970s soul album slightly spiced with now-sound R&B.
Smith spreads his wings on his sophomore release, Love Soldier. Mills and Collins are back, along with a rotating cast of local producers: Kweisi Dawes (the man behind the deep-house/space-funk outfit Pixel), Kariz Marcel (of Bang-N-Beat Productions), Top Secret, and Sean Touré. All these cooks not only don't spoil the broth, but they make a pretty solid Stevie Wonder album as well.
That isn't an accident. The album's title is a nod to Wonder's "Think of Me as Your Soldier," off 1971's Where I'm Coming From, and Smith quotes another Wonder album in lead track "Welcome Home" when he sings, "You're filling out my smile and all my empty space/ My song in the key of life--right." Now, there's no bad in the career stretch marked by those two endpoints--Wonder's 1971-'76 is one of those creative floods that rarely passes by Earth, like Dylan's 1964-'69--during which time Wonder invented enough soul and funk hybrids to spawn the next 30 years of R&B. JSoul, though, is all about the easygoing ballad and mood-setting after-party chiller. So if he's not quite hitting mid-'70s Wonder heights, don't hate: He set the bar really effing high. Welcome to being merely human.
Which is more than good enough. Love Soldier is a champagne cocktail of lovers' rock, from the percolating popcorn percussions with which Top Secret cushions "Good Life" to the intergalactic stride that sends "The Beat" into orbit. Mills' lean touch carves the most ear-grabbing soul-funk here in "Cold Blooded." A wobbly kick beat gets tacked to a stumbling bass flub, and Mills drops the sparsest brass belches and harmonized chorus to back Smith's woman-done-him wrong checklist. Smith obviously knows his way around the soulful ballad, but if "Cold Blooded" is any indication of what his musical partnerships can yield, his Wonder years are still to come.