“Forward” – album review
– By Joel Selvin, Longtime San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic & New York Times best-selling author of Altamont, Here Comes the Night, Red (with Sammy Hagar) and others.
Jay Middleton stands on the precipice of new vistas in his life, and with his new solo album “Forward”, he wastes no time sinking his teeth into the meat of the matter on the opening track, “Last Time”, which is barely disguised autobiography:
“For the last time in my life – I’m starting over.”
This is a renewal of spirit, a rebirth of him as a musician – a fresh, clean run at expressing himself in music – and he is one hundred percent committed to the task. The joy of that liberation, coupled with his decades of experience both in and out of music, gives Middleton an impressive tool kit to tackle this second act that, looking back over his life, now seems almost inevitable.
The music on “Forward” is a throwback to the polished R&B/Pop blend of the early ‘80s, that brief but golden era when the disco tide receded, and hip hop had yet to make the scene. Like classic mid-century furniture where form and function meet perfectly, the sound is a seamless evocation of timeless musical values – soulful but sophisticated, sturdy songs with instantly accessible melodies that give vocalist Middleton a platform from which he can truly soar.
Produced by Carl Wheeler, working out of Wheeler and Tommy McElroy’s FM Recorders in Emeryville, CA., they took great care with the production. The songs have a polished, scrupulously-produced sound that unfolds kaleidoscopically into a variety of configurations. The riffing horns underneath the verses give “Hard 2 Luv U” a touch of Steely Dan or Chicago – and guitarist Vernon Black’s solos sear the instrumental breaks like Prince channeling Hendrix. The crystalline harmonies of “Whispers” bring to mind soft-rock from the likes of Loggins & Messina or Dan Fogelberg – while the whistling introduction is pure Italian spaghetti western soundtrack. Piano and pedal steel guitar light up the opening to “Get a Little”, which gives way to a mighty call-and-response crescendo between a tour de force lead vocal from Middleton and the “Oh Happy Day” wall of voices from the Love Church Gospel Choir, descendants of the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
The spirit of rejuvenation pervades the music down through the lyrics. Middleton can radiate optimism in “Forward”, a piano-based ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a middle-period Elton John album, and he takes a darker view on “Hard 2 Luv U” which braids tinkling mandolin from James Nash with the billowing, pillowy horn parts, giving supple support to Middleton’s searing vocal.
The entire enterprise bears the mark of seasoned musicians executing a mutual vision built on their combination of skills, viewpoints and backgrounds. Middleton collaborated with Wheeler and Black on much of the songwriting and each of the three collaborators brought a wealth of their own experience from the world of music from where they came. Together they paved a road to a unified musical identity and shared vision – which was to create uplifting and inspirational melodic songs with world-class musical tracks, ringing with lots of hooks – and all natural instruments played by real musicians. The philosophy extended through the lyrics; real, biting, penetrating, and, well, grown-up. This is decidedly music made by adults, seasoned players and artists who are not trying to be anything they aren’t, crafting music made to last.
For Wheeler and Black to hook up with a charismatic vocalist like Middleton has set the stage for a powerhouse collaboration that merges these three master musicians’ visions and gifts. These three friends were ideally suited to come together to create this powerful, richly realized music that represents their combined resources and the commitment of their characters. This is not the hot-blooded, almost reckless passion of youth, but the deeply considered, wickedly detailed work of mature talents. This is the beauty of adult musicians dreaming together – they are grounded in genuine knowledge drawn from decades of experience and first-hand knowledge of success (as well as failure). They can couple that advantage of acquired and practiced abilities to a real world understanding not available to youth that only expands the reach of the music.
“Forward” ultimately is music with celebration built in. Music you can party with, make love to, work around the house by – robust utilitarian music with heart, soul and panache. These musicians are bringing everything they’ve got to this work. And what they’ve got is a lot.
Starting over never sounded better.