by Ryan Snyder

For a stretch of gigs back in 2010, Boston folk rockers the Ryan Montbleau Band would occasionally welcome a silky-voiced newcomer named Jesse Dee to help the band indulge their fondness for quirky covers. For a band that is never loathe to step outside their oeuvre, it was more of an opportunity to showcase a remarkably talented fellow Bostonian. Dee only had one solo recording under his belt at the time, a gritty, expressive, if sometimes over-the-top bit of ragged soul called Bittersweet Batch that found more success in Europe than stateside.

Dee was still finding his voice at the time, however, and his selections with RMB went a long way to defining it. His turn on James & Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet” was subtle and wide-eyed — a keener match for his urbane tenor — but in adopting Donny Hathaway’s take on John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” Dee seemed to have landed in the sweet spot. He firmly demonstrated that he could conjure the well-worn but alluring tropes of soul music while walking that fine line between cheesy and classy on which contemporaries like Eli “Paperboy” Reed and Mayer Hawthorne live.

To call Dee’s Alligator Records debut and first album in five years, On My Mind/In My Heart, a similar work of soul revivalism would be to pigeonhole it unfairly. Dee incorporates essential elements of doo-wop and R&B, along with Southern and Northern soul, across 11 tracks whose second-greatest triumph is that they are as diligently orchestrated and rendered as the best of Motown and Stax. The most significant aspect of On My Mind/In My Heart is in how it establishes Dee as a standout singer, songwriter and guitarist all at once, capable of the slow burn and the brash and brassy with uniform grace.

The album’s title track leads off as a center point, a well rounded, hooky number with some of the record’s smoothest vocals counterbalanced by an ever-present horn arrangement. It’s even-keeled and innocuous without being bland, but it’s most effective in selling Dee as an intriguingly retro voice that entreats with unrepentant earnestness. There are, however, most definitely teeth in Dee’s repertoire. The contemplative “No Matter Where I Am” balances tight breaks and hints at a falsetto rarely heard since Beck’s “Debra,” while Johnny Trama’s robust, clean licks on “Fussin’ & Fightin’” are drawn directly from Steve Cropper’s playbook.

Amidst the undulant horns and Dee’s unwavering cool, the album’s X-factor is often the Hammond B-3 work of Eli Winderman, the keyboard wizard behind Brooklyn funk-fusionists Dopapod. He does most of his best work just beneath the surface, injecting futurist phrases that true revivalists like Raphael Saadiq shied away from. His deep, ruminating strains amplify the conflict on “Fussin’ & Fightin’,” while he spikes the blustery standout “Sweet Tooth” with notes of classic Texas acid rock.

Like the garage-y swagger on “Sweet Tooth” attests, Dee’s mission to simply do something different with soul often leads him in these unexpected directions, but it’s often the guileless balladry with which he engages that most impresses. Winderman’s vibraphonic notes and Trama’s gentle chords on “What’s a Boy Like Me to Do?” leave a wide expanse for Dee’s lonesome declamation, itself an oblique ode to the music of a singer who he sites as one of his greatest influences, Solomon Burke. Yet, he finds another gear to ratchet up the tenderness on “Boundary Line”, an solemn exploration of both the upper and lower reaches of his remarkable voice and his own spirit. It’s not often that blues stronghold Alligator Records takes a chance on a young unknown who exists primarily outside their usual idiom, but Jesse Dee’s first output is good enough the shift paradigms.


Jesse Dee will perform at High Rock Outfitters with the Deluge on Friday night.

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