Listening to D.C. native Ricky Fante's debut disc is like stumbling across what looks like a never-before-seen photograph of a dear, departed relative. For a brief while, you cherish the nostalgic intimacy conjured by the discovery. Then, slowly but surely, you realize that, while the broad features bear an uncanny similarity, some crucial, idiosyncratic details are different and that this isn't your kin after all.
On "Rewind," Fante becomes a doppelganger not so much for a single person as for a compendium of soulful pop and R&B artists whose hits enlivened '60s and '70s radio playlists. Together with producer Josh Deutsch and co-writer Jesse Harris (the latter now famous as a collaborator with Norah Jones), Fante seems to have put the signature sounds from classic soul labels such as Atlantic, Stax, Hi and Motown into a blender to whip up the dozen tracks that compose his "new" record.
Yet on more than a few occasions, the borrowed bits weren't pureed beyond recognition. Any baby boomer who ever toted a transistor to the beach will notice the intro to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" adorning Fante's "Love Doesn't Live Here No More," or connect the tag line on the backup female chorus to "Are You Lonely Too?" to the Young Rascals' "I've Been Lonely Too Long." And the way Fante wails the chorus to "It's Over Now" and then talk-sings the ensuing phrase as the music ebbs can't help but resurrect memories of Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman."
The pattern continues on more obscure songs performed by former R&B stalwarts. Fante's "Drive" may exhibit a little more intensity than Dan Penn's "You Left the Water Running," but the loping glide of their respective melodies sounds like a near match. Ditto Fante's beseeching chorus on "It Ain't Easy" and a 1999 Wilson Pickett tune of the same name.
When "Rewind" isn't indulging in "Name That Tune" mimicry, it too often resorts to safe predictability and tired cliches. Save for the closing ballad, "A Woman's Touch," all 12 songs clock in between 21/2 and 4 minutes, with not a single guitar, horn or organ solo arising noticeably from the mix.
Fante's voice is a wonderful instrument, exuding a natural rasp that lends added passion to his pleas and, on tone alone, stamps him as a kindred spirit to Otis Redding. (He also variously sounds like Pickett, Sledge, Al Green, Ben E. King and Joe Cocker.) But anyone who heard Redding fling himself into "I Can't Turn You Loose" and "Try a Little Tenderness," or tease out the phrases of "Dock of the Bay," knows how much he expanded and exploited his God-given talent into an inimitable style.
At first, Fante's rigorous conservatism feels like a welcome departure from the overwrought diva flourishes so frequently emanating from today's attention-addicted singers of both sexes. But ultimately, we yearn to hear him interpret lyrics with more of his own idiosyncratic phrasing and emotions, especially when the lines are as rote as "down on my knees / beggin' you baby," from "I Let You Go," which has plenty of competition as the album's biggest banality.
By far the most refreshing song on the disc is "He Don't Love You," a gospel-soul number with a deft call-and-response. Not coincidentally, Fante's bio says that he grew up singing in the church. Next time out, here's hoping his producers hook this still-promising, if woefully undeveloped, vocalist up with songs that resonate with his experience, rather than clandestinely remaking vintage tunes recorded before he was born. Give us a snapshot of Ricky Fante, not a collage of beloved relatives whose legacy he can't hope to re-create.