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Over the last few years I’ve noticed the act “1017” performing at various shows, most of which were hip-hop performances. I was intrigued when I found the new album by Ten17 featuring Solomon Witherspoon on my desk because I really didn’t know what to expect.
I’ll say I’ve heard a lot of genres out of the area but I’ve yet to really see someone take a crack at an honest to goodness contemporary style R&B/Soul album. Although it seems that there’s plenty of this style of music on top 40 pop stations, it seems kind of rare up here where alt-country and similar styles reign supreme. In this sense “Kingdom” is a refreshing experience of local music and as far as this genre goes, it’s as good, if not better, than a lot of the big acts that get played every hour on the mainstream stations.
The first track is titled “Say Yes,” the first thing that popped into my mind when looking at the title was that it was odd to pull out an Elliot Smith song right off the bat. Upon listening to the track, I discovered that this was an original track written by Witherspoon, Michael Bland, Ryan Liestman and Tony Yalda. These men helped out on all of the tracks with the exception of track three, “Dance Floor,” which was co-wrote with Kip Blackshire. It should be noted that none of these co-writers are credited for playing any instruments on the CD but they are credited for producing and engineering the album.
All of the songs on the album are indeed almost perfectly formulated to represent everything you’d expect from an R&B CD. The keys, light guitar, bass line and smooth backing vocals hold right where they should be behind Witherspoon’s clear voice. Indeed all of the tracks are catchy in this way.
With the next track, “I’ll be with you,” this close adherence to what you’d expect becomes even more apparent. What gets me on this track is that there is this soft and cool, kind of whispered, voice that repeats the last word or two sang by Witherspoon of almost each line of verse. “Made my way through my frontdoor *frontdoor* Down the stairs it felt so cold *so cold*,” goes a line of the verse. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, it is a pop/R&B song, but after the soft voice repeats so many things, it started to seem a little unnecessary. On the other hand, upon listening to this album a few times, I tried to get myself in the right mindset, take it for what it is, and started to enjoy the groove of this song and the entire album.
There are a lot of cool things going in this album, but there are still somethings I can’t get into. The third track, “Dance Floor,” has mesmerizing layers of vocal harmonies and keyboards, but then there are parts where there are these additional vocals that just go “Hey” in a deep voice and I couldn’t help but think of the dozens of songs in recent years that have pretty much the exact same thing going on.
The pop ballad “Shoo Do Bop” has well done lyrics for what they are in the short verses. It tells a short story of being at a middle school dance that goes on to a lifelong relationship.
Likewise the song “Diary” has meaningful lyrics that also deal with love and raising a family. The song has a softly plucked acoustic which is backed by light and funky guitar and organ parts. It should be noted that thought was put into how some of these songs flow from verse to chorus and how the back up vocals accent the buildup and breakdown in certain parts.
The track “Devil” is really funky in a poppy way. For some reason I was reminded of Paula Abdul by this song. My only explanation is that the song has a very early 90s R&B sound to it.
If you’re looking for great vocals and groove, it is certainly worth checking out Solomon Witherspoon’s music. He is a tremendous vocalist and the album is tight throughout from the instruments to the recording. On the other hand the album didn’t achieve what felt like a new experience to me. The music didn’t seem like it wanted to get “out of the box” except for maybe the track “Devil,” which does seem like it’s pulling off music from the past, but it’s pretty far back.
If you’re not so keen on the R&B that has been coming out for the last decade, or the genre in general, and are sensitive to when something feels like it sounds kind of like something you’ve heard somewhere dozens and dozens of times but have a hard time putting your finger on it, I’m sure you’ll find something else to listen to.
My main complaint overall with the album is the album cover. It’s a washed out black and white picture of Witherspoon and the font is weird, the shadow effect on “Kingdom” seems odd and what’s with the key and keyhole? Another key makes up the “1” in 17. There’s nothing about keys in the album, which means someone was going for some deeper meaning and really lost it. I appreciate the recording process of this album, but one must never forget that many still judge things by their cover and this one is lacking.
Solomon Witherspoon will be playing with Ten17 at The Other Place bar located at 3930 E. Calvary Rd. in Duluth on July 27 and 28.