Until now, it's been easy to separate Aaron Neville's career into two separate but equal strains: the funky stuff he's favored when working with his esteemed band of brothers, and the angelic balladry you associate with him when he's punching his own time card as a solo artist. Casual fans might admit they don't know much -- to borrow a phrase -- about Neville's musical center, but they've perceived a certain split in his career. An education is about to be provided, then, in the form of Apache, a solo album that makes the case for Aaron Neville as the most holistic of soul men. Its hard R&B side matches anything the Neville Brothers ever recorded for true grit, while still allowing plenty of space for a singer who's arguably the most distinctive vocal stylist on the planet to tell it like it is.
Apache also reflects Neville's social and spiritual concerns, marking only the second time in his 56-year recording career that he's co-written nearly an entire album's worth of material. The words are straight out of a poetry journal he began keeping in the 1970s, which more recently migrated to his iPhone. The music was written and produced by a pair of collaborators well known to enthusiasts of the retro-soul scene, Eric Krasno (guitarist for the groups Soulive and Rustic) and Dave Gutter (frontman for the Rustic Overtones). Together, they've come up with a modern/revivalist marvel harking back to a golden age that produced classics like Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On (which Neville just happens to reference in the eco-conscious "Fragile World").
Neville goes out on the road in two different formats now. One is with the Aaron Neville Quintet, which involves all the slinky ferocity fans have come to expect when they see one of music's greatest vocalists fronting a full band. (And it includes at least a partial Neville Brothers reunion: Brother Charles is part of the fivesome.) The other is the smaller shows he does with his keyboard player Michael Goods, which make up in intimacy and spontaneity what they lack in group intensity. "I like the energy of the quintet," he says, "and I also like the laid-back quality of the duo, just coming off the top of my head with things, not having to worry about whether we rehearsed it. Sometimes I put Michael on the spot, because I'll come up with something he's never heard before, but then he'll catch it and that will make it even cooler. I bring the audience back to where I first started, with some Nat King Cole or anything that comes to my mind..."