Lael Summer – Burden to Bear
Record Label: True Groove
Release Date: September 9, 2013
Despite the fact that almost no one has heard records from it, the New York-based True Groove label is one of the coolest recording outfits currently putting out music. Last fall I reviewed two different records from True Groove members – Tomas Doncker and Kevin Jenkins. Both were shamelessly old-fashioned collections that mixed funk, soul, pop, and jazz. They weren’t anything you’d expect to find playing on a radio station with even the lightest association with top 40 music, nor were they the sorts of records that hipsters and critics would ever take to. I myself appreciated the records more for their musicianship than anything else. I don’t consider myself a huge lover of this brand of soul music, especially when it leans so much toward occasionally outdated 70s, 80s, and 90s sounds. Frankly, hearing the True Groove records in this day and age is a bit bizarre, but that’s precisely what makes the label so cool. The records the label puts out aren’t afraid to embrace their throwback atmospheres. Even cooler, all of the True Groove members play on each other’s records, like a jazz combo that takes the stage at a club for six hours each night and gives every one of its members a moment in the limelight. In short, True Groove seems like the kind of musical family that any artist would be lucky to be a part of, and that fact is evident when the songs are great and even when they aren't.
The True Groove spirit is alive and well on Burden to Bear, the new debut album from Lael Summer and the latest release from the tight-knit label. From the old-fashioned production to the older-fashioned songwriting, all the way to the incredibly loose jazz club performances provided by the True Groove ensemble, Burden to Bear is a pleasant and musically impressive debut. Doncker, the ringleader of the label, produces the record, but it’s ultimately Summer’s voice that sells the export and lends it power. See “So Small,” a no-nonsense kiss off anthem that peaks with Summer’s smoldering and commanding wail of “You’re lucky that I ever gave a fuck at all.” It’s a moment of genuine charisma and personality, the kind of moment that you don’t often expect to hear on an independent debut album, and it alone makes Burden to Bear worth hearing.
The same can be said for the very next track, “Make You Whole,” though the transcendence comes in a different form here. A slow and emotive piano ballad, “Make You Whole” lands somewhere between Adele and High School Musical – a better mix than you might think – and ends up being Burden to Bear’s biggest home run as a result. The song is handicapped somewhat by shoddy recording – Doncker is clearly more at home producing full-bodied band sounds than sparse ballads, and slight clipping throughout “Make You Whole” make it sound more like a demo than a final album cut. However, Summer pours herself completely into the song, and it soars and triumphs as a result - even if the fidelity isn't quite as high as it should be.
Not all of Burden to Bear is as terrific as those two tracks. Most of the time, Summer’s strong voice is good enough to sell the songs – like on the audacious “It’s About Soul,” which questions the widespread objectification of women, or “In Time,” which is a throwback slow jam in the vein of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love.” However, during parts of its runtime, Burden to Bear risks becoming a wall of blandly similar jazz-soul tracks, which is fine and to be expected given Summer’s membership on the True Groove label, but which actually doesn’t suit her voice particularly well. Instead, Summer’s finest moments come on the least jazzy tracks, “Make You Whole” being the first and album closer “The Good Fight” being the second. A mid-tempo slice of adult contemporary pop, “The Good Fight” closes the record with a lush collision of acoustic and electric guitars, a rousing chorus, and an overall crescendo that recalls the annual American Idol coronation ballad. It’s cheesy and it's nothing that we haven't heard before, but Summer sells it, and the song makes it fairly clear that this particular True Groove member is better suited to mainstream radio pop than to funk, soul, and jazz. Personally, I’d like to see a record from her in the future that recognizes such a fact - even if she has to leave behind the familial sanctuary of True Groove to make it happen.