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Rock - Released January 1, 2008 | Velour Records

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If there were a Wikipedia page dedicated to party bands, the Cat Empire would take up three-quarters of the entry. Or it should, anyway, based on fourth album So Many Nights. With its near-diabolical energy and busted-wide trailer of influences -- here you'll find Afro-Cuban beats, a little klezmer, some reggae, and nods to hip-hop, disco, R&B, pure pop, and rock -- this is a record that rocketed out of Australia ready to throw back margaritas with the world. Tracks like "Fishies" and "So Many Nights" are aggressively accessible, if such a thing is possible. And even when frontman and singer Felix Riebl, who can sound like Mark Knopfler when he wants to, is playing it mellow, as he does on the strong and lovable track "No Longer There," it sounds as though he's being chased. Maybe by a shark. If there is a criticism worthy of being lobbed at So Many Nights, it's that the album is long -- nitpicky listeners will note that the overall excellency of the songs ebbs around track ten and picks back up again at track 13, "Strong Coffee." But that shouldn't stop anybody from tipping her party hat to this effort -- not that many records are worthy of being designated a blast, but this one is. © Tammy La Gorce /TiVo

Soul - Released January 1, 2005 | Velour Records

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Rock - Released January 1, 2006 | Velour Records

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Two Shoes, the second studio album from Melbourne, Australia's Cat Empire, was cut at the legendary Egrem Studio in Havava, Cuba -- the site of landmark recordings by the Buena Vista Social Club and countless other Cuban artists -- in just under a month in late 2004. Like their self-titled studio debut, Two Shoes was a massive success in the sextet's homeland, debuting at number one, and its word-of-mouth stoked an already expanding fan base in Europe and North America -- enough of one to nab the band a booking at Tennessee's prestigious Bonnaroo music festival in 2006 -- despite the lack of an American release. The fuss was justified: the Cat Empire is a wholly engaging, genre-splicing band that exudes equal parts musical intelligence and no-frills party-down exuberance. The Cuban influence is never far from the surface on Two Shoes, but neither is it the point of the Havana excursion. Primarily, the Latin brass blasts and percussion serve to accent rather than define the direction, and the well-crafted jazz piano runs that light up tracks such as "Sol y Sombra" come not from one of the Cuban guest musicians but from one of the band's founders, Oliver McGill. All of this talk of jazz and Cuba should not leave the impression that Two Shoes is an overly serious record, however. While a considerable percentage of the material, provided primarily by another co-founder, vocalist/percussionist Felix Riebl, as well as trumpeter Harry James Angus, ponders lofty thematic issues, much of it is whimsical: this is, after all, a group proud to include the lyric "Some nights I go to bed, there's a ghost in the air above my head and I tremble/Sometimes I eat KFC, other times I give up meat and I just eat lentils" into a song ("Protons, Neutrons, Electrons"). Skipping merrily from alt-rock crunch to hip-hop beats, landing on reggae/ska, Latin jazz, and points in between, Two Shoes is clever and brainy, danceable and absorbing. As for the "Special Edition" part of the title, that's where things get a little confusing. From the looks of it, a couple of tracks from the original Aussie release were dropped from this Canadian edition, but six tracks from the debut album were appended to it. The entire second disc is a DVD, consisting of a live show (love the French-language cover of the Eagles' "Hotel California") and four music videos. © Jeff Tamarkin /TiVo

