New faces and old voices, seen and heard.
Mar 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 26 • By DAVID SKINNER
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.