Victor – Transparent (2011)

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by Nick DeRiso

Neo-soul singer Victor Nelson, in an aptly titled new disc, doesn’t try to hide his emotions on Transparent. In fact, across 10 songs (nine of them self-penned), the vocalist opens up completely. That raw, tender-hearted emotion finds a home in comfy musical surroundings, as Victor references many of the 1970s’ and ’80s’ most familiar R&B and smooth jazz-inflected sounds. Oh, and Christopher Cross. Yes, Christopher Cross. More on that in a moment.

On “Can’t Believe It,” a frank expression of wonder at having found marital grace, Victor combines lithe island rhythms with the bracing strings associated with Barry White’s classic disco-soul. Lenny Holmes scuffs things up some, entering with a fusion-inspired guitar solo, while Victor unleashes the first of what will be several impressive vocal improvisations. Jamela Bullock joins Victor on the smooth-jazz inspired “Occasionally,” a lament for lost love that aspires to the unbridled romantic optimism of Stevie Wonder’s best sides. Their conversational approach creates an overlapping symmetry that neatly mimics the familiarity of former partners.

“To the Next” provides a quiet but insistent message to the brokenhearted: “Just let it go,” Victor sings, amidst a bare-bones arrangement that showcases his feathery vocal prowess. “Next” is the lone track that Victor produced, with “Thought You Knew” and “Clumsey” helmed by Sticko Drake. Raye Smith oversaw the remainder of Transparent. “Thought You Knew,” this dreamy answer song, builds out from an unfounded accusation of infidelity. Keyboardist Jaral Crokett adds a swirling, impressionistic atmosphere, as Victor brusquely admonishes his jealous partner: “You can’t just keep taking me through changes.” (That towering vocal arrangement is by Jarrard Anthony.) Meanwhile, the absorbing mash note “Clumsey” has an echoing dream-like quality. As his character falls in love, Victor’s vocal seems to ascend to the very heavens. The title track begins as a duet for piano and voice, with Victor admitting just how deeply his feelings run. He brings a telling, almost fragile approach to the lyric. Holmes returns with a delicately conceived guitar solo, as the song moves into its more anthematic second half. Victor then pines for an extinguished romance in “Still In Love,” a pleasant, acoustic-driven ballad.

Perhaps the album’s biggest surprise, and its broadest risk, arrives with “Christopher’s Sail,” based on Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.” Victor succeeds by giving the light-rock hit an urbane update, starting with the addition of Gordon Jones’ engaging, Quiet Storm-soaked sax work. Victor doesn’t simply follow the 1979 song’s lyric, either, as he slips into a brilliant vocalese during the familiar instrumental bridge that conveys a just-right sense of reverie. Kim Gammon then adds a lightly swinging guitar as Victor moves into a higher register. Meanwhile, Jones continues to ruminate on the horn, even after the rest of the instrumentation has faded away. “Christopher’s Sail,” and this fits perfectly with its theme of escapism, seems to simply disappear over the horizon.

Having taken a moment to collect himself, Victor returns with “Something About You,” a song with all the soulful grit associated with Memphis’ Stax Records. That starts with its garrulous organ and nasty little bass line, and ends with its direct vocal reference to one of that town’s most famous musical exports. Victor’s character keeps promising himself that he will stay away from a relationship that never seems to work out. But he keeps coming back to the same place, anyway: “I break that promise every time,” Victor admits finally, as a rousing R&B groove builds behind him. He embraces the great greasy vibe, singing with a rhythmic verve in front of Samantha Miller and Raye Smith’s sultry background harmonies. Toward the end, Victor even adds in a trill straight out of the Al Green songbook.

“Spirit,” with a husky guest vocal by Yvette Soul, combines the sophisticated urban R&B of Soul II Soul with an uplifting message. “I feel the spirit,” Victor sings, “It’s moving me.” The song’s compact groove then takes a free-wheeling turn, as he scats through a repeated chorus. Victor’s talking about a different kind of love, this time between a man and his God, but again confirms this record’s steadfast ardor.

Revealing and tender-hearted, Transparent doesn’t break a lot of new musical ground. But in exploring passion’s many turns, and in talking about them so very frankly, Victor finds new ways to connect.

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