Funk - Released January 1, 2008 | Velour Records

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The second studio set from this sideman supergroup of sorts follows its debut by six years but maintains a similar approach. While the first album recorded by the eight-piece ensemble (that gets together only sporadically between other full time gigs) was funk-influenced, this is pure '70s styled retro funk. Think Earth, Wind & Fire, P-Funk, the Crusaders, Tower of Power, James Brown, Rufus with Chaka Khan, you get the idea. To further cement the old school feel, the band recorded with mics and tube compressors from the era. The result is nearly an hour of non-stop, predominantly instrumental, rump shaking jazz-funk fusion that, while obviously indebted to its predecessors, shimmers with a natural energetic groove of its own. These guys play off each other with enthusiasm and are clearly having a ball. All but two tunes are Lettuce compositions with drummer Adam Deitch (50 Cent, Talib Kweli, John Scofield) writing or co-writing eight selections. The three piece horn section gets all AWB on "Salute" and the band finds its Meters "Cissy Strut"-ing heart in "Speak E.Z." The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's "Express Yourself" and Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" make for two representative and slightly left-of-center covers that fit perfectly with the album's electric boogie vibe, but the rest of the self-penned tracks are nearly as good. The group borrows liberally from its forerunners but does so with such integrity and respect it's impossible to criticize Lettuce for ripping off the licks, lines and riffs of the '70s greats in their record collections. Rather, this is party music made to liven up any shindig and might also encourage some youngsters to search out the sources behind Lettuce's funky blasts. That seems to be at least part of the band's intent. The rest is just to have fun paying tribute to music that inspires them and hope the listener's feelings are mutual. © Hal Horowitz /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 2006 | Velour Records

Although still a teenager when she recorded her debut album, Words Came Back to Me, Sonya Kitchell made a noticeable impact with this 2006 release. The 12 original songs on the album owe a heavy debt to Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones, but they come across with a beautiful integrity and authority all their own. Kitchell's songs are as influenced by soul and jazz as they are by folk, and the whole album has the organic, expressive feeling of the best singer/songwriter records of the 1970s. Kitchell also has a penchant for remarkable hooks, and her lyrical content is honest, clever, and engaging, making for a nearly irresistible combination. That the album was picked up by Starbucks for the Hear Music Debut series, which made the album available in Starbucks stores, ensured Kitchell would get the audience she deserves. © TiVo

Soul - Released January 1, 2002 | Velour Records

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Soulive is a tightly knit unit, a feature that is evident in their sound. Alan Evans plays the drums here, his brother Neal Evans plays the Hammond B-3 organ, and colleague Eric Krasno delivers the electric guitar. Velour Records, the New York City start-up, has a bright future ahead of itself if it continues to support projects like Turn It Out, Soulive's debut full-length release. There are two things that should make Soulive an enduring and popular group: they look great and they sound great. Paying homage to the jazz and funk groups who helped to influence and form their musical character, Soulive appears on stage in slick, dark suits and with cool demeanors, assuring the audience that they're about to give a show to remember. The band executes their songs with a cohesion often heard in other forms of jazz like bebop, but with a confidence and fervor for the funk that allows their music to groove and swing. The Hammond B-3 sound that Neal Evans provides will make fans of Jimmy Smith, Ruben Wilson, and John Patton smile, while Eric Krasno's style will delight fans of George Benson and Grant Green. All of the songs on this album are originals, except for their interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "Jesus Children," given a Soulive flair in arrangement. The remainder of the songs were either written by all three of the group's members or individually. Four of the songs featured on Turn It Out were recorded at live performances and sound pretty good except for one aspect that's lacking in each of the songs: a strong drum presence. Hip-hop is another unquestionable influence on Soulive that the listener would be able to perceive if the drums were more prominent in the mixes of these songs. Despite this, each of these songs has solid appeal. Soulive explores their tender capacities on cuts like "Azucar" (written by Neal Evans) and "Arruga de Agua" (written by Eric Krasno). The unique rhythm accents in "Arruga" coupled with the very lyrical and dexterous playing of Eric Krasno on guitar, make this song one of the album's standouts. It is joined by the likes of "So Live" and the title track, whose organ solos hit the target through Neal Evans' use of the pedal tone, creating suspense and excitement. Also of note are guest appearances by Oteil Burbridge on bass for "So Live" and tenor sax man Sam Kininger on "Rudy's Way." Soulive masterfully embraces a retro-modern thing that makes you wish other artists would refer to their musical predecessors for inspiration. Alan Evans plays the drum kit with all the force infused in his body by hip-hop culture; Eric Krasno speaks volumes with his electric guitar; Neal Evans reminds you of what an organ virtuoso sounds like; and together, they are Soulive, so live! © Qa'id Jacobs /TiVo

