Let’s consider Raphael Saadiq without using the subtly pejorative terms “old-school” or “retro.” As Isaac Hayes said, there is no old school — you either went to school or you didn’t — and just because Saadiq’s hot soul music sounds as if it was recorded in 1966, the year he was born, doesn’t mean it’s somehow less creative. Saadiq and other learned stylists like him — Maxwell, D’Angelo, but also current indie-folkies (Fleet Foxes) or any power pop band — don’t merely ape the past; they simply select a different starting point. Why not go back to ’66 and see in what directions you could take music other than the ones that followed history’s beeline to ’67?
Saadiq’s “Stone Rollin’,” the fourth solo album from this in-demand collaborator and R&B front man (Tony! Toni! Tone!, Lucy Pearl), suggests a better term for what he does: classicism. It’s formalist, too, though not entirely formal given the sweat-flinging abandon he brings to nearly every recording. OK, so the lyrics of “Radio” start out a little sepia-toned, but soon Saadiq is singing about tuning in something entirely different — and with a frankness that would have been taboo in Berry Gordy’s studios: “Started pulling off her dress / started licking on my chest.”
Motown grooves mix with bleating with Stax horns, but “Stone Rollin'” jumps on the spring heels of Saadiq’s Bo Diddley-meets-the-MC5 guitars (the reason he was picked to back Sir Mick Jagger’s rocking Solomon Burke tribute at last February’s Grammys). His serrated licks are the one element that actually links these sweaty soul arrangements to modern times. The hard but spare riffs of “Over You” are practically punk, as is the driving chord (and that’s mostly singular) of the Sly Stone/Maxwell medical alert that is “Heart Attack,” while the jangly opening of “The Answer” noodles peacefully over strings like a new epic from the Verve. Saadiq’s starting block may be the ’60s, but that doesn’t mean he’s not evolving.