Observing Donald Trump over the past few years, I’ve found myself asking more than once, to quote the title of Marvin Gaye’s socio-political soul symphony: What’s going on? (expletive deleted).
Marvin’s song-cycle masterpiece, which linked the Vietnam war, the inner-city drug epidemic, over-population, hyper-inflation and a word few of us had heard at the time, ecology, appeared in 1971. The album remains revered – and topical – but the velvet falsetto was far from the only voice on the soul spectrum urging dissent at the mid-point in Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Motown contemporaries Stevie Wonder and The Temptations weighed in – Stevie’s You Haven’t Done Nothin’ was aimed at Tricky Dick and the Tempts’ epic Stop The War Now was self-explanatory – as did Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott-Heron and many more.
The torch has now been grasped by Durand Jones & The Indications, a five-piece, multi-racial neo-soul band from Indiana. They won’t, I suspect, have been won over by Trump’s sudden, cynical switch in the State of the Union speech from divisiveness to inclusiveness.
Morning In America, written by drummer and co-vocalist Aaron Frazer, comes from their second album, American Love Call, which will be released on March 1. Nearly 50 years after the template was established – longer than that if you accept Sam Cooke’s Dylan-inspired, gospel-infused A Change Is Gonna Come (1964) and The Impressions’ spiritual/civil rights rallying call People Get Ready (1965) as the trailblazers – it’s an instant classic of the genre.
Sonically it’s from the bluesy side of soul, a not-too-distant cousin of tracks such as Across 110th Street, by Bobby Womack, or Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City, by Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. A hip hop drum beat, supplemented by moody electric piano, build the atmosphere of unease before Jones begins to set the scene.
It’s still in San Diego
You can hear a baby cry
As the trains in New York City
Roll thunder down the line
The lyric takes us from Richmond to San Antone via Jacksonville, into the lives of nurses and teachers, doctors, junkies... and politicians, whose role is pointedly juxtaposed with a reference to toxic pollution.
The Congressmen in Washington
Receive their briefs and proofs
While lead it fills the pipelines
In a Detroit county school
‘It’s morning in America,’ Jones’ husky growl declares in the title line, ‘but I can’t see no dawn.’ Apart from a false, Trumpian one. It may sound like a counsel of despair, but just when the subject of race enters the song – which is now cooking with brass – Frazer finds optimism in the notion that black and white can unite around shared aspirations and grievances.
In towns across the country
It’s colour that divides
When in working men and ladies
We can find our common side
The word ‘ladies’ sounds anachronistic to these ears. Setting that aside I liked the songwriter’s explanation of the effect he was seeking to achieve. In a time of political and environmental uncertainty, Frazer said, people were ‘flitting between anger, despair and anxiety but returning to a sliver of hope that there’s still a path forward’.
That hope lay in looking at the US along economic lines. ‘Suddenly, people of all colours, in every part of this country, can find themselves on the same side, united by a shared struggle simply to survive in the richest nation ever to exist.’ As singing drummers go, politically, it’s safe to say Aaron Frazer is no Phil Collins.
And certainly no Republican. ‘We’re in a time when so many in this country romanticise the past, wishing to return to a place of simplicity and former glory,’ he argued, almost as if he were describing certain Brexiteers. ‘For so many in America, the past represents violence, oppression, fear and colonialism.’
The track, which culminates with the twist ‘We’re mourning in America’ and a startling fuzzed-out guitar solo, is accompanied by an impressive video. Director Ellie Foumbi nailed it when she said it was ‘impossible to hear this song and not connect its message to the current political climate in America’. If not specifically anti-Trump, it is overtly political without being preachy.
Durand Jones & The Indications are no easier to pigeon-hole than Marvin Gaye was as he moved from storming dance singles to duets, Heard It Through The Grapevine to Inner City Blues and on to Sexual Healing. Frazer’s gorgeous falsetto, featured on the new single Don't You Know, evokes Curtis Mayfield or The Stylistics and makes him a great foil for Jones, while an obvious passion for harmonies runs alongside the urban grit of Morning In America.
A band to watch, clearly, which I’ll be doing when they return to the UK in August.