Jazz - Released January 1, 2000 | Velour Records

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Topaz is a contemporary jazz tenor saxophonist who in some circles is an unknown and in others a legend. In a sense playing retro music that harks back to the late-'60s and early-'70s seminal jazz-rock fusion era, Topaz is more readily associated with the modern jam bands à la Medeski, Martin & Wood. Both aspects are prevalent in his music, played with a large ensemble fronted by a horn section and spurred on by electric keyboards and a middle core funk beat. Clearly one who has heard his share of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Hank Mobley, Topaz himself has a refined approach, not overblown or histrionics-driven, but chooses to play a role in his band that lends to the overall sound that is unified and complete in many ways. Though the signposts of the Miles Davis Bitches Brew, Mwandishi, and Jazz Crusaders bands are quite evident, Topaz is playing the music with his own overview of that bygone but still vital era. Donald Byrd's "The Emperor" kicks things off with wah-wah guitar by Tewar, a breezy horn chart, and Fender Rhodes piano courtesy of Ethan White. A "free your mind" vocal chorus informs you that "Let It Go" has roots in the funky psychedelic music of the '70s, surrounding a Brecker Brothers or Jazz Crusaders trombone-led horn chart. The long title track really shows where Topaz is coming from, with spooky organ, light funk, and developed horn lines borrowed straight from the Miles Davis classic "Shhh...Peaceful." "Peyote Eyes" is parallel to what the Cinematic Orchestra does, with soulful organ from Oliver Von Essen, a pop vocal line sung by Rozz Nash, languid refrains from strings, and a lap steel guitar. There's rock & roll meeting the sitar on "Rez," and the 12-minute "Dharma" is a terrific piece of music, with a lengthy free intro, long tones and spacy incursions, and a fast and really beautiful middle section with breakbeats. It seems Topaz has also listened to his share of Julian Priester's ECM LP Love, Love, employing trombonist Squantch (yes, that's his stage name) and trumpeter Takuya Nakamura to lead the band with him in a formidable triad full of restrained power, grace, and witty repartee. If you are not hip to Topaz, it's time to get up to speed, for this CD is a portent of great things to come as he affixes his brand of jazz to the youth-oriented marketplace. © Michael G. Nastos /TiVo

Rock - Released January 1, 2003 | Velour Records

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Seattle's Maktub shouldn't be doing this. Sure, artists like Macy Gray and Alicia Keys have made a stab at resurrecting soul, but Maktub do the job properly. From the first notes of "You Can't Hide," it's quite apparent that the band's heart lies in the late '60s and early '70s, the golden years of soul, all helped by a bit of a studio gloss that's definitely form the new millennium (courtesy of, surprisingly, Steve Fisk), but which never threatens to smother what they have going on -- which is a definite groove. "So Tired" is Al Green fronting Sly & the Family Stone -- singer Reggie Watts floats into falsetto so easily and purely, he's a joy to hear. The guitars can get a little dirty at times, and the analog synths add a real period flavor to the proceedings. But for much of the time, they have the substance to back up the style of Fender Rhodes and Hammond organs. "Give Me Some Time" even has Northwest rock references in its choruses, and "Baby Can't Wait" is airy bliss, even down to the sitar touches. In fact, until their cover of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter," this is almost a perfect record. At that point, however, they drop the ball a little. "No Quarter" has the locked-in groove, but that's about all -- certainly not enough to justify its eight-minute length. After that, "Motherfucker" is something of a mess, and the closing "Then We'll Know" never quite gels. But any band that can get it so right for eight cuts -- and even the remaining three aren't awful -- deserves fame, fortune, and mass adulation. Welcome back to soul. [When Velour picked up Khronos for release in 2003, they changed the artwork and removed "Motherfucker."] © Chris Nickson /TiVo
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Rock - Released January 1, 2008 | Velour Records

