Nina Simone, one of the most iconic voices in soul music, civil rights, jazz and beyond, once said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
That’s the quote Durand Jones cites when I ask him about the variety of songs on American Love Call, his band’s (Durand Jones & the Indications) sophomore album out today on Dead Oceans and the Ohio soul label Colemine Records. But Simone isn’t the only soul legend Jones, guitarist Blake Rhein and drummer Aaron Frazer reference during our call. These guys know their stuff—they also mention Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, all artists who—like the Indications—wrote powerful songs both political and personal. Soul music has, since its genesis, been a cultural watchdog, a musical promotion of social justice and equality. But there’s also the one thing that seeps into every aspect of life and culture, no matter who’s in office or what the calendar says: love and relationships.
“I feel like a part of soul music has always had its hand in social, political consciousness, as much as it did in love,” Jones says. “I feel that we owe the legacy of the music to keep each point of it alive. That’s where I stand.”
And that’s exactly what they do. American Love Call feels like an anthropological report, social forecast and escape all at once. Like so many other albums of this moment, it’s an artist’s (or in this case, artists’) attempt to make sense of what’s happening in our country, our world and in their own lives. That’s a tall order, but one Jones and his bandmates (Rhein and Frazer, plus bassist Kyle Houpt, keyboardist Steve Okonski and an assortment of rotating talent), fulfill with grace, wisdom and a fiery musical charge. But in addition to providing a summary of the present, American Love Call also looks to the future—with heaps of hope, at that.
Two singles that dropped ahead of the album are a good representation of how it occupies those multiple spaces. The first, “Morning in America,” is a wake-up call, if you’ll pardon the pun, an expansive look at American life across the spectrum inspired by the band’s experiences traversing the U.S. “I wrote the tune after a couple years of touring and seeing a lot of different places and communities following the 2016 election,” Frazer says. “And feeling this weird mix of anger and hope.”
Chances are, Frazer and the rest of the band aren’t the only ones drinking that bittersweet smoothie. We’ve been feeling that jumble of anger and fear, hope and anticipation on and off again since 2016. Sometimes, hope emerges, like in the midst of last year’s midterms, when women and minorities made history. Other times, optimism seems harder to come by. That duality is evident in many aspects of this record, especially the title, American Love Call, which Jones originally named as an ode to a favorite jazz song, “Creole Love Call.” Now, the name means something more.
“Each of these songs kind of deal with love in a certain way,” Frazer says.“It even might be in ‘Morning in America’ like disillusionment, like falling out of love. You have this idea of a country for a long time, then all of a sudden waking up and seeing it might not be the place you thought it was. Or maybe, for a lot of people, it’s just confirming what they always thought it was.”
The “Morning in America” video, directed by Ellie Foumbi, stitches together different clips of average American folks starting their days. It doesn’t necessarily feel profound until you listen to Frazer’s lyrics, which fold in some devastating word play: “It’s morning in America,” Jones sings, before taking a dark turn, “We’re mourning in America.”
Frazer says the idea for the song also sparked after he learned about the Poor People’s Campaign, a 1968 movement that rallied for economic justice for the lower class—across all races and ethnicities in America. As racial issues continue to dominate the national conversation, the lyrics in “Morning in America” suggest a similar idea could float today: “And in towns across the country / It’s color that divides,” Jones sings. “When in working men and ladies, we could find our common side.”
“The reality is all of these people are having trouble in America, which is the richest country to have ever existed,” Frazer says. “And that was a really powerful idea to me that gave me a lot of hope.”
Hope. That’s the thing that keeps popping up on this album—and in our conversation. Frazer and Jones again mention “Creole Love Call,” the song for which the record’s named. In Cab Calloway’s version of the classic song, he references “a place” where he can wander when “the days are sad and long.” But American Love Call, as a whole, suggests that idyllic place is still in our future.
“This sort of land [Calloway is] describing is like a Garden of Eden, and I think that has a lot of parallels today with this idea of Make America Great Again,” Frazer says. “So instead of looking backwards to this place that maybe we left, I think there’s hope there and we look forward to this place we’re moving towards. That can be that Promised Land.”
The record is more tender in parts, too. That second single, “Don’t You Know,” is a bread-and-butter love song. It sways like the love songs of the mid-20th century, all strings and layered vocals Frankie Valli style. “Gonna love you baby, yes I will,” Jones sings, before Frazer hops in with “You’re the spark that lights the fire / Gotta prove you my desire.”
American Love Call, though it harbors both timeless love songs like “Don’t You Know” and more politically charged tracks like “Morning in America” is certainly a meditation on the times. But like any good soul album, it also can’t help but harken back. Jones says the aforementioned Marvin Gaye was a huge influence on the record’s sound. “I kept getting comments over and over and over again like, ‘Durand it sounds too dynamic. Durand, too much velocity. Try to do it smoother,’ which is way different for me than what I was doing on the first album where I was looking up to people like Otis Redding and James Brown to gain inspiration and to really find a good sound. So Marvin Gaye was really a person I listened to a bunch to try and smooth out my voice a bit.”
Though the album has a vintage sound to it, it’s also across the board in terms of production. The band’s self-titled debut was more stripped-down in that sense—American Love Call is as much a studio achievement as it is a well-developed think-piece.
“A lot of people threw around this term of retro-soul, but we incorporate a lot of things from present-day music or hip-hop, so I think a lot of our inspiration is very intuitive,” Rhein says.
When it comes down to it, American Love Call is a double-edged sword. It’s romantic, political, honest and idealistic all at once. Or, as Frazer would have it, it touts the intersectionality of the big ideas—and the more simple ones.
“I think a big touchstone for us in general is the idea of intersectionality, both politically—so talking about race but also factoring in class—but then also the idea that a person can be politically active but also needs time to feel tender and loving or feel silly or just go to a party and have a good time,” he says. “Especially with social media, everyone is forced to put this curated version of themselves forward, but I think a pillar of our philosophy is that flaws are beautiful, and you can be many things at once.”
American Love Call is out today on Dead Oceans/Colemine Records. Order it here. Below, watch Durand Jones & the Indications perform in the Paste Studio in 2017.