In recent years there’ve been a number of reclamation projects like this one where an artist – usually in the Blues or Rhythm & Blues genre - is paired with a contemporary group of musicians and a producer that wants to update the artist’s sound and bring him or her to a new audience. Depending on the artist, and who’s in the band or behind the board, such projects can be very successful or, in some cases, downright embarrassing.
Andre Williams, an R&B singer out of Detroit that’s been in the business for more than 50 years, recorded for countless labels, and managed to make some terrific records without ever becoming a household name, is the subject of one of those reclamation projects. His new LP, Life, has just been released on the Alive Natural Sound label, and it brings Williams’ sound into the 21st century without changing what makes him so unique. Andre Williams’ records have always captured the sound of the city – in this case Detroit - and Life sounds as if it was recorded back in the days of gritty, urban 70’s soul, and blaxploitation film soundtracks, but somehow sounds completely contemporary.
Producer Matthew Smith finds Williams’ comfort zone, and then turns him loose to do what he does best – lay down some “street music”. You can almost imagine a film in your head as the record plays. It’s a landscape of high rise buildings with graffiti scrawled on the bricks, street urchins pitching pennies in alleyways, congested inner city traffic, shady characters on street corners, playgrounds of cracked blacktop guarded by rusted chain-link fence, half-lit neon signs, strip joints, pawn shops and cell phone stores with bars on the windows under an overcast, polluted sky – all set to a funky beat, with Williams’ grizzled voice your guide through it all.
Williams knows these streets. He’s been singing about them his entire life. And he co-wrote every song here. Sometimes on projects like these, the producer brings in the songs and the record becomes more the producer’s idea of who he thinks the artist is. But this is an Andre Williams record from start to finish. And he’s exactly where he belongs – right in the thick of it. And when you drop the needle, you’re right there, too.
Life is a triumph from start to finish, and one of the year’s best records.
Available from Bomp.com and elsewhere on both vinyl and compact disc