Blue Note

Though undoubtedly talented, one has to wonder how Soulive found a place on Blue Note and next to Dave Matthews, particularly when one considers all the similar-sounding jam bands that are playing the local pizza joint on weeknights.

Next is the ensemble’s sophomore full-length, and, paradoxically, it strives for a more defined sound than the debut Doin’ Something, while nimbly dodging categorization. As smooth as they are funky, Soulive are first and foremost a traditional jazz-funk band. Their music swims in authentic soul, with some ill-judged but understandable commercial forays.

Soulive’s strongest component is its economical horn section, powerful but artfully refined; and the skill of Neal Evans on Hammond B-3 comes a close second. But where Soulive emerges as an exception and not a lucky break is the group’s organic elasticity — that is, the ability to stretch their sound freely without sacrificing coherence and melody. That assertion, however, doesn’t put them beyond criticism. Next has its lows, evident in “Clap!,” a track featuring Black Thought from The Roots. At best, this could be described as hackneyed hip-hop, a potential single with the necessary celebrity vocals to earn a bit of radio airplay. Likewise with “Bridge To Bama,” another vocal track featuring Talib Kweli. Rap’s irritating, often nonsensical repetition cheapens the natural groove of Soulive’s instrumentals. Amel Larrieux, who sings on “I Don’t Know,” does not entirely avoid the pitfalls of the standard R&B yodeling. At times it sounds as if someone is deliberately pinching her.

The rest of the album, fleshed out by the addition of a fourth member (Sam Kininger, sax), deserves repeated listens. Far from being a laid-back lounge act, there is real passion among this group. Once “Liquid,” the third track, hits the four-minute mark, you’ll hear it.

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