It's hard to believe that Sonya Kitchell was only 17 when she made This Storm. All the songs have a mature lyrical and emotional approach that belies her years and they're delivered in a voice that has echoes of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Billie Holiday, and Norah Jones, with a trace of David Byrne and Rickie Lee Jones, too. Still, Kitchell manages to incorporate and transcend all her influences. She's an original and powerful singer without a trace of the teenage warbling, breathy sexuality, purring coyness, or over singing that often passes for emotion with younger performers. Maybe it's her jazz background; she studied composition at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program at the Kennedy Center in 2003, and toured as one of the vocalists with Herbie Hancock's band to support his Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters. Whatever the case, she's an artist that deserves all the superlatives that have been heaped on her. With producer Malcolm Burn (Daniel Lanois, Peter Gabriel) she's fashioned an album full of stunning low-key beauty. "For Every Drop" opens the album on a strong note showing off Kitchell's lyrical gift, strong singing and melodic strength. Her jittery phrasing is perfect for the stuttering backbeat and leads up to a soaring chorus. "So Lonely" is a simmering torch song about an affair with an older man, and Kitchell's vocal conveys all the excitement, danger and heartbreak of forbidden love. The string section gives the tune a classy sheen. "Here to There" combines pop, R&B, and country to investigate the unexpected ups and downs of life. The tune's jaunty midtempo bounce belies the song's skeptical lyric, sung by Kitchell with an offhand grace. "Effortless" and "Borderline" have new wavey grooves that recall mid-period Talking Heads, funky without being straight out funk. "Effortless" moves between a thumping chorus and a lilting verse with Brad Barr's slashing, icy lead giving the song a fine pop sheen. Kitchell's jazzy phrasing and clever internal rhymes make "Borderline" one of the album's most catchy tunes. It's a subtle call to action with a chorus that imprints itself on your mind after a single listen. This Storm is an album of rare warmth and beauty, with a bright pop pulse that heralds Kitchell as a superlative new talent. © j. poet /TiVo

Soul - Released January 1, 2007 | Velour Records

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Funk - Released January 1, 2002 | Velour Records

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Lettuce is the group that began the careers of several noted "jam band" musicians: Eric Krasno of Soulive, Adam Deitch of the John Scofield Band, Adam Smirnoff of the Squad, Jeff Bhayshk of Kudu, Ryan Zoidis of Rustic Overtones, and Eric Coomes, now a Los Angeles-based producer. Outta Here is essentially a reunion project featuring these players and several special guests, including trombonist Fred Wesley, Soulive organist Neal Evans, and John Scofield himself. Toni Smith also contributes an alluring R&B vocal on "Twisted." Although the album is overly reliant on funk clichés, there are some captivating moments, mostly toward the end of the disc. The groove on "Nyack" is something else -- so good that a bonus live version closes out the disc, giving the listener a good sense of what the band does on stage (hint: it cooks). Keep the disc playing and you'll hear a 45-second snippet of horns and drums getting down as well. © David R. Adler /TiVo
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Rock - Released January 1, 2004 | Velour Records

Soul - Released January 1, 2002 | Velour Records

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Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Johnny Hammond, and John Patton have all been at the core of some of the legendary organ groups in the history of jazz, and it's time for the history books to make room for another group of truly talented musicians focused around that wonderful, warm, and expressive instrument. Soulive is considered an organ trio with Neal Evans playing the Hammond B-3 (usually through, the miraculous and luscious Leslie Speaker Cabinet), his brother Alan Evans on the drums, and compatriot Eric Krasno on the electric guitar. Get Down is Soulive's introductory EP effort and was recorded in March of 1999 at the Soulive Studios in New York City. The group happens to be based out of Vermont, but they've traveled and played so extensively around the country that they hesitate to identify themselves with any one particular geographic location. There's lots to say about Soulive, a lot of which is evident upon hearing the five selections featured on Get Down Not content with simply invoking musical themes similar to those created in part by the originators mentioned above, Soulive can take you back to the heyday of jazz when it was all about "the sound, man, dig the sound." These cats can really play, and they've achieved a balance amongst themselves that makes it a stretch to call this an organ trio -- they're just a hot trio. And while it is easy to say that they produce a sound similar to that of a Jimmy Smith or a John Patton, these three feature a modern sound rooted in hip-hop that none of the aforementioned legends could logistically claim. With the combination of their musical talent and their unique and modern style, this is a strong album that whets your appetite for more Soulive. © Qa'id Jacobs /TiVo

