Toshi Reagon‘s second record for Razor & Tie (she’s been recording since 1990 on a variety of labels) is a mix of blues, roots, folk and rock. Reagon, whose parents were both members of the 1960s’ protest supergroup The Freedom Singers, and whose mother Bernice Johnson Reagon founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, has a strong, emotive voice that can express a world of feelings and ideas in a variety of styles.
Most of the songs on Toshi involve relationships of one kind or another, from the acoustic r&b of “Big Love” (which would make a great duet with John Hiatt) to the doom-laden blues-cum-field chant “Ballad of the Broken Word.”
Reagon is equally influenced by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, classic rock and classic blues, Isaac Hayes and Mahalia Jackson. Sometimes all in one song, like “Slippin’ Away,” a folk-pop-soul-blues number with funky wah-wah guitar riffs and quavering tremolo organ wails. “I Hate/I Love” is a driving r&b a la Sly Stone, with multi-layered vocals and a muscular guitar attack. And “The Ones Who Love You” is pure folk-rock, with a jangly electric guitar, insistent rhythm, a delightfully catchy melody and a guitar riff right out of the r&b classic, “Funnel of Love.”
Both “The Only One” and “Somethin’ Good” are slow, mellow grooves with Reagon’s semi-spoken, jazzy vocals; the former alternates quiet verses with intense soul-music choruses; the latter has a claustrophobic feel from tightly compressed and double-tracked vocals backed by spacey synthesizer squiggles.
A real oddity, but one that works, is the final track, a folk-soul reconstruction of The Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” in the manner of Roberta Flack’s treatment of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
Toshi is a fascinating, genre-busting record. Excellent production and musicianship, and most of all Reagon’s powerful but not overpowering vocals make this well worth listening to.
(Razor & Tie, 2002)