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Is the big time ready for Eli Reed?

With a major label backing him, soul's 'Paperboy' is rising

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By James Reed
Globe Staff / August 8, 2010

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SOMERVILLE — Take after take, Eli “Paperboy’’ Reed is putting his voice through the paces. The wringer, actually.

“Time will tell/ Who is right/ Time will tell/ Who is wrong,’’ the Brookline-bred soul musician sings, as if he’s recording a Motown love song you’d slow-dance to at your high school prom in 1965. A few lines later, Reed sounds coarse and frayed as he wails, “They say that time waits for no man,’’ his voice assaulting the word “time.’’

To a reporter hanging out in Q Division’s studios here last August, Reed’s vocal is pretty much perfect, the right balance between sweet and nasty. But Reed wants another take, and another one, and maybe just one more.

His persistence is understandable. There’s a lot riding on this recording session. Reed is holed up in Q Division with his band, the True Loves, and producer Mike Elizondo to make “Come and Get It,’’ Reed’s third album, which finally comes out on Tuesday. More important, it’s his first release on a major label, Capitol, and a litmus test for whether Reed will finally break out on a national level.

“The biggest thing is to have that kind of power behind me,’’ Reed says of his jump to the big leagues. “That’s why you sign a major-label deal. I did it because I wanted to be able to get my music out to as many people as possible. I hope that’s what happens.’’

Not that Reed, 26, hasn’t already cleaned up quite nicely, mind you. When he debuted in the local music scene about five years ago, he was a curio — a Jewish kid from Brookline with a deep appreciation and encyclopedic knowledge of old R&B, soul, country, and gospel. He wasn’t just paying homage, though. Reed was passionate about the music he loved and fixated on the ways he could update it. It didn’t hurt that he sang like Sam Cooke and sported a paperboy cap and pompadour.

Before long, Reed’s star was on the ascent around here, but it was never quite clear if he’d hit the big time or end up a casualty of the ’60s soul revival that swept up Amy Winehouse and her ilk a few years ago. Reed has since moved to New York and picked up high-profile fans along the way, including Nick Lowe and Daryl Hall, and expanded his fan base, particularly in Europe.

You’d think moving to a major label would iron out some of the indie charm of Reed’s earlier work, but Elizondo insisted on recording Reed in his natural form while highlighting some of the band’s strengths. The drums pop like they didn’t before, and string parts imbue the songs with little flights of fancy. Even more noticeable, Reed’s vocals are captured in the crackling intensity he unleashes live. On “Explosion,’’ he sounds unhinged, as if he’s about to tear right out of your speakers and into your living room.

Reed’s songwriting scope is broader on this record, too, no longer solely consumed by what went wrong with a relationship. (Being with the same girl for the past 3 1/2 years will do that to you, he says with a smile.)

“I think the feeling of this record is more positive,’’ he says. “I talked to my dad about it. I played him the demos, and he was like, ‘Wow, you’re really going for a fidelity theme.’ It’s all about the trials and tribulations of being in a relationship and maintaining it, as opposed to being snuffed out.’’

Reed says that the move to a major label didn’t limit his artistic control over the record. If anything, he asserted that he knew what he had to do to satisfy himself and Capitol.

“I went to my A&R guy and said, ‘Leave me alone for six weeks, and I’ll bring you half a record, and I’ll have your singles that you want.’ And I did,’’ Reed says. “Once I showed them that I could do it on my own, they left me alone for the most part.’’

Rob Stevenson, EMI’s head of A&R in the United States, says he knew he had to sign Reed to Capitol even if it meant a tricky marketing situation.

“When I saw him play, I thought, this guy’s voice is unbelievable,’’ Stevenson says. “Some people have said there’s no real radio format for what he plays, so where are you going to get him started? To tell you the truth, I don’t have a clue yet. But every once in a while, you have to say, this guy is incredible and his talent needs to be supported.’’

It was Reed’s idea to work with Elizondo, who first made his name producing and writing with hip-hop luminaries Eminem and Dr. Dre and later working with pop musicians Fiona Apple and Pink. Elizondo, who was already a fan of Reed’s music when the singer visited him at his home studio in California, says he wanted this record to go beyond the obvious audience for it.

“I think the fact that the music draws from yesteryear influences, you’re obviously going to get people who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and immediately connect with it,’’ Elizondo says. “But I think it’s also the kind of record that transcends [the perception that] it’s a throwback record. It’s really energetic songs and an extremely passionate vocalist who believes in who he is and knows who he is.’’

That’s exactly what Reed hopes his listeners will hear on “Come and Get It.’’ He agrees that it’s a broad pop album but admits he has his heart set on appealing to a particular group of people.

“I want everybody to listen to it,’’ he says, “but I really would be psyched to get kids my age listening to this music. For me, I love playing in sweaty clubs when it’s a bunch of kids freaking out. That’s what it should be. This is that kind of music.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

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