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.

The songwriting with his old Hi Records collaborator Willie Mitchell is very strong, especially on "Build Me Up," but the upbeat mood and lyrics begin to ring with too much cheer. The smiles turn indistinguishable as the shimmery sound of a half-dozen violins and an impossibly bright horn section provide fewer accent notes and ever more celebratory flourish. Also, the 60-year-old Green's voice has lost some of the oily muscle in its middle range that allowed him to float between ecstatic and awestruck. What remains great is the fullness and the verve of the sound.

It might be interesting to hear Al Green produced in the stripped-down manner that has been serving older singers from Neil Diamond to Solomon Burke to the late Johnny Cash so well in recent years, but going "indy" might also seem a bit phony in his case. Doing so would reverse the rightful flow of influence, well illustrated by the decision of Cat Power, a critically acclaimed alternative singer, to go to Memphis and hire several old Hi Records players to perform on her new album. The low-fi types have more to learn from Al Green than he from them.

Possibly the most intriguing example of today's soul is Bettye LaVette. Not a has-been, Lavette's a never-was. After a few hit singles in the '60s, she finished an album for Atlantic that failed to see the light of day until a few years ago when a French collector bought the masters and released it on his own. Souvenirs was hailed a masterpiece, especially in Europe where LaVette, like many soul greats, enjoys an avid following. This was followed up by two new albums, both well received, the Dennis Walker-produced and cowritten A Woman Like Me (2003) and last year's I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, produced by Joe Henry, a key figure in the return of soul music.

What Henry has produced for LaVette is a gorgeous, rough-edged recording of superb and superbly balanced musicianship in which a few instruments all play prominent roles to form the perfect setting for LaVette's beautiful, hair-raising rage. The quality of the instrumentation and its prominence on the recording are a testament to LaVette's voice, which does not need the set cleared for its star power to come across.

LaVette tells her own story in a version of Lucinda Williams's "Joy," which, if possible, she sings with even more ironic scorn than Williams. She changes the words to reflect where she searched for joy--Detroit, Muscle Shoals, New York--only to come away with an unjustly obscure recording career.

The most curious thing about LaVette's album is her choice of material, including a growling rendition of Aimee Mann's "How Am I Different." Where Mann sings with tightly wound archness and half-concealed contempt, LaVette takes you for a high-speed chase with stereo blasting, her big voice full of big demands and vindictive power. LaVette borrows the title of the album from the lyrics of her tenth track, a recording of Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream." But as with Mann's music, when LaVette sings Apple's sullen, grievance-nursing diatribe, no one's going to doubt that LaVette's "own hell to raise" really is LaVette's, and hers alone.

The contributions of rock 'n' roll artists of the boutiquey/singer-songwriter variety (Tom Waits, Joe Henry, Aimee Mann) to the return of soul music have been significant and surprising. If the kids on "American Idol" treat every note as an invitation to show their chops, then the delicate flowers of the arty, independent labels tend to the opposite. For them, songwriting is everything and sincerity is never a problem. Their main vice is a shrinkage of sound to the point of muttering. That these hoarse whisperers may have discovered an affinity for the beautifully calibrated beltings of soul is cause for celebration.

Another revelatory new soul album is gospel-flavored I Believe to My Soul, also produced by Joe Henry. It is the first in a series. Reviewed a little too casually in some quarters for its faint marketing resemblance to various revivalist-spirited compilations (Buena Vista Social Club, O Brother Where Art Thou), I Believe to My Soul is something else altogether, a group show in which five carefully selected, older soul artists all record new material.

The age of the artists does much to affect the album's sound. Take the wonderful Irma Thomas. Despite some heavy signature recordings like "Time Is On My Side" (a worthy alternative to the Rolling Stones's more famous version), Thomas's early '70s recordings seem a little too frisky by today's standards. But on this compilation her soul shows dark and mysterious, while the years have left her still vibrant voice with just the right amount of sand and vinegar. Ann Peebles, perhaps best known for the balletically restrained "I Can't Stand the Rain," a big hit in 1973, also returns with more hiss in her voice, and she puts it to fine use on the bitterweet "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You." Peebles always represented the tempered side of soul singing, underselling itself just slightly to yank you in. The trick still works.

The star of I Believe to My Soul, to the extent that this compilation has one, is Mavis Staples, whose voice could hardly be more rich and supple. Staples calls on the sweetest of tones here but, like Peebles and Thomas, she works with the benefit of experience, as her bright notes seem deserved and the dark ones wise. Staples's rendition of Leadbelly's "You Must Have That True Religion" is, by itself, a great argument for all that today's pop has to learn from soul--musically, thematically, and spiritually.

Especially for fans who missed the heyday of soul (born too late, in my case), albums like I Believe to My Soul make you wonder what's on, say, Ann Peebles's The Hi Record Years--How could I have ever swayed to Paul Young's version of "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down"?--or, to mention another featured artist, The Best of Billy Preston. And Don't Give Up On Me leads one to check out Rhino's revisionist collection of Solomon Burke hits. Then you start flipping through Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music, and in the back of your mind, you're thinking about mentioning the Best of Stax collection to your wife, because it would make a really nice birthday gift.

Soul's influence can be seen among many younger artists, including two establishment figures whose latest albums were showered with Grammy nominations: "Unplugged" by Alicia Keys and "Get Lifted" by John Legend. Sadly, both are undermined by the auto-hagiographic tendency that, since the rise of rap, runs especially deep in black music and makes the performer's own stardom the running subtext to every computer-generated note and melody.

In fairness, Keys's new album is, technically speaking, acoustic; and yet the music still doesn't sound as if humans were involved. Nor does it sound as if songwriters were involved, even as credit is shared among whole committees of musicians, producers, fixers, and Keys herself, who went 0 for 5 on Grammy night, losing in the Best R&B Album category to none other than John Legend, who fared better, also winning Best New Artist and Best Male R&B vocal performance.

Legend, who appears to have bought his clothes at a Marvin Gaye outlet store, claims his stage name was a nickname given to him by his old-school musician friends. Possibly he owes more of his current good fortune to his creepy "presenter," Kanye West, with whom he's cowritten several flashy tracks, all of them of the you-so-fine-I'm-so-fine-you-know-you-want-to-get-with-me school.

Indeed, one trait of soul music that has never gone out of style is its preoccupation with the flesh. But the best track on Legend's album, Ordinary People, returns the singer to earth, accompanied by his own understated piano playing, in a tribute to the difficulties of love between mortals. A beautifully crafted song, it is also especially soulful.

In the songwriting credits, Legend is listed as plain old John Stephens. Who knows, if he plays his cards right, maybe this Stephens character will become more prominent on future John Legend recordings. In which case, this young artist might help ensure that the return of soul music is more than a limited reissue of the good old days.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.