Creating something refreshing doesn’t necessary mean reinventing the wheel. It does include looking to the past for inspiration and reviving classical arrangements for today’s music listeners. More importantly, it’s about re-introducing people to the idea that simplicity can yield music that is inviting and dazzling. This is what Simon Okely – AKA Slow Dancer – has achieved with his sophomore album, In A Mood.
The record is a trip back to the ’60s and ’70s when R&B and soul music were intimate and sensual. It was also a time when singers possessed memorable vocals like Bill Withers, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Smokey Robinson, just to name a few. The songs told stories, often about love, family, community, and survival. Okely has done all of this and more.
What stands out first is Okely’s unique vocals that have a similar treble as My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. His voice, in other words, is one of the most spectacular in all of music. But unlike James who re-imagined R&B and soul on his two solo albums, Okely stays true to the classic formula. Most of the album is stripped down and bare bones, thus allowing Okely and his stories to be the centerpieces. The opening track, “In The Water,” is simple in its delivery, but the delicate, soulful vibe radiates of the US’s Deep South. It actually feels more like a hymn, and Okely’s lyrics similarly are confessional.
“Bitter” bellows of mid-’60s Motown with its groovy vibe and story about perseverance. Like the music coming from the clubs of New York City’s Soho area in the ’70s, “I’m Done Waiting” personifies Okely’s pseudonym, Slow Dancer. It’s the type of song that you will want to dance with and sing to an ex-lover. “Are you some kind of drug or sent to me from above? I wouldn’t know the difference,” Okely croons over top the melodic, soul-funk vibe.
On “Heaven Knows” and “I Was Often,” Okely offers something slightly different. Driven by the acoustic guitar, the songs lean more towards the folk-rock of Jackson Browne with splashes of Otis Redding. The former is highly introspective and, similar to “In The Water,” feels like a man confessing his mistakes. The later is a stirring trip inside the mind of a man who has lost everything and is seeking redemption. “Leave the light on. Leave the light on, even when I said something on,” Okely begs. The guitar work on the track is fantastic, weeping gently in the night alongside his desperate vocals.
For all the stirring moments on the album, three songs particularly stand out. The smoldering “Don’t Believe” burns with the intimate, sultry appeal of Marvin Gaye. Like the legendary singer-songwriter, the song is simultaneously sensual, warm, and breezy. It’s a song that will make you want to grab your partner and dance the night away. Meanwhile, “It Goes On” is an evocative track that comes closest to Jim James’ solo albums. The song personifies sexy, and it will, without question, light fires everywhere it is spun. While the song feels like a sultry love song, there is much more to it. Themes concerning sacrifice, commitment, and perseverance are subtly revealed.
Even though I’m baptized,
I’m prepared to never be right
If we create a new style
It means we can never be wrong
It goes on…
The tender and endearing “I Would” is one of the most stunning songs you’ll hear this year. The arrangements and instrumentation are masterful, building slowly with the mastery of a great symphony. But it is Okely’s songwriting that stands above everything else. It can be interpreted in many ways – redemption, resilience, everlasting love – but one thing is for certain: it is the calling of a man who has not given up hope.
Sticks and stones will break my bones,
But your words could destroy me
But I’ll just I have to reveal myself
Like you know I would
Yeah, you know I would.
Okely is doing exactly what these final lines say. He is an artist going against the direction of today’s increasingly digitized industry, where music is becoming more electronic and songs are overproduced. Instead, he reminds us that simplicity still yields the most beautiful music and that personal and honest storytelling will rule the day. In A Mood is a triumph in many respects – for the music of yesteryear, classic instruments, and some guy from Melbourne named Simon Okely.
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