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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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.