Allen Stone insists that he is committed to vintage soul on his third album, “Radius.” That means grainy, unvarnished singing, lyrics that promise honest sentiments, grooves built with physical instruments and a gospel-rooted determination to uplift. “Keep your dirt on the surface and just love where you’re at,” Stone advises in “Where You’re At,” with pop-gospel echoes of “People Get Ready.”
His models are obvious: Stevie Wonder above all, with glimmers of Al Green, Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, Prince and a bit of Sting. Despite his longhaired, floppy-hatted hippie look, Stone is a craftsman who leans retro. He’s defensive enough to sing about it in “Fake Future,” a brisk funk tune that demands “Chuck your laptops” and complains: “What good is my microphone if I don’t really sing?/What good is my music if it ain’t really me?”
That earnestness runs through “Radius.” Stone has soaked up ideas and inflections from his soul heroes, but rarely their humor. Stone’s new songs, despite the confidence in their melodies and vocals, worry over love, self-doubt and larger concerns. Titles like “Perfect World,” “Love” and “Freedom” are thoroughly sincere; he’s seeking all three. “American Privilege” begins with him singing, “Oh, it doesn’t seem right/that I was born white” and goes on to ponder materialism and all that he takes for granted.
His persona stays humble and conscientious. In “Circle,” which starts and ends with folky acoustic guitar, he sings about being trapped in hopelessness and fear. “I Know That I Wasn’t Right” has him crooning the title dozens of times, trying weak excuses before apologizing some more. Strings and falsetto don’t cushion the bitterness of “Freezer Burn,” where he’s a victim of temptation, while he returns to affection in “Symmetrical,” a sleek disco revival that couches amorousness in mathematical terms.
Stone’s old-fashioned grooves are a studio illusion. Most of the album was made with a Swedish songwriter and producer, Magnus Tingsek, overdubbing multiple instruments and vocals. And Stone doesn’t rule out the technology he distrusts. A handful of songs with other producers use programmed rhythm tracks with a mechanized feel.
For now, Stone, 28, is keeping his distance from his own generation’s music, valuing human tones. But “Radius” hints that he’s not entirely content to remain a throwback.
Jon Pareles, New York Times News Service