Musical time travel seems to thrill Raphael Saadiq. On his last album, 2004's overlooked Ray Ray, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter-producer went back to the blaxploitation era. The loose concept album positioned him as a funky fly guy whose songs seduced the ladies and enlightened everybody.
But for the sound of The Way I See It, his new CD due out next month, Saadiq goes way back to soul's golden era, circa 1967. Everything - the eschewal of modern instruments, the high-pitched, reverberating mix of the music - recalls the urban sounds floating from transistor radios during the LBJ era.
"With this record, I was going to the movies, you know," says the artist, who headlines Black Cat in Washington on Monday night. "I wanted to go back and be in that time of Stax and Motown. I tried to make music for a film, like it could go in a period piece."
Although four years have passed since Saadiq's last solo project, he's been anything but idle. In the interim, he wrote and produced songs for such marquee acts as Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Macy Gray and Ludacris. His cuts for others may garner commercial radio airplay, but Saadiq doesn't consider mainstream tastes when he's making his own albums. And that partly explains the reason his previous studio efforts - 2002's elliptical Instant Vintage and the ambitious Ray Ray - generated more favorable critical noise than sales.
But with The Way I See It, Saadiq's debut for Columbia Records, his retro '60s approach may seem like more of a mainstream move. The album comes in the wake of critical and commercial smashes by the likes of Amy Winehouse and Duffy, British acts whose American debuts (Back to Black and Rockferry, respectively) self-consciously mined the era of beehive hairdos, lacquered conks and sharkskin suits.
"I figure people are gonna try to make a connection," says Saadiq, who last week was on his tour bus en route to Los Angeles. "But for me, the more doing this type of music the merrier. I feel people will listen to it and feel it's different from the British acts."
For one thing, the vocals don't sound affected, as if Saadiq learned about vintage soul music a week before recording his album. With more than 20 years in R&B; - as partof the '90s soul trio Tony! Toni! Tone! and as a hit producer, songwriter and session bassist - Saadiq is an assured artist with a keen sense of melody. His influences of yesterday (Earth, Wind & Fire and Curtis Mayfield) have always sparkled in his work. But the swagger and winking humor rippling through his lyrics are decidedly modern.
On The Way I See It, however, Saadiq sweetens his lyrical approach in a way, writing the kind of innocuous lovesick tunes that the Temptations or Jimmy Ruffin may have crooned at Motown 40 years ago. In fact, the rhythm and harmonic structure of "Sure Hope You Mean It," the first single, recalls "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep," the 1966 classic by the Temptations.
"That kind of music just came to me," says Saadiq, 42. "I remember hearing [Marvin Gaye's 1963 hit] 'Pride and Joy' in my father's car and loving the bass. That music just stayed in my head. As a kid, the first thing I saw was my uncles doing gospel, doing the Temptations. So the music on this album isn't a throwback for me. This is me. It's not a departure."
Perhaps not in a personal way. But songs most associated with Saadiq - particularly the TTT hits he sang lead on such as "Anniversary," "Feels Good" and "It Never Rains in Southern California" - looked backward and forward. Traditional R&B; elements always informed the melodies, but the production values of Saadiq's work have always been contemporary. For The Way I See It, the artist worked to replicate the sound of an album recorded four decades ago.
"I talked about it with this young engineer I was working with," Saadiq says. "We tried out different microphones [and] older drums to make it sound like that. I mean, you can get the sound - no problem. But you gotta have that feel."
Saadiq may not sing with the grit and sweat of the soul men who dominated the era he evokes. But his Stevie Wonder-influenced tenor gives urgency to such standouts as the swinging "Be Easy" and the strutting "Let's Take a Walk." But for the album's best cut, the swaying "Never Give You Up," Saadiq shares the mic. Silken-voiced Baltimore singer CJ Hilton handles most of the lead vocals while Wonder blows sun-kissed lines from his harmonica.
Known for his vibrant performances, Saadiq says he's still tweaking his stage show.
"We're still building on it. That's all I can say," the performer says with a chuckle. "If people are listening to me, I want them to have a good time and think of nothing else. It's all about the music, you know. Classic music never went anywhere."
if you go
See Raphael Saadiq at Black Cat, 1811 14th St. N.W., Washington, at 8 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $25 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.
Staind, Seether, Papa Roach : Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on Oct. 4. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
The Black Crowes: The 9:30 Club in Washington Oct. 23-25. 800-955-5566 or tickets.com.
Great Big Sea: Rams Head Live on Oct. 25. 410-244-1131 or ramsheadlive.com.
Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt: DAR Constitution Hall in Washington on Oct. 19. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
Margaret Cho: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Oct. 2. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
Avett Brothers, Drive by Truckers: Pier Six Pavilion on Sept. 21. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
Patty Loveless: The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., Oct. 1-2. 703-549-7500 or birchmere.com.
Mary J. Blige, Robin Thicke: 1st Mariner Arena on Oct. 8. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.