The first song written and recorded for Eli “Paperboy” Reed’s new album, Nights Like This, is called “Shock to the System." It will, he’s sure, be something of a shock to some of his fans’ systems. It was a bit of a shock to his, too. That was the whole idea.
After two years of touring behind his 2010 album Come and Get It he’d achieved the epitome of the soul-roots artistry he’d sought since starting out as a Boston teen prodigy. It was time to do something different, something ... more. Now living in Brooklyn, the epicenter of the New Soul movement, Reed, along with his longtime collaborator and guitarist Ryan Spraker, decided to take a trip to Los Angeles to try to break some new musical ground. They scheduled a whirlwind trip of sessions that ran the gamut stylistically; from hip-hop producer and beat maker Rich Skillz to Ricky Reed of the electro-pop band Wallpaper and more. That very first session that produced "Shock" was with Michael Fitzpatrick (Fitz of New Soul exponent Fitz & The Tantrums) and Rock producer Dave Bassett.
“It was definitely a strange combination of people, but the song came very fast. We started with just an idea on my acoustic guitar,” he says of “Shock.” I sent it to my manager and said, ‘Do you like it?’ He said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ “It’s a great marriage of ‘60s pop, which was definitely a reference point, and modern production and approach. And it happened very naturally.”
And it continued to happen naturally throughout the making of the new album, which, like "Shock", at once builds on and stakes new ground from Reed’s past work. The roots are there, strongly, with clear ties to his storied, enriching years in Mississippi and Chicago, and to the precipitous growth of his renown as a performer with his own vision. And that voice is still there, strong and churchy as ever in its wail and rasp, but it’s also very much new territory, with its exuberant pop streaks. It set the tone for Reed and Spraker as they set out to work on new material, opening the door into a world of possibilities.
It’s all about evolution and never calculation, about creation without limitations. And throughout there’s the sound of the artist’s elation. And at every turn, sparks flew in the best of ways.
The title track, another collaboration with Spraker, Fitz and Dave Bassett, is a Friday night call-to-arms. It has the thump of modern pop, but the moving bass line and unpredictable vocal melody takes the song along on a path rarely traveled on current radio. That being said, by chorus number two, you’re singing along with even realizing.
The song “Woo Hoo”, a vibrant concoction teaming Reed and Spraker with Wallpaper, Axident (Andreas Schuller) and Ross Golan sent the message loud and clear with its booming beat and infectious exuberance. The song shows how much bigger a net Reed cast to make a new kind of music.
“To me they were coming at it from a dance music perspective, and I heard it as almost an Afrobeat type of record,” he says of the initial stages. “It has this really droning, not harmonically committed bass line, and the drums are big and powerful. That’s what we were going for, a combination of a dance-y, pop perspective and me hearing this idea that it could be almost an African funk record, and we ended up with a modern take on 60's Soul dance classics like "Shotgun" or "Land of 1000 Dances."
The energy of the enterprise led to, Reed says, some “majestic pop songs.” And it’s a term he embraces. “It’s not something to shy away from,” he says. “It’s something you can use to your advantage. I’m not going to be a snob. I grew up on modern country music, which is pop. It's music that knows how to pull at your heart strings and, when it's done right, there's nothing better."
Some of that majesty came from the writing collaborations, but the meat of this album was written by Reed and Spraker and their lyrical touches and strong melodies are what give this album its unique quality. “Grown Up,” its pointedly self-aware title (intentional or otherwise) complemented by a playful spirit, started simply, with lyrics Reed wrote with a guitar arrangement he says reminded him of ‘60s rock-soul singer Don Covay. But when he went to Boston to work with Spraker on some other songs, some alchemy happened.
“Ryan had this track he was building and saw that they could go together,” Reed says. “It has the ebb and flow of a modern country song, but also has this big pop hook and a groove driven by the bass and drums. And I think lyrically it’s smart, tongue-in-cheek. These are the kind of songs I like, informed by a lot of things. It’s my favorite song on the album and a very good representation of the combination of the old Eli and the new Eli.”
Reed, whose real name is Eli Husock, learned a lot of tricks close-up along the way. He studied the record collection of his dad, former music critic Howard Husock (who went on to become a leading think-tank researcher and writer specializing in public housing policy) who also taught him the rudiments of blues guitar. He apprenticed right out of high school in the Mississippi Delta juke-joint scene (moving to Clarksdale at age 18!) with the elder statesmen of the music, who conferred upon him the ultimate stamp of acceptance into the community, his own nickname — “Paperboy” derived from the newsie-style cap, a gift from his grandpa, that was his sartorial trademark. He hosted a Funk and Soul radio show while attending the University of Chicago, while also playing piano and organ on Sundays in a South Side gospel church ministered by Soul legend Mitty Collier. His story has elicited more than a few raised eyebrows.
All that informed and shaped the music of his dynamic live shows and his first albums, 2005’s Walkin’ and Talkin’ for My Baby, 2008’s Roll With You and 2010’s Come and Get It, each showing steady growth and maturity, an artist shaping a vision to match his skills and dedication. And in the process, he’s earned the right not to be boxed in, though he knows not everyone may see it that way.
“I love soul music, R&B, gospel,” he says. “I grew up on that music. I know that music backwards and forwards. I’ve been singing in churches since I was 18, I've gotten to sing and play with more of my idols than I ever could have imagined, but it’s not new to me anymore. I still love it, I still collect Soul 45s and that's what I listen to at home, but as far as the music I'm making myself, I feel I need to make a step in another direction. I really love this album and I'm proud of it. This is the first record I ever made that’s not a genre piece. The songs are my songs. I had collaborators, but there was not a pre-determined goal to write songs in a particular style. It was whatever came out.”
And he’s eager to get it out to the public.
“I’m excited. Definitely excited,” he says. "I've known from the outset of this process that some of my old fans might be surprised, but I feel like now is the time for me to take a new approach and hopefully they'll come around to the new sound. I can't make records just for some people, I gotta make records for everybody!" From start to finish, Nights Like This is just that.
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