Soul - Released January 1, 2007 | Velour Records

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Rock - Released January 1, 2008 | Velour Records

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Rustic Overtones, the rock septet from Maine, suffered a familiar if heartrending fate in 2002. After six years of working their way up in the music business, they released their major-label debut, Viva Nueva, on the Tommy Boy imprint of Arista Records in 2001, just as company president Clive Davis was being forced out (he subsequently forced his way back in, of course) and Tommy Boy was being shuttered. Naturally, Viva Nueva got lost in the shuffle, and Rustic Overtones broke up. Five years later, they reunited, and Light at the End represents their return to record-making. It demonstrates what all the fuss was about in the first place. This band's music is an embarrassment of riches, its lineup combining guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards with a three-piece horn section for arrangements that run the gamut from punchy funk-rock ("Rock Like War") to acoustic folk ("Letter to the President"), with much in between. The obvious chops of the musicians and their versatility are a double-edged sword, however, since the band can seem chameleon-like from one song to another, sounding like the Dave Matthews Band at one moment ("Valentine's Day Massacre"), and like Simply Red ("Hardest Way Possible") at another. The direct "Letter to the President" (from a G.I. in Iraq, of course) seems modeled after Plain White T's' "Hey There Delilah," while "Troublesome" and the title song demonstrate a familiarity with the Beatles (early and late phases, respectively), and sometimes, as on "Happy," Rustic Overtones just sound like a good old soul band. Fortunately, what ties it all together is singer Dave Gutter's foggy, grainy voice. Again, the timbre of that voice is familiar -- a little Matthews, a little Mick Hucknall, a little Rod Stewart, etc. But, along with the talented band, it makes for the kind of quality music that attracts loyal followings and, for better or worse, A&R men. Maybe in the new industry environment of the 21st century, with the major labels in decline, Rustic Overtones will be able to keep better control of their own destiny and soldier on. By the evidence of this comeback disc, they deserve to. © William Ruhlmann /TiVo

Funk - Released January 1, 2001 | Velour Records

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While the fervor of the acid jazz craze has long since chilled, a few bands pursue the funky jazz muse that powered it. New York City-based Topaz is one of those who continue to delve into the genre's intricacies, with passion and nimble chops. On their third album, The Zone, tenor sax player Topaz and his bandmates turn their sights toward the more soulful areas of the genre, mixing funky grooves with smooth arrangements. The Zone reaches such heights of cool that you almost believe you're sitting in a red velvet-draped lounge, highball in hand, cooing sweet nothings into the ear of your prospective mate. Though the band is named after Topaz, he generally lets his bandmates steer the music. Ethan White's electric piano drives a percussive melody on "Minha Mente" and provides a solid lead in almost all the songs; Mark "Tewar" Tewarson's guitar noodles front "Walkabout," which has a darker vibe than most of the album's upbeat tunes. Trombone player Squantch really impresses with his range of hot and cool emotion on "I Can See It in You," laying down some nasty blues tones. But the highest praise for the band is that the deft layering of each instrument in the arrangements makes it difficult to determine who is leading on any song. Each voice sounds integral to the whole groove machine. The lone jarring note on the record comes from the vocals: Topaz opts for highly repetitive lyrics that are often chanted more than sung. While you get used to them after a while, they get in the way a bit too much. Topaz has plenty of beautiful instrumental voices here; they didn't need to add another. © Michael Gowan /TiVo

