There's something tremendous stirring inside Ricky Fanté, a 25-year-old soul singer from Washington, D.C., and Rewind definitively proves that the hype surrounding Fanté is based on a talent and style that is real. (His name and image have been touted by the likes of Vanity Fair, and by his major-player handlers, since 2002.) Rewind is, indeed, an album that will have to be strong-armed from your player during the upcoming summer months, perfect as they are for bouts of dock-of-bay sitting. But to those of us with deeply entrenched music-biz cynicism, Rewind also has a few knowing smirks attached.
Ricky Fanté's voice comes first and foremost on Rewind, and what a voice it is: part Otis Redding's familiar growl, part Marvin Gaye's rhythmic sweat, part Al Green's spiritual melodicism. There's even a tiny bit of Ricky Fanté himself in there, like on "Smile," in which the singer, in a rare moment, sounds more like Ricky Fanté than, well, all of the above. But nearly as important as that classic, deceptively easy-sounding cathartic soul singing are the sometimes intense, sometimes unnoticeably subtle horn arrangements of Earth, Wind & Fire alumnus Jerry Hey. "It Ain't Easy," the album's first single, is a perfect cocktail of easy-goin' Cropper-style guitar and sly, backgrounded Memphis horns. But "Drive," for example, has trumpets and saxes that soar above their companions.
But while I adore Rewind for its Southern growls and Sam Cooke smilin' shuffles, I can't help but approach it with some uneasiness. It's not just that Fanté's influences often dominate the album more than Fanté himself. It's an overwhelming feeling of being duped, sold a soul revival that isn't really on offer. For that, I thank producer/co-writer Jesse Harris, whose previous credits include producing and co-writing a chunk of Norah Jones's debut. Just like Jones's sham is based on taking a lab-developed, poll-driven sound and selling it as grassroots, word-of-mouth excitement, Rewind -- in spite of its musical soulfulness -- can feel formulaic in a way that even truly paint-by-numbers '60s factory-studio soul doesn't. It's as if a chalkboard, "Increase Al Green levels on track four by 13 percent," dominated Rewind's Nassau studio.
There are also, of course, simply some bad songs on Rewind, most notably the stunning drivel of "A Woman's Touch," the album closer, which steals the melody from "What a Wonderful World" and makes it more schlocky -- not to mention the downright stupid lyrics and laughable strings. But despite its musical oddities and triple-A radio pandering, Rewind manages to be a great debut by an unquestionably talented artist. Fame and fortune are beyond doubt; whether or not Fanté can achieve his musical potential, however, will be an enjoyable question to watch being answered.