It’s absurd how inviting Sammy Johnson’s voice is. While I never got R&B (despite having deep respect for it), Sammy’s EP Sleepwalker fell into my speakers by way of his reggae mojo, but that’s not really the complete make-up of this album. The sound is much more about the soul and swing, no matter the genre. And the timelessness plops Sammy somewhere between Ray Charles and D’Angelo, especially because the majority of these songs are love songs.
This is my issue with Sleepwalker. Despite the sexiness and robustness of the instrumentation (tasteful and bright), the songs are nothing original. Certainly, there are moments. “Simmer Down” is such a rowdy blend of genres that it’s a miracle it works, and not only does it work, it’s voraciously catchy. But the content is savorless. “Come with me/ Let me take you for a ride/ You’re so sweet/ Show me all your sides,” it begins. Oh man, we can do better!
But Sammy’s Polynesian roots mix so heartily with the sound and vibe. If this song doesn’t end up on your Babymaking playlist, you’re missing out. Yet sometimes the sexy music is just the undercurrent for deeper meditations. “If You Only Knew” is lyrically on point. “Welcome to the life of the rich and famous/ A smile and wave/ keeps the bullshit away,” he croons. “You never know where you might go/ You never know what you might do.” This blazes over heady bass and backing vocals. Dallas Kacey- who I never heard of before and now love- offers a rap verse: “I’m only going to get it wrong once,” he beckons; “I try to play it cool.” Well, you’re winning that game, dude.
“These Eyes” brings back the one drop drums in pure fashion, even if the guitars welcome in tinges of Jazz and early rock n’ roll. Sadly, whenever Sammy attempts the all-too-difficult love song, he runs into the same errors most people do. But the vocal performance and production of the song is so old school that it just breathes, and all is forgiven. “I won’t let you go,” he sings; “Everyone knows you got a hold on me.” “Never Too Sweet” is shiny reggae pop that has some of the same flaws, like when Sammy yearns through, “Are we going to take this to the next level?” Yet, once again, the vibe is hot and the song overall veers just far enough away from cliché for it to earn its credit.
The title track is one of the best. “I spend my days in the studio,” he starts; “writing songs for people I don’t know.” This is perhaps his most vulnerable song. Long songs get too vague, but here Sammy’s pain and fatigue wrings out over the smooth reggae vibe. It’s a tasteful, humble song, and the EP’s best.
Listening to a truly strong, emotive voice is an experience, and Sammy Johnson has such an amazing way of singing that Sleepwalker survives off of this alone. And the band, even when presented with some fairly corny core principles, manages to stay organic and playful. Yes, this is a fun collection of what I’ll call “RR&B”, or rather, reggae riddims and blues.