Brand new material from legendary 90’s soul group Portrait, produced by original members Michael Angelo Saulsberry and Phillip Johnson.
“Afro Trees” is the first PORTRAIT album for 14 years, original members Michael Angelo Saulsberry and Phillip Johnson composing and producing all new original songs (with a little help from Raphael Saadiq). The album takes the group back to what they do best, as first presented on their releases for Capitol Records in the 1990s – smooth and sophisticated r&b grooves with ingenious hooks, arrangements, and pure class. LP limited. CD to follow later in the year.
When many people think of early '90s R&B, several artists come to mind such as Guy, En Vogue, Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown and several others. While those artists fit squarely into the subgenre New Jack Swing, once this sound faded, another sound emerged that blended R&B with hip-hop and quickly gained popularity. It is this sound that Portrait popularized and led them to the top of the charts.
The R&B group "Portrait" is known for their funky 1992 hit single "Here We Go," which debuted in 1993 on Capitol Records. Debut album "PORTRAIT" sold over a million copies worldwide delivering hits such as, "Here We Go Again," "Honey Dip," and "Day by Day."
Since the late 1990s, the members of Portrait have been involved in various endeavors, though never straying too far from the music they most loved. Portrait now stands poised to reclaim their post as the forerunners of smooth R&B; reacquaint their fans to the depths of their souls and gain new followers in the process with a new sound, and single called "In The Moment," a mellow track made even smoother by Portrait's harmonies.
For the first review of 2020, I am looking at the only album sent to this house in a vinyl only format in 2019! Props first of all to Balu Matthews for sending me this great start to the new year. L.A. based group, Portrait, have been part of the Soul Scene for nearly 27 years now. That is an amazing fact in itself. Formed in 1993, (and featuring the original group line up of Eric Kirkland, Irving Washington III, Michael Angelo Saulsberry and Phillip Johnson), I believe that this new set ‘Afro Trees’ is Portrait’s sixth studio album. Having them all here showcases the fact….well…I really like this group. I fact, 2020’s line-up features two of the original members, and newcomers, namely, Michaelangelo Saulsberry and Phillip Johnson along with the new group members, Ruben Cruz (former lead singer of R&B band Po’ Broke ‘N Lonely?) and Les Whittaker ( LAW ).
The lead-in single, from ‘Afro Trees’ is the mellow tune, ‘In The Moment’. Portrait’s harmonies are in full effect here, and it was this aspect of the band which won me over in the first place back in 1993. ‘Afro Trees’ is a twelve track album (which I have to say, has been beautifully pressed onto vinyl), with an even divide to both sides. The cover is nicely presented as well.
The opener ‘Describe You’ has an infectious, easy, groove. Really like this tune. Even better is the track ‘Love Song’, which won me over instantly, as the guys utilise Kool and the Gang’s track ‘Summer Madness’, from their ‘Light Of The Worlds’ album from 1974. I have lost count how many times this song has underpinned a Soul or Jazz song, however, Portrait’s faithful use really does enhance the track, (which has become my favourite song on the album). Great way to start the new year. I really like the uptempo ‘Give Away My Love’, which really creeps up on the listener. Definitely, a grower. ‘Cum Over’ follows similar lines, whilst ‘Godda Have It All’ features vocal assistance from PJ Demark and Johnny Britt (from the group Imprompt2), and is another winner. All told, if you are looking for an album which is quality from track one to track twelve, then this is an album for you. If you know Portrait’s music, you will want to add this to your collection. A real blessed relief from ‘turgid radio’ in 2020, showcasing great harmonies and songwriting. The New Year is shaping up very nicely, melodically.
