Until now, it's been easy to separate Aaron Neville's career into two separate but equal strains: the funky stuff he's favored when working with his esteemed band of brothers, and the angelic balladry you associate with him when he's punching his own time card as a solo artist. Casual fans might admit they don't know much -- to borrow a phrase -- about Neville's musical center, but they've perceived a certain split in his career. An education is about to be provided, then, in the form of Apache, a solo album that makes the case for Aaron Neville as the most holistic of soul men. Its hard R&B side matches anything the Neville Brothers ever recorded for true grit, while still allowing plenty of space for a singer who's arguably the most distinctive vocal stylist on the planet to tell it like it is.
Apache also reflects Neville's social and spiritual concerns, marking only the second time in his 56-year recording career that he's co-written nearly an entire album's worth of material. The words are straight out of a poetry journal he began keeping in the 1970s, which more recently migrated to his iPhone. Together with collaborators Eric Krasno (guitarist for the groups Soulive and Rustic) and Dave Gutter (frontman for the Rustic Overtones), Apache is a modern/revivalist marvel harking back to a golden age that produced classics like Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On.
"I call it The Other Side of Aaron," says the 75-year-old legend, offering an alternative album title, "because people know me from doing the ballads and New Orleans stuff. They're getting another feel of Aaron" -- a record that touches on the mystic gumbo of "Yellow Moon" and sheer sweetness of "Everybody Plays the Fool" while diverging toward a third path we've never quite heard from Neville in the studio.
While Neville sometimes tours with his quintet, this is a smaller, more intimate show that features Neville and keyboard player Michael Goods. "I like the energy of the quintet," he says, "and I also like the laid-back quality of the duo, just coming off the top of my head with things, not having to worry about whether we rehearsed it. Sometimes I put Michael on the spot, because I'll come up with something he's never heard before, but then he'll catch it and that will make it even cooler. I bring the audience back to where I first started, with some Nat King Cole or anything that comes to my mind..."
And that mind is constantly racing, musically, just as it was in the days when the teachers would catch him deep in a distracted schoolboy reverie. "Because I've got about 10 million songs in my head. Some of 'em wake me up at 3:00 in the morning, and I've got to sing the whole song to myself before I can get back to sleep, to make sure I know all the words," he laughs. His middle-of-the-night song insomnia can make for his next audience's dream come true.
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