Rock - Released January 1, 2004 | Velour Records

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Dewey Kincade, the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the Navigators, was born in St. Louis but put his band together after moving to New York City, and their EP Glory Glory seems to reflect this fusion of Midwestern sensibilities and Big City sophistication. Glory Glory's six tunes are intelligent and evocative and cover a broad palette, from the historical folkie simplicity of "Bow" to the sleek, shimmering textures of "The River" and the R&B-influenced strut of "I See You Clearly." But whichever way the group goes, Kincade's passionate, twangy vocals twist themselves to their surroundings with precision, and bassist Andrew Emer and drummer Phelim White give the songs a lean, organic groove that puts solid flesh and muscle on the frameworks of the melodies. The Navigators have a strong belief in the value of dynamics, and Glory Glory moves back and forth between the quiet and the raucous, but the band does so with a firm sense of purpose, and the approach suits Kincade's lyrics, which are literate but rooted in a sensibility that's pure and emotionally honest. The Navigators might seem arty and sophisticated compared to most of their peers in the roots rock/alt-country community, but Glory Glory never sounds pretentious; instead this is music that takes its influences and lets them follow new and different directions while respecting their original ideals and intentions, and the result is music that fuses several sensibilities while honoring its sources, recalling past, present, and future in one gesture. Glory Glory is fine stuff and confirms Kincade is a songwriter to watch. © Mark Deming /TiVo

Rock - Released January 1, 2003 | Velour Records

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Mike Errico created a freedom from label intervention by touring so that he could afford to make this record on his own terms. Upon completion, he looked for a management and label deal, which he found with Velour. This unique approach allowed Errico to maintain complete artistic control, and he delivers a release that has the potential to push him from an indie favorite into the national spotlight. Incorporating rock, funk, folk, and pop, Skimming traverses various musical landscapes between the staid companion pieces "When I Get Out of Jail" and "Coney Island," which bookend the album. During his live performances, Errico often focuses the attention of the audience by creating a hypnotic mood within a room. The atmospheric ambience on "Monday Morning," and "Underwater" in particular, captures this vibe and has the listener hanging on every word. The use of electric guitar and the addition of drums, keys, and bass round out the fullness of his sound and allow the songs to become fully realized, compared to the stripped-down versions that he plays on the road. Lyrically, Errico stays true to form by offering up poetic verse and worldly insight wrapped in a blanket of humor and wit. While every song is permeated with substantial qualities, three tracks immediately stand out from the equitable balance of intonations on Skimming. The rock-driven energy of the title track, the playfully intimate lyrics of "Strawberry Song," and the pop sensibility of "(Not So) Sad" provide a mainstream contrast to the less conventional tunes that have made him an edgy singer/songwriter. © Erik Crawford /TiVo

Hip-Hop/Rap - Released January 1, 2003 | Velour Records

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Few of the DJs and producers onboard are able to correct Soulive's polite dinner-music tendencies on Turn It Out Remixed. As a result, the disc will only appeal to a small percentage of the group's dedicated followers. Me'Shell NdegéOcello, the Beatnuts, J-Live, DJ Spinna, two-fifths of Jurassic 5, and a small cast of lesser-knowns are present; the majority of these people are able to cast a grittier and more lively coating on Soulive's sound, but most of the attempts are for nought. You still get the feeling that the group is best experienced in a live setting. The remix of "Nealization" is one of the more bizarre cuts -- who could've predicted that an acid squiggle and a John Scofield guitar line would ever appear on the same track? © Andy Kellman /TiVo

Rock - Released January 1, 2005 | Velour Records

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With Say What You Mean, Seattle's Maktub ramp up their rock & roll credibility, sidestepping an overly trendy trip-hop trap the quintet might have seen coming after 2003's Khronos. The fancy footwork pays off -- songs like the Al Green-reminiscent "Say What You Mean" and "Daily Dosage," with its heavy soul crash, saw the act splintering from regional-favorites status to full-on, bring-'em-on blues-rock-soul heroes within a month of release. If credit could fall squarely on a single pair of shoulders it would, but given the enormity of frontman Reggie Watts' Afro that's an impossibility. Suffice it to say that his four-octave range and Prince-like charisma permeate every track; though fans of Sly Stone and Lenny Kravitz will climb aboard first, count on Watts pulling in listeners from musical planets across the stratosphere. © Tammy La Gorce /TiVo