April 8, 2011
No, it wasn’t just a fad. The most recent “soul revival” began erupting some time after the beginning of the new century. As I’ve said before, at any given time in the past few decades there has probably always been some kind of soul music revival going on somewhere.
And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.
Sharon Jones has come as close to mainstream success as any independent artist can achieve these days. She and her label mates at Daptone Records keep cranking out exciting music. Bettye LaVette is now getting the recognition she deserved in the late ’60s.
Meanwhile, the likes of Lee Fields, Charles Walker and The Dynamites, Wiley and The Checkmates, J.C. Brooks and The Uptown Sound, and The Diplomats of Solid Sound — not to mention soul crazies like King Khan and The Shrines — roam the planet.
The cool thing, especially with some of the younger warriors in this movement (if you can call it that), is that the best of them aren’t out to merely re-create those glorious Stax/Volt days of yore. You’ll hear the energy of punk rock, the rawness of gutbucket blues, and all sorts of stray influences that keep the sound vital and refreshing.
Here are some recent rock ’n’ soul-drenched CDs that have had me in a cold sweat lately:
* Scandalous by Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears. This highly anticipated album by the Austin band is the follow-up to the group’s acclaimed 2009 debut, Tell ’Em What Your Name Is. In a recent interview with The Boston Globe, the producer of the album, Jim Eno (also the drummer of Spoon), said he consciously emphasized The Honeybears’ punk influence.
Indeed, several songs sound more like hard rock than sweet soul. “Jesus Took My Hand,” for instance, sounds less like gospel than Black Keys-style minimalist blues-rock. The same is true with “You Been Lyin’,” on which Lewis is backed by a Dallas gospel group called The Relatives.
“The Ballad of Jimmy Tanks,” dominated by the guitars of Zach Ernst and Lewis, sounds like a pumped-up take on some long-lost, primal Junior Kimbrough song. And speaking of blues, it would appear that Lewis and the band had Mississippi in mind on the song “Messin’.” This one owes a lot to Elmore James and John Lee Hooker.
There is a cover song on the album — a passionate take on “Since I Met You Baby.” This song, written by Texas bluesman Ivory Joe Hunter, has been passed back and forth between blues, country, and rock artists for decades. Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Freddy Fender, Sam Cooke, and even Bobby Vee have taken their turn with this classic. The Honeybears do a slow, swaying take on the tune as Black Joe shouts the lyrics.
But don’t think this band has forgotten its soul roots. “Booty City” gives the Honeybear horn section and everyone else in the band a good workout. “Livin’ in the Jungle,” driven by the horns and a scratchy guitar hook, could be a funky cross between “Gimme Shelter” (the Merry Clayton version of the Stones song) and the Guns N’ Roses hit with a similar name.
Hands down, my favorite song here is the hilarious “Mustang Ranch,” a tale about young Black Joe getting his “ham glazed” during a visit to a legal whorehouse in Nevada. Not only is the story funny, but it’s probably the rockingest track on the whole record.
Unfortunately, when I bought this CD (yes, I’m a critic who frequently buys music!), I didn’t pick up the deluxe edition, which contains four extra songs, including a hard-rocking version of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down.” Oh well, that’s why God created downloading.
Check out www.blackjoelewis.com. There you’ll find a link to iTunes, which sells several tracks by Lewis at the South by Southwest Festival last month.
* No Time for Dreaming by Charles Bradley. Although Bradley is more than twice Black Joe Lewis’ age, Lewis has recorded more records than Bradley. Bradley is in his 60s, and this is his first album. He’s knocked around for years from New York to Maine to Alaska to California and back, playing gigs in local bands but mainly earning his living as a cook.
So he’s a late bloomer, but I like this flower. His voice is rough and gritty and more than a little world-weary. His band is a tight little group that seems to be well-versed in the records of Otis Redding and Al Green.
The album starts off with a terse little apoc-soul-liptic tune called “The World Is Going Up in Flames.” A bass line that almost suggests reggae throbs as stuttering horns punctuate Bradley’s growls and moans.
This and the song “Why Is It So Hard,” which starts out with the musical question, “Why is it so hard to make it in America?” might suggest a modern take on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. (There’s also “Trouble in the Land,” a barely-over-a-minute instrumental that sounds a little like Hugh Masekela’s “Grazin’ in the Grass” — except for the police siren in the background.)
Most of the songs, however, don’t deal with sociopolitical issues. Bradley is usually pleading with lovers in doomed love affairs. And there’s plenty of autobiography here, too. In fact, the climax of No Time is “Heartache and Pain,” which tells the story of Bradley’s brother being shot and killed by a family member.
“I woke up this morning, my mama she was crying/ So I looked out my window/Police lights were flashing/People were screaming so I ran out to the street/A friend grabbed my shoulders and said these words to me/‘Life is full of sorrow. So I have to tell you this/Your brother is gone.’”
He shouts about heartaches and pain, and you believe him.
Here's The Relatives playing with Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears last month at SXSW