(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )
Lots of young musicians claim to be staying true to their roots and branching out in new directions at the same time, but few actually put their music where their mouths are.
The twenty-five-year-old Philadelphian known as G. Love, however, and his rhythm section of Jimmy Jazz Prescott and Jeff Clemens--a.k.a. Special Sauce--are an exception. Genuinely rooted in a love of '60s singer-songwriters and '80s old-school rappers, they've developed a sound over the course of their three-album career that's as deep as it is wide.
Their new album, Yeah, It's That Easy (Okeh/Epic), is their deepest and widest to date. It's deep is in that several of its songs broach subject matter that, by G. Love standards, is uncommonly serious. It's wide in that outsiders such as the All Fellas Band, the Philly Cartel, and the King's Court--combos with whom G. Love occasionally jams and performs when Special Sauce is on the back burner--make substantial contributions.
"The Philly Cartel is studio musicians from Philly," Love explains, "and the King's Court is a group of older guys from Boston that we've done some shows with. My drummer used to play with them in a New Orleans R&B group. We pass the mic around and sing old blues songs, and we sing my songs too."
Philly, New Orleans, R&B, old blues--these elements and more percolate beneath the surface of G. Love's music and often bubble over. On 1995's Coast to Coast Motel, for instance, Love's gutbucket guitar picking and Clemens' slapping drums combine to transform "Everybody" into a Mississippi Delta front-porch blues-a-thon, while the Rebirth Brass Band transforms "Bye Bye Baby" into a Mardi Gras party march headed straight down Bourbon Street.
As for the G-man's considerable rapping skills, his Jonathan Richman-as-Beastie Boy impersonation makes him one of hip-hop's few great white hopes.
Ironically, the Philly influence--if by "Philly" one means "Philly soul"--was the last of the ingredients in this native Philadelphian's sound to emerge. Barely discernible on his first two albums, it comes to the fore on Yeah, It's That Easy, especially in the background vocals. "Take You There" and "Lay Down the Law," for instance, pay tribute to the Thom Bell-era Spinners. The "ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh"s in "Making Amends," on the other hand, do the same re: the Ohio Players circa "Love Rollercoaster," while the vocal breaks in "Stepping Stones" tip a hat to the Beatles.
"I arranged the background vocals on that one and on everything else except what the All Fellas sing," says Love. "They sing on 'I-76,' 'Lay Down the Law,' and '200 Years,' and Katman [the All Fellas bassist] arranges those, or we all arrange them together.
“The way we figured out the background vocals on this album was to stand around one mic and do it. It's so cool to be able to say, 'There should be a "whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo here," or "O.K., you guys repeat this hear."' I really love to sing, and I especially love to harmonize. It's an incredible feeling, really. That was one of the greatest parts of making this record."
According to Love, though, the vocals are just one of the innovations he was intent on including. The new-and-improved melodies are another.
"I've been wanting to incorporate more melodies into my music. I feel that a lot of my music has been more rhythmic and not very melodic. So with this new record I wanted to have not only more background vocals but more melodies too."
Also making their debut on the new album are G. Love's first topical and protest songs. Until now, numbers like "Baby's Got Sauce," "Cold Beverage," "Fatman" (from '94's G. Love and Special Sauce), "Sweet Sugar Mama," "Soda Pop," and "Small Fish" (from Motel) have made him the undisputed champion of food and beverage imagery. For that matter, Yeah, It's That Easy includes "Recipe," and the disc's CD-ROM portion features "Cookin' with G.," an up-close-and-personal mini-movie of G. Love shopping for the ingredients of, and eventually preparing, one of his favorite dishes.
The album's main course, however, consists of meatier fare. "Lay Down the Law," for instance, takes its details from an ongoing real-life tragedy. "That one,” says Love, “is about a roommate and childhood friend of mine who had a heroin addiction and got himself into a lot of trouble through that."
Then there's "Slipped Away (The Ballad of Lauretha Vaird)," a song based on the real-life story of a Philadelphia policewoman killed in the line of duty. Poignant and detailed, it's a "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" for the '90s. "That' the only song I've ever researched," Love admits. "I went to the library and got all the articles. It was a really big story in Philadelphia, and it struck me as being such a tragic tale.
“But when we tried to capture the emotion in the studio, it was hard. The producer and the drummer were really struggling to find a good beat. Finally, after doing it a couple of times the way the producer wanted, with a click track or whatever, I said, 'Let's just play it!' So we did, and everybody was right in the zone. It really came together, and it's all live.
"Making this record,” he says, “I definitely wanted to choose songs of mine that were more than just party grooves. I wanted songs that were really saying something."
Bop bop shoo be doo wah.