“We don’t have to suffer, you and I … we don’t have to wait in the shadows for the sunshine.” Thus goes the hooky chorus of “suffer,” a standout track on Son Little’s new aloha. The song was inspired by his grief over a beloved uncle’s suicide, and deep emotion is palpable in his sandpapery tenor as he begins to sing after a lovely introduction of gentle guitar arpeggios. The track is minimally arranged for an R&B song, with that nylon-stringed guitar, a bass guitar, keyboard and a dissonantly bowed acoustic bass, most or all of which Little played himself. And some support vocals which could also be himself. I hardly ever listen to one song over and over, but that’s what I’ve done with “suffer.”
(Apologies for the lowercase song and album titles. That’s what the artist wanted, apparently.)
This record threw me off at first. “Son Little” sounds like a bluesman’s nom de plume, right? Little’s given name is Aaron Earl Livingston, he was born in Los Angeles and raised in Queens, the son of a preacher and a teacher, but now lives in Philadelphia. But although there’s a component of acoustic blues to his music, and some bluesy distorted electric guitar on a couple of tracks, what he’s making is old-school soul and R&B, liberally mixed with elements of classic rock and dare I say garage rock, and much more. I can’t stand most modern R&B but this fan of 70s-era Sly and Stevie Wonder is crazy about Son Little.
The bluesy garage rock is what I hear in the lead track and first single “hey rose,” with its fuzz bass lick borrowed from The Zombies. It’s a sexy love song and catchy as all get out with its handclaps, contrapuntal backing vocals and racing-heartbeat kick drum. There’s more of that distorted guitar in the gospel-tinged heightened emotion of “about her. again.” Although Little throws a little curve with the addition of jaunty whistling to keep things from getting too serious, plus some sly lyrical turns. “If you lived here, I’d be home by now,” he tells the object of his desire, in a bit of wordplay that’s either clever or confused, or maybe both — her allure is that vexing.
Another standout is “mahalia,” with another supremely catchy chorus and lovely, loving verses. It’s either a pledge to serve the craft honorably in the tradition of the Queen of Gospel, or a love song to someone named after her.
For a spiritual take on physical longing there’s “3rd eye weeping,” a chunking rocker that’s full of soul as well as chiming guitar and very gospely handclaps. There’s just so much variety in this record, although all of it’s in a similar vein – except it’s hard to pin it to a genre. Is it soul, like the smoldering, romantic “bbbaby,” with its hint of hip-hop, or R&B like “that’s the way,” another smoking hot love song but with a cool arrangement, slow as a long hot summer night. Or the anti-folk of “don’t wait up” with its stabbing “House of the Rising Sun” guitar licks and spooky, theatrical organ arpeggios over a simple trap beat. Or the calypso love song “belladonna,” sung in a smooth falsetto. Or the hint of reggae in the otherwise straight soul of “neve give up” (sic).
It’s all love songs, one way or another, right? Even “o clever one,” with its folk-song trappings of plucked acoustic guitar strings and ambient birdsong, its lyrics revealing a tender but disturbing lament for the world his children will inherit – it’s a tragedy, witness the Greek chorus commenting on the verses.
I’m entirely smitten with this album. Son Little’s aloha is broadly soul music, but in the end it’s an unclassifiable blend of folk, rock, R&B, even Americana, brimming with life and heart.