A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 24, 2007
Good God, ya’ll! Do you hear that funky sound? There’s a soul revival going on!
Truth be told, there probably is always a soul revival going on somewhere on the outskirts of American music. At any given time in the past couple of decades, some venerated old soulster from the days of yore was making a comeback, and a bunch of new, obscure bands are doing their best to carry on the traditions of the J.B.’s or Bar-Kays, while some cool underground labels are specializing in funky sounds (think Soul Fire in the early part of this decade or its predecessor Desco in the late ’90s).
Even though the current crop of soul revivalists doesn’t attain the heights reached by James Brown, Otis Redding, or Aretha Franklin, and there’s little, if any, chance in today’s musical climate that a revival will break into mainstream popularity like it did in the golden years, there are some cool, funky sounds coming down that definitely are worth hearing. They include the following albums:
* Kaboom! by The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker. This record CD represents both a new band specializing in good old soul as well as a comeback vehicle for a respected vet.
Charles Walker has been in the music game for many decades. One of his songs, “No Fool No More” (by Charles Walker & the Daffodils) was included on the second volume of Night Train to Nashville, that wonderful collection of R & B, blues, and soul hits from the country music capital.
Walker’s voice has grown deeper and a little rougher since his Daffodils days, but it’s no less powerful. He’s a perfect match for this horn-heavy Nashville ensemble. All the songs here are original numbers, and all but one were penned by Dynamite chief guitarist Leo Black.
One of the highlights is the seven-plus-minute “Way Down South,” a slow-cooking, swampy protest song in which Walker moans about crooked judges and hurricanes “with beautiful names.” Then there’s the up-tempo, muscular “Killin’ It,” which concludes the album. It’s sheer madhouse funk, with Black’s guitar and Tyrone Dickerson’s organ rising over the horns.
*The Budos Band II by The Budos Band. As the name implies, this is the second album by this 11-piece instrumental band from Staten Island, N.Y., that blends soul, funk, and an ominous touch of crime jazz with a discernible West African pop sound. It’s like a soundtrack Fela Kuti never made for a great blaxploitation movie that exists only on the astral plane.
There’s definitely an undercurrent of danger here. The album cover shows a scorpion about to strike. One of the song titles is “King Cobra” — both a dangerous arachnid and a malt liquor.
Horns and percussion dominate the Budos sound, but organist Mike Deller’s slinky riffs also stand out. His solo on “Deep in the Sand” sounds like it came straight out of The Arabian Nights, while the hook on “Ride or Die” sounds like it owes a debt to ? & The Mysterians (or perhaps to the contemporary psychedelic Cambodian American rock band Dengue Fever).
In the middle of the album, you might think you recognize one of the melodies — or at least the pulsating bass intro. But you might have a hard time placing it. “His Girl” is a minor-key rearrangement of “My Girl.” The Temptations never sounded this evil.
*Skippin’ Church by The Soul Deacons. Yes, Santa Fe has a bird in this cockfight. Brother E. Clayton and the boys, who live here, are as friendly and inviting as The Budos Band is sinister. But that’s not a bad thing. This high-spirited record is almost as irresistible as the band’s live performances.
Unlike The Dynamites or The Budos Band, members of The Soul Deacons don’t write much of their own material. But they have a good knack for choosing songs that aren’t that well known or overcovered, so the band can make the songs their own.
At the moment my favorite tune on the album is “Stool Pigeon,” originally performed by Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Steve O’Neill’s Stevie Wonder-like clavinet is nice and subtle, while Nick Thompson’s sax solo is exquisite. And among the background singers is none other than Chris Calloway.
While most the tracks are upbeat and danceable, Clayton slows it down on the closing song, “You’ve Got to Hurt.” It’s sweet and packed with soul, with Clayton accompanied only by piano, organ, and sax.
*Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter by Arthur Alexander. Back when The Beatles was a cover band, one of the group’s most powerful numbers was the mournful “Anna.” When John Lennon sang the line, “So I will set you free, go with him,” you could tell even then there was a primal scream building up in the guy.
The song was written by Arthur Alexander, who is best known as a behind-the-scenes songwriter whose songs were recorded by The Rolling Stones, Johnny Rivers, and all sorts of rock, soul, and country artists. His own solo career never quite took off, though his understated, earnest voice perfectly fit his solemn songs of heartache.
This is a reissue — fortified by bonus tracks — of Alexander’s 1993 comeback album. True to his reputation as one of soul music’s saddest hard-luck stories, Alexander, died shortly after the album’s original release.
The original album, which featured sidemen like Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, and “Funky” Donnie Fritts, includes some of his best-known songs — “Every Day I Have to Cry” (Rivers did my favorite version of this), “In the Middle of It All,” and “If It’s Really Got to Be This Way.”
One of the most gripping songs is “Lonely Just Like Me,” which unexpectedly turns into a murder ballad. The studio version sounds almost like a Marty Robbins song, but there’s also an a cappella version recorded in a hotel room that’s stark and startling. And, yes, there’s a live version of “Anna” that’s just heartbreaking.
Students of soul should get well acquainted with Arthur Alexander.
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