It’s 1996, and some hungry young bloods named Art N’ Soul are circling the music industry, ready to touch down and leave their mark. They’re Tracy (keyboards, bass), Dion (drums), and Lattrel (keyboards, drums), three singer/musician/songwriters with a knack for delivering silky soul with a slippery hip-hop feel.
Their debut album, “TOUCH OF SOUL ,” is an exceptional addition to the canon of rhythm & blues achievement. Produced by Timothy Christian Riley, from those platinum “songs of soul” Tony Toni Tone, the Big Beat/Atlantic Records set delivers sweet tales of love that bubble and creep inside jazzy, intricately woven arrangements. Working in collaboration with Riley, the group has created a sound that’s strongly reminiscent of those from the late ’70s/early ’80s. Its soundscapes are built using live instrumentation: real drums, bass, organ, Fender Rhodes, and nippy wah-wah guitars.
During an era when crash-collision collages and slavish sound schemes are key elements in black pop, the reflective human touch of Art N’ Soul shouldn’t be overlooked.
Hailing from Oakland, California, the members of Art N’ Soul began singing separately in local groups and the church. Tracy’s dad was in a regional band, and when he was seven, the youngster snuck into the garage to watch them rehearse. “I immediately knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “I kept hanging around, after he let me sing with them on a TV show, it was on. From that point I began entering talent shows in San Francisco Bay area.” Meanwhile, Dion and Lattrel both got turned out in a house of God. “Dion and I attended the same church with Tim,” recalls Lattrel. “Tim was like our big brother, and watching him play drums started me off.”
The loose parts drew additional inspiration from artists like the Ohio Players, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, and Sly & The Family Stone.
Art N’ Soul began life in earnest in 1988, when a mutual friend introduced Tracy to Lattrel and they started writing together. Lattrel mentioned Dion’s name to Tracy, and after meeting him they vibed. “We clicked and all three of us started writing and rehearsing,” says Tracy.
Using Tracy’s father’s 16-track studio in the garage, Art N’ Soul recorded a demo tape of original compositions. They pressed up two of the tunes on vinyl, and sold copies by hand.
The members of the group will now admit that their early compositions were products of a freaky aural machine. Eventually though, through trial-and-error process of collaborating with Riley, they became more polished, mature writers. “Tim picked up on our street vibe, and we picked up on his musical vibe,” says Tracy. Art N’ Soul started playing up emotions while downplaying bravado.
A superbly assembled collection, “TOUCH OF SOUL” serves up 14 soulful selections. Their airy arrangements resemble T!T!T!’s, but Tracy’s voice is singularly cuddlesome, cool, and commanding. The singer’s pipes also reveal the creamy, dreamy, refined rhythm & blues that iconoclasts, as well as keepers of the flame, can understand.
Using true romance, playboy shenanigans, and the games some sisters play for inspiration, Art N’ Soul conjures up palpable feelings of joy, sorrow, and pain. Just about every emotion surrounding lust and love – found, lost, reclaimed – is recognized and celebrated.
The delicate “Ever Since You Went Away,” with its foggy synths, hushed harmonies and roaming organ notes, perfectly captures the hopelessness and regret one experiences after a sweetheart splits.
Singing with reflective urgency, Tracy relates, “Twenty-four hours went by without you by my side/My life is upside-down/How could I be blind?/If only I could erase all the times I made you cry/You never miss ya water till your well runs dry.” “What more can I say to make you understand I’m only human, I’m only a man?” he queries between chocolate accolades. “Would you let me back in?”
His promises and praises are clearly effective because moans of libidinous love can be heard risingin the background of “Nature Rise,” a curvy, jazzy cut. Atop bubbly molasses bounce the words”Just like a flower needs the rain, I need you just the same/Baby try a new position” floateffortlessly, like pretty black butterflies through cloudless blue skies.
In “All My Love,” the singer pledges undying devotion to a special lady. “I’m not gonna be afraid to let my feelings come,” he sings. “All my love is for you.” With “Touch of Soul,” Art N’ Soul is taking listeners full circle, on a passionate journey through the heart and across time. “We chart new ground by building onto an already established foundation,” says Lattrel. The R&B glory days of Marvin, Aretha, and Stevie may be long gone, but by basking in it, Art N’ Soul is taking black pop to the next level.