There’s a very serious playfulness to New Black Swing, the latest album from Seattle-based singer-songwriter and producer SassyBlack, known to many as Catherine “Cat” Harris-White. The vibe on the cycle of nine love songs is kind of like what you get from throwing on a purple leather jacket from the ‘80s, the kind with the crazy shoulders and perforations in the leather. Yes, it’s over the top but you also look awesome. You can’t help but smile a little, and other people are going to smile too. They won’t be able to help it. SassyBlack knows she looks awesome.
All of the songs are based around a single beat, and some vintage-inspired synth lines. As the album’s title suggests, new jack swing is an audible touchstone. Think Bell Biv Devoe messing around after hours. The instrumentals serve to set the mood and provide a backdrop for Harris-White’s mellow voice and revelation of emotion.
There’s a cheekiness to the throwback sound, but New Black Swing features tender, sweet songwriting. Most tracks have the directness of journal entries that were meant to be read aloud to someone…someday. Some lyrics like the ones to “I’ll Wait for You” are touchingly honest: “I see you trying to hustle, trying to bustle, trying to get up out the struggle, and I know it’s real tough for me too.” She keeps her voice relatively steady throughout, carefully drawing out a syllable here and there for emphasis, her tone conversational even when impassioned. This kind of stripped down R&B seems like the most direct and honest musical language for her to express herself. Those familiar with Harris-White’s work as one half of THEESatisfaction know just how fluent she is in the idiom.
On songs like “Passion Paradise” she makes time for steamier material. The queer lovin’ of “What We Gonna Do” and “Watching You,” are sexy enough to make you feel like you need some air and the saucy rapped verses on those tracks are worthy of Salt-N-Pepa. On “Watching You” she dramatizes the proper method for negotiating a ménage à trois with a couple with style, grace and sizzle. Her voice on these is a flirtatious wink, which is what makes them so appealing. Sometimes the secret to getting love right is to lighten up a little, as long as you don’t forget to open up too.