Tony Toni Tone's latest album, House of Music, will once again generate numerous comparisons between the style and sound of the Bay Area band and the R&B legends of the 1970s, such as Kool and the Gang and the Commodores. The retro stamp is not necessarily a label that the band should seek to avoid. In fact, Tony Toni Tone has become one of the most unique and outstanding contemporary groups because they have reinterpreted key elements of the classic soul tradition.
Unlike many popular R&B artists today, the members of Tony Toni Tone (group leader Raphael Saadiq, his brother D'Wayne Wiggins and their cousin Timothy Christian Riley) are dedicated musicians who actually play real instruments, instead of relying on played-out samples and drum machine-generated rhythm loops. Saadiq sings and plays the bass, the guitar and keyboards, Wiggins adds guitar work and vocals. Riley mainly plays drums and keyboards and is featured on the clarinet. Backing them up are live musicians playing instruments ranging from horns to flutes to pianos and organs. One song on the new album even features an orchestra.
Because of their solid musical skills, Tony Toni Tone puts on a smokin'live show when they hit the road with their 12 piece touring band. Many current groups tour accompained only by the canned sounds of a DAT machine, and some of these singers cannot even duplicate their vocal stylings outside of a recording studio. For example, I once witnessed the pitiful spectacle of the trio Soul for Real failing miserably in their attempt to duplicate the lush harmonies of their hit single "Every Little Thing I Do" live in concert. The sounds of many current R&B groups may be similar to the unstable man-made elements--they can only exist through the intense efforts by producers with access to state of the art equipment, but cannot be created organically.
Tony Toni Tone also stand above their peers because their music continues to be refreshingly and arrestingly distinct. Their vocal arrangements, which run the gamut from honey-drenched harmonies to smooth whispers, are instantly recognizable, representing yet another facet of the classic tradition. Too many new artists are merely trying to be the next Mary J. Blige or Boyz II Men, and these one-hit wonders continue to fall by the wayside, unable to carve out a unique niche. Much of today's R&B comes out the same over-produced mold, but Tony Toni Tone consistently relies on an uncommon "less is more" production policy. It's no surprise that the few breakthrough artists such as D'Angelo and Maxwell who have won kudos for refusing to conform to contemporary trends have also been compared to 1970s R&B greats.
Tony Toni Tone's memorable and timeless melodies are also reminiscent of the legendary soul acts. Songs such as "It Never Rains (In Southern California)," "Anniversary" and "(Lay Your Head On My) Pillow" are some of the few truly classic slow jams of the 1990s. Not only are their melodies enduring--the band's lyrics are also finely crafted. They are often seductive but never raunchy, sweet through not saccharine, and are always on the right side of the fine line separating light-hearted from vacuous. Furthermore, the band is known primarily for the quality of its music, not its extracurricular reputation, unlike other groups such as Jodeci who rely on a playa-gangsta-mack image to sell-records.
Many Tony Toni Tone fans fretted over the rumors that the band had broken up and eagerly anticipated a new album. Their last album, Sons of Soul, which posted platinum sales and recieved critical acclaim, was released back in 1993. The band members had been devoting much of their time to producing and writing for other artists, including A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Total and Tevin Campbell. Raphael Saadiq says that fans' expectations helped motivate the group to go back into the studio, and fans will not be disappointed with the band's latest effort.
House of Music differs from previous Tony Toni Tone albums because it takes the band even further away from studio refinement and emulates the raw, live style that you would hear in a smoky club. Thus, this album may not spawn as many hit singles as Sons of Soul. However, the entire album has a consistently soothing sound that makes it the perfect companion to champagne and candlelight.
The most uptempo song on House of Music is the first single, "Let's Get Down," a funky, danceable track that features West Coast rapper DJ Quick interspersed between Saadiq's playful crooning. "Til Last Summer" is a tender ode to lost and found love with a soaring chorus that faintly echoes "It Never Rains."
Other songs pay respect to past R&B styles. "Thinking of You" is designed as a tribute to Al Green, and it perfectly captures the essence of the Reverend's meld of Southern gospel and soul, right down to the plaintive and passionate yearnings that shake you down to your bones and make you want to jump up and testify. "Don't Fall in Love" liberally appropriates the flavor of the Temptations; "Holy Smokes & Gee Wiz" evokes old-school Philly soul. Yet, despite relying on borrowed influences, Tony Toni Tone's sound transcends these retro styles and remains unmistakably original and creative.
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