Ivan Howard didn't go to the beach to cover Sade. Rather, when the lead singer of Raleigh pop duo The Rosebuds headed to Carolina Beach during the fall's tourist off-season, he was hoping to record some demos for the band's next album and first since last year's Loud Planes Fly Low.
But he accepted his own challenge to cover—in entirety—one of his favorite albums, Sade's not-quite jazz and only-sort-of soul benchmark, Love Deluxe. And last month, as Sade's masterpiece approached its 20th anniversary, The Rosebuds released their sixth record, Love Deluxe (The Rosebuds Perform Sade), for free.
"Sade don't sound like anything else," says The Rosebuds' other half, Kelly Crisp, by phone from her apartment in Brooklyn. "They don't sound like jazz, even if we think they do."
Indeed, Sade's appeal can be both ineffable and elusive: Their music is something ready for mom's car radio and for soundtracking big-budget mid-'90s risque flicks like Indecent Proposal, keyed on Love Deluxe's mega-hit, "No Ordinary Love." But the sound is every bit as sophisticated and new as boundary-pushers of the same era, including Talk Talk and the Cocteau Twins.
"I remember everybody in my high school being like 'What are you listening to?'" Howard, a native of the then-rural Raleigh hinterland Fuquay-Varina, recalls in his sliding Southern speech over the phone. "My record collection at the time was like Sade, Depeche Mode and White Zombie."
Howard laughs, but for him, Sade's music had an impact for the same reasons that most powerful art—whether new wave, monster movie metal or impeccably smooth soul—works when you're young and searching for things that sound bigger and wiser than your little hometown: "It made me feel different," he admits.
Later, the record served as a calling card for like minds within the sometimes-cloistered purview of indie rock. "I would have conversations with people I met at a bar or something, and all of a sudden the conversation would go to that record," Howard explains. "And I found out they were a Sade fan, and it was the whole other world that opened up."
Only Howard performs on The Rosebuds' version of Love Deluxe; he's been toying with the idea for seven years. Crisp helped mix and master the project, and she contributed liner notes in the form of an essay about Sade's import on the band's music. The record bears out her text, particularly in the way indie rock's dude-in-a-room qualities link with Sade's vast ambition. "Ivan's been covering Sade songs since I've known him," she writes. "He sings them in the house, he sings them while driving, he sings them with or without a guitar in hand, he sings them when he doesn't even realize he's singing aloud. It's the language he hears music in."
The Rosebuds retain Sade's slowly molting sprawl and considerable use of empty space. And as a singer, Howard is creative but deferential. "Pearls," for instance, is singer Sade Adu's character sketch of a struggling woman in Somalia; when sung by Howard, it plays like a mindful send-up of indie rock's first-world, white-boy problems.
Small choices, like emphasizing a different syllable on the hook of "Like a Tattoo," shifts the song just enough, making it new without making Howard appear too clever or indulgent. Often, you can hear Howard struggling to perfect his take, but in the best art-as-a-test sense. He's trying to carry the emotional weight of the original tunes and his own feelings, to show what these songs mean to him personally while living up to Sade's arch sophistication. He's working something out with these covers, even if exactly what's on his mind feels just beyond definition.
The result is stunning, not only as a rock musician's approach to delightfully synthetic R&B but also as a conceptual art project and nostalgia purge. There are other single-artist ruminations on surprising subjects, like Yo La Tengo member James McNew's Prince cover/not-cover album from 2001, or the 2002 Van Halen tribute (and elegy for the David Lee Roth era) from soundscapist Tim Hecker, My Love Is Rotten to the Core. These records aren't content to ape another's music but aim to climb inside the environment, to explore and interpret a touchstone and influence from a highly personal perspective.
"Listening to [the album], for me, was like listening to Ivan's emotional relationship with Love Deluxe," says Crisp. "That was a huge gift."
During the past three years, Sade's music has served as fodder for a retro-maniacal revival: R&B auteur Frank Ocean took on Lovers Rock's "By Your Side" at Lollapalooza this year, while Sade covers have recently arrived from elegiac country duo Civil Wars, post-dubstep trolls Hype Williams, jazz-rap fusionist Robert Glasper, and Gayngs, the slow-jam supergroup that counts Howard and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon as members. Singing-and-rapping, sad-sack superstar Drake mines an emotive warmth that nods to Sade; he sampled "I Will Be Your Friend" from 1984's Diamond Life on his "Free Spirit." "Smoke weed, listening to Sade," declared Diddy on his 2010 party-the-pain-away LP, Last Train to Paris. Bay Area eccentric Droop-E made an all-Sade samples rap album, and the last issue of forward-thinking music history magazine Wax Poetics featured Sade on its front cover, innovative electronic producer Flying Lotus on the back.
Howard wasn't aware of the renewed interest in Sade, though he describes the existence of that trend as "fantastic." For him, covering Sade was an exercise in process, a way to push outside of his own headspace as the leader of a band. The Rosebuds' Love Deluxe began with Howard learning the tempos for each song and making sure he could approach the vocals of Sade. Though he's capable of high notes, he decided to take the songs down a key. For example, Sade's "No Ordinary Love" is in A-minor, so Howard sang it in G-minor.
He asked saxophonist Matt Douglas, drummer Rob Lackey and producer Jonathan Yu to contribute; they're all certifiable Sade zealots. "When I was saying, like, guys I met in bars that I talked to about Sade," Howard says appreciatively, "I was talking about those guys."
Love Deluxe arrives just ahead of The Rosebuds' Christmas Tree Island. The group seems to be in the midst of a particularly daring artistic headspace, forgoing the next official Rosebuds album to commit to crazy ideas, themes and restrictions. Even while Howard mixed and mastered Love Deluxe with Crisp, he still considered scrapping the whole thing if it didn't work as a record. After all, this was an exercise that happened by accident.
"Every record is an experimentation with our limitations at the time," Crisp declares, then stops and chuckles. "More like a flirtation with disaster, maybe."
Part of Howard's hesitation to finish the project and release the music came from his desire to show that the tribute came from a place of sincerity and respect. The music press, after all, stands now in the midst of an anniversary craze. Any album that came out 10 or 20 years ago seems ripe for celebration and re-evaluation by someone somewhere on the Internet. Howard didn't want to cash in on the anniversary of Sade's music, just as he didn't want to recreate it. He just wanted to say what those songs meant to him, in his own voice and with his own sound.
"That record's been made. It's amazing. You can't recreate that record," he says of Love Deluxe. He stumbles over his words, laughs and adds, "I mean, I can't make that record in a condo at Carolina Beach on a laptop."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cherish Sade."