When last we heard from Jesse Dee, he was a rising local star in a soul revival that hit its apex in 2007, the year Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” galvanized pop music. That album alone bred a whole generation of singers who sounded like the second coming of Motown and Stax.
To be fair, Dee had already been recording soul music and had nurtured his love of it dating back to his childhood. He remembers listening to doo-wop and R&B on WODS, a onetime local oldies station he grew up with in Arlington. The arrival of Dee’s debut, 2008’s “Bittersweet Batch,” just happened to land him in the eye of a storm that would inevitably give way to another trend in pop music.
Five years later, Dee is back with his sophomore release, and what a difference the passage of time makes. Where his debut was easy like Sunday morning, “On My Mind/In My Heart” presents Dee more fully formed and in control — both of his voice and his songwriting.
“That all stems from the live shows,” he says recently over a glass of water (at 3 p.m., maybe it’s too early for the harder stuff) at River Gods, a Cambridge bar where he occasionally DJs. “When we’re performing live, it has to maintain my own interest first and foremost. There will be a loose arrangement of a song, but it’s not like I’m singing it the same way every time we play it. I’m constantly messing with melodies and reinventing things. I think experimenting and making mistakes all attributes to growth.”
The album — which will be released on Tuesday and which Dee will celebrate with a show at Brighton Music Hall on March 9 — found an unlikely home on Alligator Records, the legendary Chicago label whose roster has included Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, and Shemekia Copeland. As part of his contract, Dee will release two more albums on the label.
“The decision to sign Jesse and release this record was my decision, strongly supported by the staff, of course,” says Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of Alligator. “This does seem like a slight departure for us, but only a slight one. When I began the label, it was very much a hard blues label. But over the years I’ve expanded the definition of the label to include a lot of types of soul- and blues-based music by contemporary artists. Our slogan has always been ‘genuine house-rockin’ music,’ and this certainly falls well into that category.”
Iglauer said he initially liked “On My Mind/In My Heart,” which Dee had recorded and finished before shopping it around to labels, but it took seeing Dee live to win him over. Iglauer says the album revealed its charms on multiple listens.
“It’s a little more Northern soul than Memphis soul,” Iglauer says. “At first I thought it wasn’t as tough or serious as I like soul music to be, but I kept coming back to it. I found myself singing the choruses in the shower, and I played it for my wife, who immediately liked it. That made me realize that Jesse speaks loudly and clearly to a female audience. He’s a romantic.”
That’s more than apparent on Dee’s new album, which seesaws between tender doo-wop ballads and raucous R&B stompers. Conjuring the sunny side of Sam Cooke, the songs are emboldened by bright horn arrangements by Scott Aruda, who, along with his brother John, is a fixture in the local music scene.
The gap between records, by the way, wasn’t intentional.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t have any songs for five years. It was more about the logistics of how to record them and release them,” Dee says, adding that he raised around $8,000 through fan-funding from a Pledge Music campaign. “I wanted to make a better record, and experience played a part in all aspects of that. It’s easy to slap a retro label on stuff like this, and for good reason. A lot of it has a classic approach to it, but it’s very important for me to make music that’s relevant.”
Thalia Zedek will celebrate the release of her new album, “Via,” with a residency at T.T. the Bear’s. Every Monday in March, Zedek will revisit her catalog as both a solo artist and member of seminal bands such as Come. On March 4, she’ll be performing “Been Here and Gone” with Drew O’Doherty; on March 11 she’ll play “Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch of Madness” with Willard Grant Conspiracy; on March 18 it’s “Liars and Prayers” with Chris Brokaw; and she’ll finally play “Via,” which Thrill Jockey Records will release on March 19, on March 25. . . . Speaking of new albums, the next few months bring a glut of releases from local bands. Mandolin master Jimmy Ryan just put out “Readville.” Kooky carnival rockers Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys will unleash “Soft Time Traveler” on April 16. Indie rockers Eksi Ekso have “Archfiend” coming on May 7, followed by Bad Rabbits’ “American Love” on May 14.