The Los Angeles-based quartet Portrait broke on to the contemporary soul scene in a big way in 1992. The group’s self-written and -produced “Here We Go Again,” displaying a keen knack for smoothly enticing vocal harmonies, ear-grabbing melodies, and a tight groove, rose to the top five of Billboard’s R&B singles chart and just missed the pop top ten. Subsequent releases such as “Honey Dip’ and the romantic ballad “Day by Day” solidified their well-rounded approach to sophisticated R&B with just the right peppering of street smarts; but in less than five years, Portrait had all but disappeared from the musical stratosphere.
Although they quietly released a comeback album in 2003 on the Soul Japan label entitled Share My Love, Portrait’s fifth LP, Afro Trees (also on Soul Japan), is its first widely distributed full-length set since 1995’s sorely undervalued All That Matters. Founding members Phillip Johnson and Michael Angelo Saulsberry have teamed up with Ruben Cruz (from ‘90s trio Po’, Broke & Lonely?) and Law to craft an evenly paced, sensitively delivered menu of respectable and mood-enhancing, mostly slow and midtempo jams—each playing to their strengths of subtly seductive lyrical passages and polished melodic structure. Johnson handles the majority of lead vocal duties, exhibiting the same finesse he did on the group’s self-titled ’92 album, while newest member Law leads two tracks with understated assurance.
The 12 tracks on Afro Trees flow in a manner which few artists are able to execute in terms of cohesiveness and emotional relevance. The opening “Describe You,” a laid back, top-down groove replete with a supple guitar ostinato, a hand-clap drum pattern, and atmospheric keyboard underpinnings, accents Johnson’s breezy delivery of the assured message: “I see the window inside of my mind,I’m not afraid of what I’m feeling inside/I’ve just gotta let you know, this is the first time that I’m willing to show you.”
While Johnson and Saulsberry helm the production of most of Afro Trees by themselves, Raphael Saadiq lends a hand on the the bluesy, finger-snappin’ mid-paced groover “I Feel So Alone”—on which former Portrait member Kurt Jackson makes an appearance. Staccato flourishes of synth-funk keyboards intertwine with a light beat swagg and Johnson’s crisp vocal persuasion. Meanwhile, Law (aka Les Whitaker) takes the spotlight on the inviting “Cum Over,” offering a gently coaxing performance full of ripe passion.
“Closer,” the opening track on side two of the vinyl pressing of Afro Trees, serves as one of the album’s highlights. The track’s effortless sway and Johnson’s no-strings reading of the straight-ahead words have that classic Portrait vibe embellished with a pinch of spacy keyboard touches strengthening the seduction factor. “Good Love,” one of a select few uptempo cuts on the LP, then, is the set’s most surprising delight. Blending an electro tinge with a sort of after-hours club magic, the selection’s instrumental components ride seamlessly with the masterfully cool vox and dialogue. The only flaw is the cut’s brevity—an extended version is definitely in order!
The closing “Clear” is a dreamy and funky number that brings Afro Trees full circle from its starting point of “Describe You.” With an appearance by Marc Nelson, it’s got a sultry vocal feel that meshes fluidly with the tight rhythmic structure and Japanese melodic nuances. Again, listeners will likely find themselves wishing the song would go on a few minutes longer. As it stands, it’s a succinct closer to a fine album that marks a most welcome return for one of modern soul music’s truly unsung groups. Highly Recommended.
