“Don’t tell me you ain’t got soul,” Brooks Long demands on the aptly titled “Got Soul,” the second track on his band’s excellent debut full-length LP, “Mannish Boys,” and don’t you dare doubt him. When this guy sets his mind on something, he’s hard to dispute. Just check the backstory of the record: After floating through the Baltimore music scene for years, he wanted to finally put a complete collection of his stuff on wax, but needed money to do it. Enter a GoFundMe campaign. A star is born.
And thank God for it. Because without this guy, who would be holding the soul revivalist torch locally? He’s got the grit, he’s got the passion and he’s got the talent. Goodness, he’s got the talent. Even when the set’s flaws are exposed — and yes, there are flaws here — there’s no denying Long’s aptitude for song craft, there’s certainly no logical reason to question his musical acumen. Simply put, he was born to play this kind of stuff.
That’s why the good moments are better than most and the great moments are straight up out of this world. “Ain’t Never Had A Good Time” is classic party swing that’s accented by killer organ interludes and gang vocals that exemplify what an unforgettable night ought to be. Plus, with a lazy groove that lends itself perfectly to a festive atmosphere, it’s hard not to realize precisely how true his assertions are when he declares, “You ain’t never had a good time this good, a good time this good.”
The aforementioned “Got Soul” follows the same template, though with it, he truly gets his Raphael Saadiq on (via “The Way I See It”) with a vibe that pays almost entire homage to a song like “Sure Hope You Mean It.” The callback on the payoff line — fully equipped with deliciously ample high harmonies that paint the chorus — will simply refuse to exit your consciousness, no matter how many other songs you try to replace it with. It’s solid, pure gold.
Replacing soul with funk does his band wonders as well. “Spring” is all type of James Brown as it calls upon influences from “Hot Pants” to “I Feel Good.” Here, the tempo is kicked up and the horns punctuate the moments Long isn’t sing-shouting — a move he accomplishes with enough vigor to fuel five Sex Machines. Add in the tight crack of a well-tuned snare drum and a groove that essentially moves your feet into a moonwalk motion no matter how hard you resist, and it’s clear this dude has found the key to soul/funk success.
It’s just a shame that he doesn’t use that key more often. Opener “Heavy Petting” is a pedestrian attempt at yesteryear pop that simply doesn’t fit alongside its more interesting, layered brethren. “You’ll Come Back To Me, Girl” isn’t a bad thought, but production tricks get in the way of what could have been a much more powerful performance. And “Shut Up Dick” is an attempt at humor that Long should be above. Why waste such a glorious perspective on soul music with an acoustic song that feels more throwaway than thrilling?
This is especially evident on the other acoustic guitar-driven song, “It Wasn’t Supposed To Be Love.” A straight-away ballad, it showcases Long’s tender side in the same benevolent, falsetto-obsessed manner Prince used to do whenever he decided to turn the lights down. “Don’t Tell Nobody,” another slow-dance-ditty, succeeds just as well by taking the subdued approach and throwing it all the way back to a 1950s sock hop. Plus, the track’s phrasing — a take on the “You know that I know that you know” philosophy — is a fun touch that actually gives it even more retrofitted credibility.
That authority comes to a climax on the album’s swan song, “Go Home.” Feeling like a hot summer night with a soundtrack provided by nothing more than whatever’s on the jukebox, it brings everything, from the gang vocals to the horns to the band’s irresistible boogie, together one last time. Better yet is that as it opens up, the song becomes a testimonial for original music. As an exchange unfolds between listener and performer, the latter declares, “Can’t you hear me standing here / Pouring my heart from my chest / I only do originals / Mother-#!$& a Kanye West!” and no, there isn’t a better way to end the album.
Because despite it being a track or two too long — some songs feel like incomplete ideas while others simply aren’t necessary — there’s no denying Brooks Long’s tenacity and above all else, that’s the most lasting achievement of “Mannish Boys.” For a first crack at the full-length studio set game, it’s both exhilarating and inspiring to hear a guy with so much flair and so much talent keep authentic music alive. There are reasons the Baltimore City Paper named him “Best Real R&B” back in 2014, and every single one of those are on display here, including the tracks that had already been released years ago as part of EPs and singles.
So, don’t tell him you ain’t got soul, damn it. Because even if you haven’t yet found it within you, this dude is happy to lend a helping hand.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***