Drop the needle on 99 Cent Dreams and start dancing. A joyous, soulful album, every song celebrates life and love — even when the song recognizes the harshness of life and the need to search for meaning or happiness (“Couldn’t Find a Way”) — and Reed’s exuberant vocals soar with raw power. As with the best soul singers, Reed knows his way around phrasing, and he knows where to modulate to elevate the power of a phrase and where to pull back on a note to touch the heart.
The album opens with the energetic heart-throbber “News You Can Use,” a jubilant tune straight out of the Carolina beach music tradition; it’s right at home on the jukebox with the Chairmen of the Board or The Tymes. The vocals spiral higher and higher, riding on the soaring background vocals of the legendary Memphis vocal group The Masqueraders (Tex Wrightsil, Harold Thomas, Sam Hutchins). “Said She Would” reveals Reed’s vocal mastery as he matches, note-for-note, the instruments on the refrain. The funky “Bank Robber” rides on a wave of crunchy guitars and punchy keys; if you close your eyes, you might think you’re listening to a Wilson Pickett tune, with Pickett singing in a brighter tone.
The title track carries us back to those sleepy summer afternoons in the South, with the sounds of Clarence Carter, The Tams, and The Embers floating through the windows and the sound of the ice cream truck in the distance sending us scurrying for change in order to fulfill our summer afternoon dreams.
“Coulda Had This” opens with a piano phrase from Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which runs as a musical theme through the rest of the song. The gospel-inflected “A New Song” scurries along with an urgency as the singer looks to find the song of the title, that new chapter in his life that will turn him around, give him new perspective: “I’ve got to find a new song with a happy melody / I’ve got to find a new song that will set my spirit free / I can sing it when I’m lonely / I can sing it when I’m sad / And I know when I get through singing it I won’t feel so bad.”
99 Cent Dreams is worth every penny. Matt-Ross Spang’s lustrous production captures Reed’s intense vocal energy and the musical dynamics that lie underneath his vocal performances. Reed never disappoints, and on his new album he takes his musical game to a new level, elevating us with it.