I was partial to a bit of Portrait when they exploded onto the RNB swing scene in the early 1990s with ‘Here We Go’ and ‘Honey Dip’ on Capital Records. Their 1994 club classic ‘Lovin’ U Is Ah-ight’ sampling Grover Washington’s ‘Paradise’ was sublime so I hoped for a good result regarding this vinyl only album. Featuring two of the group’s original members with a contribution from Raphael Saadiq, this contemporary millennium album is well produced with a nice balance of digital and analogue musicality and hosts some very catchy numbers. Side A is quite diverse with ‘Describe You’ an obvious radio and club hit followed by the mellow Kool & The Gang ‘Summer Madness’ sampled ‘Love Song’ and noticeable Raphael Saaqid produced ‘I Feel So Alone’. Switching to a more lightweight and increase in tempo 4/floor ‘Give Away My Love’ the album already displays a relaxed and simplistic vocal delivery and rhythm construction. I’m very partial to a bump and hustle flavoured ’Cum Over’ (reminds me of Solo’s ‘Touch Me’ in parts) and that side finishes off with an atmospheric and head nodding pleading heart ‘Pick Up The Phone’. What I like is, as a modern RNB vocal style album it’s not disguised with over complicated digital production and this allows the music and the vocals to have a nice listenable synergy as exampled on the B-side’s opening ‘Closer’. Portrait takes the tempo up with the next two tracks, one an uplifting lyrical ‘Love Is Every Where’ and the second an 80s electro vibe ‘Good Love’. For the old school soul two steppers there is a Michael and Phillip duet that intertwine harmoniously on a sweet ladies and gent’s choice ‘In The Moment’. I’m feeling the orchestral stringed and muted trumpet, mellow dance groove ‘Godda Have It All’ in a huge way, which preludes the piano rippling and beautiful awakening ‘Clear’. Really impressed with this content as it reminds me of how an all round vinyl album used to sound. Thanks to Balu Mathew for seeking me out and getting this to me.
Nun ist es doch passiert! Und – was lange währt, wird endlich gut. Und das ist dann ja wohl das Wesentliche. Bereits seit geraumer Zeit munkelten die stets gut informierten Kreise, dass eine unserer 90er Favoriten sich mit den Aufnahmen für ein Comeback-Album beschäftigen würden. Im Sommer 2019 verdichteten sich die Nachrichten dazu – es gab ein Preview an dieser Stelle, dazu ein paar vielversprechende Song-Schnipsel, aber eben keine Platte namens „Afro Tree“. Bis jetzt. Portrait sind wieder am Start, die Original-Macher Michael Saulsberry und Phillip Johnson, nebst den neuen Stimmen von Ruben Cruz und Les Whittaker, und das Quartett greift die Sound-Fäden aus ihren besten Tagen wieder auf, verfeinert und ergänzt ein wenig und gibt uns so ein paar ganz ausgereifte Soul/RnB Musiken mit auf den Weg. Songs und Sounds, die immer noch den gewissen Kick anders sind: feiner, eleganter und mit versteckten Kniffen, die eben genau den Unterschied machen und eine maßgeschneiderte Unterlage für die nahtlos sich verbindenden Vokal-Harmonien bereitstellen. Dabei in jedem der fließenden Takte entspannt und irgendwie erwachsen. Heute genauso wertvoll wie 1993. Und wer sich noch überzeugen lassen möchte, dem sei der Eintritt in eine Art Midetempo-Himmel mittels dem „Love Song“ anempfohlen – hier kommt zusammen, was zusammen gehört: stimmliche Brillanz über einer gut sortierten Hookline, die überlegene Produktion und ein versiertes Arrangement, inklusive der Portrait Markenzeichen. So wird’s gemacht!
The album of the year came via another very late arrival, the return of 90s R&B supergroup Portrait returned with a bang !!. The album entitled, “Afro Trees “ came with a whole host of quality grooves, the highlights of which are the mid- beat swayer “ Describe You “, the smouldering “Love Song “ samples Kool & The Gang’s “ Summer Madness “ to great affect. “ I Feel So Alone “ features production from Raphael Saadiq alongside Portrait’s ever present producer, the incredible Micheal Angelo Saulsberry. “ Cum Over “ has been rinsed by all the U.K.’s leading tastemakers and so it should, this quality R&B swayer is very special. Killer track “Closer “ is simply outstanding and edges it as the best cut of the album. Pure quality.
“ Godda Have It All “ features the amazing Johnny Britt and to finish it off, the dreamy retro sounding swayer “ In The Moment “. A totally solid set from start to finish and it’s so good to have these 90s icons back.