The Magazine

Soul Survivors

New faces and old voices, seen and heard.

Mar 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 26 • By DAVID SKINNER
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SOUL MUSIC, thank the Lord, is back. Well, sort of. A few rising stars, Joss Stone especially, have been wearing their soul on their sleeves, but even more interesting, several classic soul artists have recorded superb new albums. Solomon Burke and Al Green would be the headliners in this distinguished group, but one cannot overlook new and fine work from such heavenly talents as Bettye Lavette, the legendary Mavis Staples, and sometime chart-toppers Irma Thomas and Ann Peebles.

For those who find today's pop music vulgar, cynical, and even sometimes un-musical, there could hardly be better news. Several of the new recordings are worth recommending, while all of them are worth celebrating for the corrective lessons they offer to today's pop. Full of joy and hurt, but never therapeutic, today's soul music is no chicken soup for the soul. It's about the extremes of suffering and happiness, even as it takes its bearings from the humble dramas of everyday life and the high-stakes challenge of deserving God's love.

With her first album, Soul Sessions (2003), Joss Stone reminded many people of the popular potential of classic soul. A tall English girl of golden voice and blonde, feathery tresses, Stone was born in 1987 and is said to have been raised on a strict diet of Aretha Franklin and old R&B. After winning heavy play on alternative stations, Soul Sessions sold over two million copies, baffling connoisseurs with its evocative renditions of forgotten gems like "The Chokin' Kind" and "Dirty Man," big hits, respectively, for Joe Simon and Laura Lee in the '60s. This high-quality shtick--it seems, sadly, to have not been entirely sincere--made Stone famous. She recently replaced Sarah Jessica Parker as the celebrity salesgirl for GAP and has even made an appearance on Oprah.

Beware, however, of Stone's second album, Mind, Body, and Soul, on which, despite a couple of good tracks, this young lady acts more her age and offers a case study of what's wrong with today's pop music: pre-programmed jingles, instantly trite lyric-writing, a misplaced emphasis on the star instead of the music. Stone's voice is full of perfect round notes that could go on for days. It would thrill the judges on American Idol (in fact, she got her start by winning a radio talent contest). Unfortunately, this album also shows her to be almost as vainglorious as the set-chewing wannabes awaiting Paula Abdul's approval.

Solomon Burke's return to the music scene may have begun with Nick Hornby's hugely popular novel High Fidelity (1995). Rob, the record-store geek, freaks out when his girlfriend can't remember the name of that guy, you know, the one whose song he once played for her. "Solomon Burke!" he replies. "'Got to Get You Off My Mind.' That's our song! Solomon Burke is responsible for our entire relationship!"

For years, Burke lacked the name recognition of, say, Otis Redding or Isaac Hayes, but he once represented the gold standard for soul singers. Jerry Wexler, who, as vice president of Atlantic Records, cultivated most of the great Soul singers of the 1950s and '60s, once called Burke "the best soul singer of all time." When James Brown took to strutting with a crown and fur-lined cape, it was Burke's throne he believed he'd usurped.

But it was not Burke's friends from the '60s who brought him back. In fact, not a single one of the songwriters who midwifed Don't Give Up On Me possessed authentic soul credentials. They were Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Van Morrison--in short, a bunch of guys more likely to form a Leonard Cohen Fan Club.

Yet the album proved a marvel of collaboration built on superb songwriting and uncommonly powerful singing. The CD successfully returned listeners to a music rooted in the Pentecostal and gospel traditions, where soul is no mere adjective but something to be lost or saved. Much the same can said of Burke's more recent album, Make Do With What You Got.

Rev. Al Green's more recent album (he's had two in the last few years), Everything's Okay, shows he retains the divine spark more than 20 years after leaving pop music to devote himself to God and gospel music. He sounds great, but the tone is different. There is altogether less longing in his music, less of that near-physical need for love that made him once the most romantic of soul singers. Instead he sounds exuberant, joyful--alas, contented.