Happy 25th Birthday to Tony! Toni! Toné!’s sophomore LP The Revival, originally released May 8, 1990.
If you’re a soulhead and all-around music aficionado like yours truly, I’m willing to bet that while your record collection may run deep and diverse, there are only a small handful of artists that you genuinely, unequivocally, and undyingly cherish. You know, those few acts that you selectively and stubbornly consider a clear cut above and beyond the rest. Those who can do no wrong musically and whose work you’ll champion unconditionally. I certainly maintain a short list of this kind, and I’ve recently expressed my “Long Play Love” for a few of them here and there. One gentleman that resides on my list, without question, and I’ve yet to write about – until today – is the remarkable Raphael Saadiq.
Over the past ten years or so, I’m hard-pressed to recall many albums that I’ve played as frequently and adored as ardently as I have Saadiq’s two most recent solo efforts, 2008’s The Way I See It and 2011’s Stone Rollin’. Both are indisputable, yet unassuming, modern soul masterpieces, and there is no forthcoming album that I’m anticipating as impatiently as his next one (still no official word regarding a release date, I’m afraid).
Prior to these two LP gems, Saadiq loyalists found a helluva lot to love in his first two solo albums (2002’s Instant Vintage and 2004’s Ray Ray), his brief tenure as founding member of neo-soul supergroup Lucy Pearl, and his transcendent production work upon which he’s generously blessed the likes of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Mary J. Blige, and Jill Scott, among a myriad of others. However, my and most people’s musical love affair with the man began even further back, nearly thirty years ago, with the emergence of Tony! Toni! Toné!, the dynamic Oakland-bred trio comprised of Saadiq (a.k.a. Raphael Wiggins, lead vocals and bass), his elder brother D’Wayne Wiggins (lead vocals and guitar) and Timothy Christian Riley (drums and keyboards).
From the group’s inception in the late 1980s, Tony! Toni! Toné! helped to define the burgeoning new jack swing movement through their fresh, vibrant, and graceful songwriting style that effectively synthesized the group’s classic soul and funk inspirations with their modern-day R&B and hip-hop allegiances. The band first tasted modest commercial success with their gold-certified 1988 debut LP Who?, which featured a handful of solid singles co-written/produced by Foster & McElroy (best known for their work with fellow Oakland heroes En Vogue), including the striking “Little Walter.” Though the album’s critical reception was lukewarm at best, most critics recognized that it held promise for better things to come from the trio.
Just eighteen months after Who? was released, Tony! Toni! Toné! unveiled their sophomore long player, The Revival. Aptly titled, The Revival was a giant creative leap forward for the band, which breathed new life into their evolving and increasingly polished sound. Showcasing a newfound maturity and confidence that was only hinted at on its precursor, the album solidified Tony! Toni! Toné!’s unique musical identity and unparalleled originality.
Eschewing the superficiality, arrogance, and chauvinism embraced by many other new jack swing acts, Tony! Toni! Toné! refreshingly embodied a more personable, respectful, and sophisticated style of songcraft. Indeed, from a songwriting perspective, the group shared much in common with another clan of soulful siblings: Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and his brothers Melvin and Kevon Edmonds, who with Keith Mitchell, comprised After 7. However, Tony! Toni! Toné! distinguished themselves from their new jack swinging peers by combining the more conventional R&B pop sheen of the Edmonds brothers with an unrivaled sonic adventurism that engendered an altogether funkier, jazzier, and more spirited sound.
Largely self-produced, with three tracks orchestrated by Foster & McElroy, The Revival is an exhilarating potpourri of musical eras and influences, featuring plenty of throwback nods to classic 1960s soul juxtaposed with hip-hop, jazz, funk, and even rock stylings. An enthralling, harmonious blend of dancefloor fillers and ballads, no coaxing is required for the listener to “play this record as frequently as possible,” as the narrator encourages us all to do in the album’s opening moments.
