June 20, 2008
Back in 1968, Country Joe & The Fish envisioned the concept of “rock ’n’ soul” music with an exhilarating, if tongue-in-cheek song by that name.
“Now this ain’t soul music, mind you, this is rock music. But it’s got soul to it, if you can dig that. And now the band would like to play a new riff they just learned, we call a sockin’-it-to-you.”Forty years later that sockin’-it-to-you spirit is embodied by a Canadian guitar picker of East Indian heritage who lives in Germany — ladies and gentlemen, the mighty King Khan. As Country Joe might say, his love is like a rainbow.
Since the turn of the century, Khan has been ripping up European audiences. He released a couple of CDs with buddy Mark Sultan as The King Khan & BBQ Show, a hard-charging blues/garage duo distinguished by its love of doo-wop harmonies.
But even more impressive is Khan’s work with The Shrines, a nine-, 10-, or 11-piece (depending on which account you read) full-fledged psychedelic soul band, complete with horn section. At one point, the group included a Japanese go-go dancer named Bamboorella who, according to an early press release, “traded a life of crime, sex, and drugs for a life of rock ’n’ roll, sex, and drugs. With her salacious dances she enthuses both men and women alike.”
Khan’s is an amazing sound. But even more amazing is that until June 17, the young king hadn’t been available on any American record label.
Vice Records, the same independent label that’s home to The Black Lips, just released The Supreme Genius of King Khan & The Shrines, a best-of compilation complete with a Bollywood-style album cover and liner notes from The Black Lips’ Jared Swilley. The album features tracks from the band’s three albums — Three Hairs and You’re Mine, Mr. Supernatural, and What Is?! — plus various singles and EPs.
While you can often detect punk and garage rock influences in Khan’s grooves, and the pace of some tunes like “Land of the Freak” is closer to speed metal than to soul, Khan and the band clearly respect the traditions of soul. This is no silly parody. It’s a legitimate update of the genre.
Among my favorite tracks is “Took My Lady to Dinner,” a tune that might owe its hooks to the Beatles’ “Drive My Car.” The narrator in the song sits in horror as his girlfriend orders “15 pounds of ribs, deep fried with some burgers on the side” not to mention the ice cream for dessert. In the refrain, Khan sings, “She’s fat, she’s ugly, I really really love her.”
“Welfare Bread” has a sweet, Southern melody, though the arrangement reminds me a little of Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” There’s even a little “Born to Run”-style glockenspiel. It’s a poor man’s love song. “You don’t have to pay your bills anymore, now/You just have to eat my welfare bread.”
Whoever compiled this album had no way of knowing that Bo Diddley would die just a few weeks before the release. So I guess it’s just righteous synchronicity that Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” is the only cover song on Supreme Genius. Khan does it justice with his tremolo guitar and ragged vocals.
The real showstopper, though, is “Shivers Down My Spine,” a dark, bluesy, minor-key song in which Khan sounds like he’s at the end of his rope and in some kind of vampiristic relationship (”She bites me square on my neck/I say, ‘Baby, what the heck?’”) The tune features a cool, spooky organ solo by Freddy “Mr. Ovitch” Rococo (aka Fredovitch).
I’m hoping this is just the first shot fired in the King Khan & The Shrines invasion of America and that Vice releases an album of new material in the near future. Because, like Country Joe might say, “Everywhere I go, you know that it’s always understood/Rock and soul music is doggone good.”
More super sounds of soul
* Daptone 7-Inch Singles Collection, Vol. 2 by various artists. I’ve been yakking about the latest great soul revival for a couple of years now. The one record company most responsible for this delightful phenomenon is Daptone, a New York label that has been cranking out the soul for several years.
The collection features several tunes by Daptone’s two greatest stars — Sharon Jones, the corrections-officer-turned-songbird who is fast becoming the 21st-century Aretha Franklin; and Lee Fields, who’s loud and proud about his musical debt to James Brown but is a dynamic performer in his own right.
There are other acts here too, like shouter Charles Bradley, The Mighty Imperials, the Dap-Kings (who regularly back Jones and also recorded with Amy Winehouse), and Antibalas, here under its original name, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. The band’s appearance almost makes up for the absence of The Budos Band, one my favorite Daptone groups, which, like Antibalas, explores the relationship between African music and American funk.
Fields shines here with the slow Stax/Volt-sounding “Could Have Been.” Shouting over a gutbucket guitar, sweet organ, and sax-led horn section, Fields sounds like Howard Tate in his prime.
The song that really stands out on this collection is Jones’ version of “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Yes, that weird psychedelic pop gem that served to introduce the world to Kenny Rogers (with The First Edition), circa 1967.
The lyrics (by a young and apparently stoned Mickey Newbury) are gibberish (“I woke up this morning with the sundown pouring in/I found my mind in a brown paper bag within,” and so forth) But Jones sings it with gospel-fired intensity, and those Dap horns respond in kind.
Sorry, CD lovers, this album is only available as a download. You can find it on iTunes, Amazon or eMusic.