Cool Uncle: Inside 2015’s Smartest Retro-Soul Revival
Cross-generational collaborations between venerated older artists and youngsters with a modern audience are increasingly common: see Bettye LaVette and the Drive-By Truckers, Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy, Mary J. Blige and Disclosure, or the Doobie Brothers’ duets with country stars. The phenomenon does the Internet-age obsession with reissues one better, suggesting that elders still have plenty to offer the present.
The latest entry in this pool is Cool Uncle, the result of a partnership between vocalist-songwriter Bobby Caldwell and the producer Jack Splash. Caldwell emerged as a solo act in 1978, specializing in dulcet R&B. The production on his early records is impeccable: the punch of the drums, the plump tone of the bass, the candied, pillow-soft harmonies. There’s a catlike quickness in the arrangements that’s unusual for music this luxurious. The chorus of 1979’s “My Flame” comes in from an odd side angle and twists just out of reach. The band stays on high alert during 1980’s “It’s Over,” ready to dart in any direction, keeping Caldwell in sight as he suddenly climbs the scale.
In the subsequent three and a half decades since his debut, Caldwell has continued to release albums. Consistency is his hallmark, as he works to hone his velvety soul: with only minor adjustments, songs from 2005’s Perfect Island Nights could just as easily have shown up on his first record. His web of influence also expanded as a songwriter, as his compositions have been recorded by Roberta Flack, Roy Ayers, Natalie Cole, Neil Diamond, Boz Scaggs, Chicago and Al Jarreau.
These sort of soothing, golden sounds never went away, but during the 2010s, they have reemerged in pop’s mainstream. You can find them in Daft Punk’s plush opus, Random Access Memories, Pharrell’s
G I R L and the new album from the English soul singer Jamie Woon. Country acts like Lady Antebellum, Brett Eldredge and Billy Currington reach for the sumptuous possibilities of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Two other current proponents of this style, Mayer Hawthorne and Jessie Ware, make guest appearances on Cool Uncle’s self-titled debut.
Caldwell’s wife is the one responsible for Cool Uncle: her Google Alert turned up an interview with Jack Splash that claimed Caldwell as an influence. “I thought, man, that’s kind of bizarre,” the singer remembered. “Because he’s 20 years my junior. My wife encouraged me: ‘Why don’t you give him a call?’ We hit it off on the phone.” When they met in person for the first time, they bonded “like old friends.” A shared love of Jack Daniels accelerated the process.
Splash has an impressive résumé — he’s won three Grammy awards for work with Jennifer Hudson and Cee-Lo. Some of his most vivid productions went unrewarded: Anthony Hamilton’s “Please Stay,” a graceful, self-immolating ballad, and R. Kelly’s “Be My #2,” which is fleet disco. These songs demonstrate a rich appreciation for R&B’s history, but unlike many other homages to tradition, they don’t feel stilted.