By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)
Over the past few years, Philadelphia native Aaron Livingston has steered his musical reputation under the Son Little moniker on an upwards trajectory. Following the release of the 2014 Things I Forgot EP, his self-titled debut album met with a warm reception from critics whilst an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland exposed UK audiences to his modernist reimagining of tried-and-tested R&B. Described by some as ‘neo soul’, truthfully this epithet is disingenuous: it doesn’t do justice to the veritable melting pot of genres his music serves up.
Son Little became a slow-burn success and a gruelling tour schedule ensued. This threw up a challenge or two, not least of which was an absence of time to write new material. While touring Australia, he became enchanted with the remote Northern Territory and so decided to drop off the radar for a few days to catch up with songwriting, feeling inspired by the seclusion those idyllic surroundings offered; a new sort of magic, if you will. Clearly this brief exile to the outback has paid dividends as his latest Anti- Records release, New Magic, immediately feels like an evolution from its predecessor, both in maturity and in delivery.
Right off the bat, the blues musician showcases his genre-bending capabilities as he effortlessly meshes together elements of the contemporary and the old school. “Kimberly’s mine / so stand clear / or I’mma make it bad if I ever catch you tryna hang around here” he vociferates on Kimberly’s Mine, deploying unprecedented levels of sass towards unwanted suitors on the impassioned opening track. His hoarse, soulful vocals are backed by sporadic bursts of guitar and laid back percussion, placing the overall sound somewhere within Michael Kiwanuka territory until electronic embellishments begin to appear, mixing in a noticeable hip hop flavour.
The beauty of Livingston’s songcraft lies in his nuanced approach. He doesn’t set out simply to write a ‘blues’ song; instead, his music appears magnetic in nature, attracting fragments of gospel and traces of funk along the way. Take, for example, the lead single Blue Magic (Waikiki). Wonderfully infectious tropical beats and syncopated rhythms accompany the catchy choir-sung hook, channeling influences as far-ranging as Bob Marley and Jack Johnson. His recent stripped-back songwriting philosophy shines here, allowing for exploration of new avenues with a more restrained approach to sound production. Despite the numerous surprises this album throws up, he remains – thanks in no small part to his extraordinary voice – genuine and believable.
In fact, the only uniting theme across Son Little’s output is his affinity for understated guitars and minimalist drumming. Soul R&B of the apocalypse O Me O My is a good case in point as arguably the most ‘conventional’ track on the album. Incidental blues riffs permeate the song, laying the foundations while the chorus evolves into more soulful territory; Motown, even. Livingstone, himself the son of a preacher, injects question-and-answer gospel vocals as well as harnessing his own innate wordcraft, presumably passed down from father to son. This uptempo aggression continues on to Charging Bull as funky, driving basslines propel the song forward, Xenia Rubinos lending her vocals to proceedings.
Around a quarter of the album was written during his stint in the outback and the underlying theme was established during this self-imposed period of isolation. As a result, the whole record feels cohesive; although the execution varies wildly, his approach to each track is broadly similar. The latter half begins to unveil an altogether darker, more brooding side to his music such as the crunchy downtuned guitars of ASAP and the psychedelic, wah-wah effects of Letter Bound. “Listening to the lightning, thunder and rain / come on, so exciting, so glad that you came” he implores, urging his far-away love to join him in facing the oncoming storm.
New Magic feels very much like a cliffhanger, an intermediate point from which Son Little can develop his own brand of experimental, boundary-defying R&B. As his reputation progresses and anticipation of his music grows, he slowly establishes himself as one of the standout contemporary soul pioneers and many will surely begin to place his name on ‘to-watch’ lists. If this upwards trajectory continues, it gives us plenty of reason to await his future material with bated breath.