One has to wonder, the way things are going over at Daptone, if in five years’ time we’ll be listening to the brand new debut album from “those backup singers for Saun & Starr.” Call it nepotism, perhaps, but musical nepotism of the best possible kind.
Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan Lowe are the latest homegrown talents to rise to the top of the New York label, which has excelled with the philosophy of late bloomers and overlooked artists. You certainly can’t argue with the results, looking at the last decade from Charles Bradley or Sharon Jones. And it was with Jones that Saun and Starr cut their teeth and paid their dues, singing backup on most of her recordings and live performances for the last five years. As their video for the title track of their debut, Look Closer cheekily suggests, they’ve simply been waiting, biding their time and preparing to shine on their own. And shine they do, thanks to both an easygoing charm and the star-making support system of the “Daptone family.”
What Look Closer suggests as an album is a more laid-back but aurally similar approach to the Sharon Jones soul formula, filled with a collection of classic, romantic soul ballads in addition to a handful of more up-tempo departures. Tracks such as “Gonna Make Time” or “Sunshine (You’re Blowin’ My Cool)” feature the harmonizing pair breathily making promises to their prospective lovers in a way that would sound familiar on most of Jones’ albums in the last 10 years, and certainly don’t break the mold. If they lack a little bit of Jones’ urgency, commanding diva presence or vocal virtuosity, one doesn’t get the sense that this album is meant to be a star vehicle in quite the same way. This isn’t Jones laying out a challenge and imposingly singing “Retreat!” on Give the People What They Want. Rather, Look Closer feels like a recording for a lazy, relaxed weeknight on the porch with friends rather than a loud, sweaty dance floor.
In fact, the impression that continues to become apparent on the album’s second half is that Look Closer is just as much a star vehicle for everything else Daptone, from its warm, soft production to the fabulous instrumental work. Gorgeous, commanding horn and organ parts on “If Only,” “Another Love Like Mine” and “Your Face Before My Eyes” sound like choice cuts of Afro-funk from upcoming Menahan Street Band or Budos Band recordings, elevating everything they surround—these tracks would be great instrumental dance recordings even without the vocals.
This is not to say Saun and Starr don’t have some great vocal moments of their own—in fact, they save their best for last in the final two tracks: the funky, sauntering, almost regal panache of “In the Night” and the catchy as hell (but annoyingly named) “Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah.” You can’t help but feel that the recording has ended just as the pair are hitting their stride, perhaps embracing an aesthetic that is simply a bit more playful than the imperious Sharon Jones, incorporating the best of the candy-coated poppiness of a Sam Cooke crossover hit. Which is to say, it’s some smooth, polished R&B/soul.
Hopefully, Saun & Starr will continue exploring this playful side and highlighting those things that make them unique from an already unique performer like Sharon Jones. Their debut promises the possibility of future growth that could find the duo carving out a very fun, well-earned niche.