When Durand Jones & the Indications released their self-titled debut album in 2016, it didn’t take long for them to notice that fans were gravitating to a particular track: “Is It Any Wonder,” a lolling, pretty soul ballad, with sharp rim-shots puncturing long lines of prepubescent falsetto from drummer Aaron Frazer. “When the album came out, within a few months there were CD bootlegs with our song on them on eBay,” remembers guitarist Blake Rhein.
These mix CDs serve as currency for fans of lowrider soul, a constituency of R&B fans with strong links to Chicano car culture. Their quick embrace of the Indications was surprising — the band were newcomers on a small, independent Midwestern label, and “Is It Any Wonder” was originally a demo that was supposed to be re-sung by Jones. But, “the lowrider community is so massive and so involved,” says Rhein, that the Indications suddenly “connected with a lot of Latinx fans from Texas all the way up to Northern California,” according to Frazer. “That has been a huge core of our fanbase,” the drummer adds.
Lowrider soul is notable for its emphasis on group singing, its connection to doo-wop harmony and its embrace of fragile, unabashedly pretty ballads. All of those approaches have largely disappeared from pop’s mainstream, and that’s part of their appeal for the Indications. “We realized really quickly that when we sing together, it’s something that you just don’t see now,” Frazer says. “There are no harmonies [in modern pop]; it’s front-person driven; it’s not diffused at all.”
Interest in soul history was a uniting force for the Indications when they met at Indiana University. “We bonded over old soul records and how they sounded,” Rhein says. Discovering Daptone, the Brooklyn label that released faithfully retro tracks by Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, was revelatory. “It was like, ‘oh shit, this [sound] isn’t a thing that’s been lost to time,'” Rhein continues. “You can reverse-engineer these records.”
The Indications started recording in Rhein and Frazer’s basement; they tested their tracks live at the Bishop, a bar venue in Bloomington. At the same time, they struck up a correspondence with Terry Cole, co-founder of the Ohio-based label Colemine Records, which had “the coolest looking 45s” in the local record store. After listening to some of the label’s releases, Rhein decided it was the “Daptone of the Midwest.”
So it’s fitting that Colemine eventually agreed to release the work of a bunch of Daptone fans. The band was excited to put out Durand Jones & the Indications, but their commercial expectations were modest. “[Cole] was talking about pressing 1,000 records,” Rhein remembers. “I was like, ‘dude, maybe just do 500? I don’t want you to be mad at us when you’re sitting on 750 of these things.'”
But Durand Jones & the Indications received unexpected support. “The brick and mortars were a big reason we got our initial boost,” Frazer says. “There was a little PR, but most of it was these record shops putting on the record in the store, and people being like, ‘what is this?’ That’s how we found our first booking agent, who helped us book some shows in L.A., which helped us attract management and on and on.”
If the Indications’ first album was a pleasant surprise — “We didn’t know what we were doing when we put the record out,” Rhein says — their follow-up, American Love Call, is more considered. There is a noted political bent to several songs. For “Long Way Home,” Jones — the group’s sole black member — “took a couple words from a journal entry that I wrote about my dealings with the police and the law and how that shit has flipped my world upside down.” On “Morning in America,” Jones touches on teachers’ strikes, inequity in Detroit and the opioid crisis. “It’s morning in America,” Jones sings, cribbing a campaign promise from Ronald Reagan, “but I can’t see the dawn.”
While the messages on American Love Call can be more pointed, the sound is more honeyed. “The last [album] was a lot of experimentation, then we had enough tracks [for an LP],” Frazer says. “This was more a vision: We moved towards the vocal-group sound.” To inform their approach to group singing, the Indications studied the discography of George Kerr, who produced ensemble-soul records for the O’Jays, the Manhattans and the Moments, along with Curtis Mayfield, a sweet-soul force in the Impressions who also exhibited a genius for delicate harmony throughout his solo career. This research proved fruitful: American Love Call tracks like “Court of Love” are unimpeachable, dripping in decadent four-part harmonies.
That means American Love Call is sure to please the same listeners who fell for “Is It Any Wonder.” But it may also be well-positioned for the current moment in pop more generally: Thanks to some prominent mainstream boosters, the lowrider soul sound is becoming more widespread. Bruno Mars nods to Billy Stewart’s “Sitting in the Park,” a lowrider soul favorite, in the stacked harmonies of “Calling All My Lovelies.” Delfonics tracks like “La-La Means I Love You” enjoy a lowrider following; Teyana Taylor’s R&B hit “Gonna Love You” samples the Delfonics. 21 Savage and J Cole borrow the soothing, doo-wop-inflected tones of East of Underground on “A Lot,” which is currently at Number 15 on the Hot 100.
Frazer has a theory about why music like this is connecting again on a wide scale. “The word ‘chillin” on Spotify is this bizarre trend — chillin’ in the kitchen, outback chillin’, studying chill,” the drummer jokes. But more seriously, the ubiquity of streaming, combined with streamers’ love of downtempo tunes, means that “things can be lower key. You can be a lot more dynamic, rather than just [making] hyper-funk-ultimate-breakbeats.”
Singers are taking note and turning away from kinetic, full-tilt tracks. “It’s interesting to see a lot of people kind of sliding our way,” Frazer says. He’s not complaining.