Published May 13, 2019In the tradition of Curtis Mayfield's "Miss Black America" and Sam Cooke's "You're Always On My Mind," Carlton Jumel Smith's "Woman You Made Me" is a laudable anthem for every fellow giving his better half her due. Smith also cites Cooke outright on that funky, horn-blast-rampant track, which opens the New York singer's new retro-soul-indebted LP, 1634 Lexington Avenue.
But just because his sound strives for the timelessness of those soul legends, that doesn't mean it's overly familiar. There's a uniquely conversational quality to Smith's delivery on cuts like "Remember Me," not to mention a palpable sincerity in his tone as he vulnerably brays on that song's bridge.
It also doesn't hurt to have the Cold Diamond & Mink crew backing a fellow up in such an endeavour. That production team has undeniable chemistry with Smith, be it the backup singer on "Remember Me" who grippingly belts out declarative lines about time going "on and on"; the horns that all but "mm hmm" in affirmation to Smith's evocative lyrics about "holding hands in the dark" on "Ain't That Love?"; or the Latin-inflected palm-slapped drums propelling Smith forward on "We're All We Got."
Despite their deep Motown-esque grooves, Cold Diamond & Mink actually hail from Finland, a partnership Smith netted as part of his deal with that country's Timmion record label during a residency there. As left-field as that all sounds, those Finns have soul to spare, so much so that 1634 Lexington Avenue has attracted the backing of none other than Brooklyn's throwback Dap-Tone imprint for distribution.
That affiliation with Dap-Tone should come as less of a surprise. After all, the label is renowned for releasing retro classics by recently deceased late bloomers like Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones, who paved the way for the likes of Smith.
And while he's not a Screaming Eagle of Soul like Bradley, Smith instead carves his own niche in a higher register and with a crisper and nimbler tone. That means he won't practically blow the doors off the venue with his vulnerable wails, like that late, great forbear. Instead, Smith more casually speak-sings you back from the ledge you're teetering on, or sweet talks you into his rhythmic embrace. By paying proper homage to his soul elders, while also employing more distinctly subtle singing and a greater relatability via his plainspoken lyrics, Smith sets himself apart with 1634 Lexington Avenue. (Timmion Records/Dap-Tone)