In 2017, Memphis' Southern Avenue issued a self-titled long-player that directly straddled rootsy Delta blues and stripped-down Southern soul and gospel. 2019's Grammy-nominated Keep On stuck closer to the big-city blues while providing a vehicle for the instrumental prowess of guitarist Ori Naftaly and keyboardist Jeremy Powell. Be the Love You Want stands in marked contrast to both. Co-produced by Naftaly and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, this set adds big-beat R&B and funk to the mix without sacrificing any of their rootsy appeal. While its production is cleaner, it's hardly slick. Further, the songwriting towers above previous efforts. Berlin and Naftaly brought in horns, additional keys, and backing singers. They created a studio atmosphere to highlight the sublime, resonant lead vocals (and lyrics) of Tierinii Jackson with a new emphasis on their killer rhythm section of drummer and backing vocalist Tikyra Jackson, and rocksteady bassist Evan Sarver.
The title-track opener is an anthem dedicated to radical self-acceptance, empowerment, and hope. A pumping guitar and organ vamp is appended by funky snare breaks and fat sweaty horns all driven by the bassline. Jackson testifies, "Tired of trying apologizing/When guilt takes over you/Be your bravest find your greatness/Your mistakes are not you...now is the time to rewrite your story…." The tempo rages, the horns cascade around her voice, and the backing chorus rises like a gospel choir to buoy her exhortations. On single "Control," congas and silvery guitars recall Curtis Mayfield's early-'70s soul-gospel approach but the band slips out to weave a snaky tapestry of psychedelic soul, blues, and funk. Jackson's voice and Naftaly's distorted wah-wah guitar entwine on the glorious "Don't Hesitate (Call Me)," a midtempo soul-blues buoyed by resonant lyrics pouring from the singer's mouth like water. "Heathen Hearts" is a stirring, syncopated, 21st century gospel-blues performed solely by the Jackson sisters. "Move Into the Light" is horn-drenched Southern funk with fuzzed-out guitars, double-timed breaks, and rambling bassline framing Jackson's soaring vocals and edifying message. "Love You Nice and Slow" is a sexy midtempo soul jam. The grain in Jackson's emotional commitment to the words shines through her requisite sense of control. "Too Good to Be True" weds elegant soul to jazz-pop in an airy groover with a fist-pumping chorus. "Pressure" and closer "Move On" are uptempo rave-ups, blending together soul, hard funk, raw gospel, and blues with punchy horns, spidery keys, and squalling guitars. Be the Love You Want certainly showcases Southern Avenue's growth as a band, but more than this, its 12 masterfully written songs deliver beauty, hope, and grace with a power than can only come from vulnerability and rigorous emotional honesty.