The opening to “Thin Blue” hinges on a perfectly executed bait and switch. Smooth guitar, soft cymbal splashes, and far-off coos back Juan Holladay, leader and singer for Asheville’s Secret B-Sides, who deploys his delicately piercing pipes in service of what initially seems like the kind of politely probing refrain common in modern soul: “Blue Eyes, are you cool, true?/ Do I trust you to do right?/ Though these thin blue lines/ Seem like thin blue lies.”
The verses, which relate an upsetting true story with suave precision, transform the song into something far more complex. One June evening in 2011, Holladay was passing out fliers on his way to a show at the Asheville Music Hall. He began chatting with a guy whose friend was in a heated exchange with a police officer. He says he handed off his flier and started to leave, but the officer interpreted the situation differently, using what Holladay felt was excessive force in arresting him for causing a public disturbance.
“Everyone agrees I resisted his treatment,” Holladay recounts, adopting a rhythmic flow halfway between singing and rapping. “Had to keep my face from kissing the pavement/ No accountability/ Low professionality/ The crowd surrounded, chanting police brutality.” It’s a tale related with charming melodies and an unflinching sense of righteousness, and it makes the vague distrust expressed in the opening chorus cut deeper with every repetition.
“The way that officer treated me, it really made me aware that that happens to people in our community, that people are treated in a way that is questionable,” he says of the song’s intentions. “I have a little girl. She’s 2 right now, and I don’t want her to have that interaction with a police officer ever. So I feel like in my own way, I want to help change the culture in our city and with our police force and stuff. That’s something that just really hit me extremely hard, like physically, emotionally, spiritually, in every way.”
“Thin Blue” is by far the thorniest song in the B-Sides’ catalog, but it's also indicative of Holladay’s overall approach. After recording an EP with a band of students at Warren Wilson College, from which he had recently graduated, his B-Sides slowly evolved as he met different players around town and cobbled together consistent backing. Solidifying about four years ago, the group’s diverse but smoothly distilled sound draws from funk and soul, rap and R&B, repurposing them in service of themes that are more mature than those pursued by many of the band’s modern peers.
Dissatisfied with the hyper-sexualized nature of much of today’s hip-hop and R&B, Holladay wants his music to deal in positive and powerful messages. For the most part, Easy Magic, the B-Sides’ second LP, accomplishes this mission, reveling in modern soul that doesn’t forsake sensuality in pursuit of music with a genuine sense of purpose.
“I wanted to have R&B sounds that aren’t over-sexualized,” he explains. “There’s a lot of power in hip-hop, and there’s a lot of power in R&B. And I feel like a lot of people are turned away from it because it’s over-sexualized. There is a social mission directed at younger people. If kids are going to think something is cool, then I want there to be a good message in it. So there’s a little bit of that. And I feel like older people appreciate that message.”
Expanded from a similarly titled stop-gap EP released last year, Easy Magic isn’t afraid to pair its muscular grooves with equally weighty issues.
Take “Boys & Girls,” which further explores Holladay’s position that many rappers and singers set a bad example for younger listeners: “Why do these little boys and girls say/ They want to be pimps and hoes someday/ But when they grow up, the pimps and hoes say/ They want to be little boys and girls again?” he asks over patiently plodding bass and guitar before the band indulges in an adventurous, almost Funkadelic bridge. Like most of Easy Magic, it’s a song that is both fun and expressive, getting its point across while maintaining a sense of joyous experimentation.
“I feel like the real thing that makes the music and the energy of the music, the vibe of the music really work is the relationships between the musicians,” Holladay says. “Not just musical, but the actual relationships. So I felt like it was my job, first and foremost, to cultivate really healthy relationships with the people I’m playing music with. The sound that we want would come out of that.”
— Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Secret B-Sides
what: CD-release for Easy Magic, with Chalwa and projected artwork from Joshua Spiceland
where: Highland Brewing Company’s outdoor stage, 12 Old Charlotte Highway
when: Saturday, April 20 (4 to 8 p.m. Free. highlandbrewing.com)