Eyes Never Lie
By Michaelangelo Matos
Before D'Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, and Macy Gray brought individual expression back to the R & B charts, Tony Toni Tone was one of the few self-
produced acts to achieve mass success. The Oakland trio--Raphael Saadiq, his brother Dwayne Wiggins, and their cousin Timothy Christian Riley--served as a link between those artists and the 70s musicians they sometimes self-consciously emulate (singer and multi-instrumentalist Saadiq has worked on both of D'Angelo's albums, for instance). But unlike the new crop of soul rebels, Tony Toni Tone favored pop brightness over boho expressionism, their production sheen and chart instincts producing hook-filled singles like "Feels Good," "If I Had No Loot," "The Blues," and "Don't Fall in Love." Somehow they managed to have it both ways: in 1988, when most R & B classicists were cranking out boring boudoir blandishments, the Tonies were recasting the old spiritual "Wade in the Water" into a parable about a drug-dealing roommate, "Little Walter." They loved the formal strictures of R & B but never let them straitjacket their innate quirkiness.
Those quirks came largely from Saadiq, the group's dominant voice. Certainly Wiggins's burnished obbligatos, hushed burr, and starry-eyed falsetto were crucial to the group's gestalt, as were his songs, whose melodies were subtler, his rhythms less jumpy (even in his ballads) than Saadiq's. But though Wiggins could be dryly witty (as in the stripper's lament "Annie May"), he could also be as ponderous as his R & B peers (the by-the-numbers grind of his "Tossin' & Turnin'" brings the otherwise perfect House of Music to a cold stop). Saadiq was a far loopier lyricist ("Who is your friend?" he asks in "Let's Get Down," "She don't look nice / But I bet she will / Later on tonight"), and he approached his songs more playfully, peppering his vocals with droll asides ("Sometimes I wanna call America's Most Wanted," he ad-libs at the fade of the Al Green tribute "Thinking of You," "'Cause you're most wanted in my life"). Most R & B classicists approach their music with a grim exactitude, but Saadiq sounded like he was having fun. And his voice, a yearning, boyish, astoundingly huge tenor reminiscent of a young, blithe Michael Jackson, could transform even a banality like "Feels Good," which spends five minutes reiterating its title with minimal embellishment, into an attention-grabbing statement of purpose.
On House of Music, released in 1996, the contrast between Saadiq's and Wiggins's styles had grown so pronounced that the tension only enhanced what was already the group's best batch of songs. Given the deeper conflicts it hinted at, the group's dissolution was hardly surprising, nor is it surprising that Eyes Never Lie, Wiggins's first solo album, and Lucy Pearl, by Saadiq's eponymous new trio, sound equally unrestrained, as if a weight has been lifted off both men's shoulders. From the amplifier buzz on the Wiggins guitar interlude, "Tribecca," to Lucy Pearl's occasional studio chatter, it's clear that neither brother is going for the old polish. Tony Toni Tone influenced the looser D'Angelo contingent, but the new kids have influenced them right back.
If Wiggins and Saadiq were perfecting their personas on House of Music, their new albums find them playing around with them. Eyes Never Lie opens with a vocal-and-guitar snippet of "Fly Me to the Moon," followed by "R&B Singer," in which Wiggins mocks the competition: "You can call me what you wanna / Let's get one thing straight / I'm not the average little, nasty little R & B singer." Which is not entirely true--Wiggins is very average when he's producing quiet-storm gunk like "Let's Make a Baby," or calling in saxophonist Najee to blow some treacly smooth jazz over a pointless reprise of the album's first single, "What's Really Going On (Strange Fruit)."
But most of Eyes Never Lie nicely unboxes Wiggins's romantic image. He doesn't loosen his structures too much; the album is still a straightforward, fairly even mixture of midtempo funk bounce and slow croon. But he sounds as if he's having more fun. His guitar playing was always prominent in the Tonies' mix, but it dominates these songs, from the looped, distorted acoustic figure at the center of "Flower" to the Sly Stone-ish "Music Is Power," which indulges nearly every style in Wiggins's book, from chunky funk chords to hard-rock embellishments to the high-fretted filigrees that liberally decorate the album. His newfound looseness buoys "What's Really Going On (Strange Fruit)," a protest song about the singer's harassment by Oakland cops. (He's currently suing the city's police department.) The song's interpolation of the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit" may not be as clever as the Tonies' allusions to the Stylistics, Nirvana, or Earth, Wind and Fire on House of Music, but it connects the past to the future in much the same way, and provides just as assured a kick.
Lucy Pearl, on the other hand, delivers an entirely different kind of charge: imagine an R & B album that feels as casual as an indie-rock record. Not that Saadiq, En Vogue singer Dawn Robinson, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest have traded in bumpin' beats and precise pipes for frayed singing and atonal guitars. But all three have cited the spontaneity surrounding the album's gestation, and while the subject matter--living it up, reminiscences of urban youth, love sweet love, battling racial stereotypes--is pro forma R & B, their naturalistic approach is anything but. The relaxed song construction (the opener, "Lucy Pearl's Way," is basically one long verse), emphasis on brevity (only two of the fifteen songs exceed four minutes), easy eclecticism, and straightforward, patchwork-quilt production lend it an organic aura somewhere between headwraps-and-incense and Converse-and-bong-smoke. Even the big hooks, like those of the Chic-like "Dance Tonight" or "Don't Mess With My Man," sound like they could have been made up on the spot.
Equally important is how those hooks are presented. Most current R & B albums are either a series of wannabe hits separated by spoken-word interludes or skits (Destiny's Child, TLC), or attempts at cultivating a continuous mood (D'Angelo's Voodoo). On Lucy Pearl the parts play off each other: "Do It for the People," a stark but playful mantra whose loping bass line wouldn't sound out of place on Voodoo, sets off the slick funk-pop of "You," which features frisky appearances by Q-Tip and Snoop Dogg. That radio-ready song is in turn thrown into relief by a marching-band reprise of "Dance Tonight." The album alternates hits with left-of-center excursions, building its moods and then juxtaposing them; after a few listens its ebb and flow prove as hooky as any of its individual songs.
Lucy Pearl is grounded by Muhammad's unshowy beats, and Robinson reveals the earthiness beneath En Vogue's glitz (particularly on the acoustic-guitar-led funk of "Don't Mess With My Man") but this is Saadiq's triumph. In Tony Toni Tone his playful eccentricity seeped through the cracks, but it defines the new band: I'll bet the concepts of "Don't Mess With My Man" and "Can't Stand Your Mother" flowered from wisecracks in the studio. Yet such screwing around proves commercially fruitful, which can probably be put down to all three members being so hit hungry in their former groups. Whatever its genesis, Lucy Pearl manages to close the gap between mainstream luster and bohemian naturalness even more than D'Angelo or Macy Gray--and in the process challenges R & B to give equal time to self-expression and pop form.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Tamaro/Ron Cadiz.