Speaking of The Revival’s rhythmically rousing opening track, “Feels Good,” it’s incredible that twenty-five years later, this rollicking, earnest ode to a paramour still has the power to lift spirits upon each repeated listen. To be sure, much of the credit for the song’s indelible impact owes to the upward inflection and undeniable joie de vivre of Saadiq’s voice. No wonder that this is the album’s most recognizable song, and one of three tunes – along with 1993’s “If I Had No Loot” and 1996’s “Let’s Get Down” – that most people immediately associate with Tony! Toni! Toné!’s recorded output.
Two other uptempo, funktastic compositions were released as singles prior to “Feels Good,” and compelling arguments can be made that either of these is the album’s strongest track. “The Blues” is my personal favorite, due to its stirring symphony of rolling bass, percussion, whistles, and horns. Not to mention that it’s tough not to empathize with Saadiq and Wiggins’ desperate pleas and unreciprocated attempts at salvaging their lovers’ favor. With Wiggins’ heartfelt rhymes, backing vocals provided by the lovely Vanessa Williams, and an all-too-brief sliver of Ellingtonian swing mixed in for good measure, “Oakland Stroke” is an impassioned tribute to their native city’s musical legacy that namechecks Bay Area luminaries Sly Stone and Larry Graham, Jr. Granted, I’m more than a smidgen biased since Oakland is also my beloved hometown, but this is a damn good song, and one of the more underrated offerings in the Tonyies’ repertoire.
Dividing the album’s front and back halves are two of the most expertly crafted romantic ballads of the new jack swing era, or any era for that matter. “It Never Rains (in Southern California)” and “Whatever You Want” showcase, respectively, Saadiq and Wiggins’s more conversational vocal approach, reinforcing the intimacy and sincerity of the group’s signature brand of soulful chivalry. In the same master class as Babyface’s “Soon as I Get Home” and After 7’s “Ready or Not,” both tracks represent end-of-century R&B balladry at its very best.
Since all five of The Revival’s classic singles are sequenced within the first half of the song set, critics and fans alike have traditionally overlooked and undervalued songs 8 through 14. But if you devote some time to the LP’s latter half, you’ll discover some top-notch fare that further reinforces the band’s superior songwriting chops. Arguably the album’s most underrated tune, at least according to my ears, “Sky’s the Limit” grooves along a laid-back, guitar-driven melody that subtly echoes Journey’s greatest pop-rock confections. Yes, that Journey. Call me crazy, but I hear hints of “Send Her My Love” or “Girl Can’t Help It” throughout the track, albeit with a lot more bump throughout. Other highlights include the infectious funk of “Skin Tight,” which sounds a bit like the crossbred spawn of Cameo and The Time, and album closer “Those Were the Days,” a wistful piece of nostalgic reminiscing about simpler days gone by.
One of the quintessential recordings of the new jack swing movement, The Revival is an album with character, integrity, and dynamism in no short supply. Though for all of its indisputable greatness, The Revival proved to be just the tip of the artistic iceberg for Tony! Toni! Toné! 1993’s Sons of Soul and 1996’s House of Music leveraged the promise of its precursor to stunning effect, and elevated the group’s songcraft to stratospheric new levels of refined brilliance.
Regrettably, the group released only four albums together in an ephemeral 9-year span, climaxing with the stellar House of Music. But while Tony! Toni! Toné! lacked for quantity of output, the same can never be said for the quality and consistency of their discography, which remains one of the most impressive in the history of soul music. Unbeknownst to some, the group (sans Saadiq) still tours regularly, with Amar Khalil most recently joining Wiggins and Riley, and the trio has also returned to the studio. Their latest single, “It’s a Beautiful Thing,” was released this past September and their forthcoming fifth studio album is reportedly on the near horizon. So if you ever need to revive your love for this phenomenal band and their amazing songs, check them out on the road, keep your eyes and ears peeled for new material, or simply dust off your cherished copy of The Revival and “play the record once a day or as needed.”
My Favorite Song: “The Blues”
“Oakland Stroke” (1990)
“It Never Rains (in Southern California)” (1990)
“Feels Good” (1990)
“Whatever You Want” (1991)