Shamarr Allen has always been proudly eclectic: He used the title Box Who In? for his second CD 10 years ago, and he’s lately a sometime member of both the Treme Brass Band and Galactic. And a quick glance at his latest disc suggests he’s gone even further outside the box: The band has live brass and a programmed rhythm section; the guest list includes two wildly different divas (Erica Falls and Big Freedia), and the tracks include a Saints anthem (“Hit the Sean Payton,” already getting local airplay), a couple social-conscience numbers and an old-school soul classic. So you’d expect this CD to be all over the map.
Not quite the case, though. Instead Allen’s done something more impressive; he’s worked all his various influences into a coherent style, one where all the drum-machine hooks, horn jams, rap breaks and old-school touches fit together smoothly. Vintage ’70s soul is really his home-base, but he’s given it quite a few creative tweaks: There’s a bit of Prince, a little Kendrick Lamar, and yes, a bit of Shorty too (he’s namechecked in “Feel Good Music,” so no rivalry). As always Allen’s glad to wave a few flags for his hometown, but “Greatest Place in the World” gets a few details that such anthems usually miss (including the fact that your car will get ticketed). Freedia’s presence lifts the song both musically and conceptually: This is an anthem inclusive enough for the bounce insiders and the Superdome crowds.
Allen gets a few solid horn solos in, but it’s the songwriting that really stands out. “Love And Happiness” isn’t a straight-up cover of the Al Green tune, but a new piece that refers to it; it’s one of a few songs here about swearing off bad habits and committing to a relationship (along with “I Love You,” whose lyrics include a marriage proposal). “Got Me Loaded” falls into that category too, but it also sets up “Break Up Song,” whose intro points out that anyone receiving the song by email is being dumped. His jazz roots return on the closing “Momma’s Boy,” which adds live rhythm and a more surprising acoustic guitar. Overall it’s the strongest R&B album to come out of the city this year.