Soul Music is primarily a blend of Gospel and the Blues, an intoxicating mix of the sacred and the profane, a spiritual expression of the desires of the flesh. The best performers stand in front of a microphone and sing from their guts, allowing their deepest feelings pour forth. The listening experience is emotional and moving. There is no music as human, earthy and profound.
It's a music whose heyday was in the sixties and seventies. It soundtracked my adolescence, that most turbulent of times, so it is ingrained on my psyche. I love it beyond reason.
I refuse to accept Soul Music has died and turned to fellow Afterworders to help me find modern day Soul artists. Since then, I've been searching for the young soul rebels of today, that is albums released in the last twelve months, and here is my report on twelve of the best.
Sandra St. Victor, sadly, cannot be described as 'young'. In the eighties, she was a backing vocalist for Chaka Khan. She was the lead vocalist for The Family Stand but her career has stuttered since with false starts and dashed hopes. She is soul from the top of big hair to her pretty toes. Her smokey tenor cracks with heartbreak and earthiness, yet she retains a cheeky sense of humour. She may be better known as a songwriter, having come up with material for Prince, Tina Turner & many others. Oya's Daughter, her first release after bringing up a family, is a gem, reeking of the maturity of Bobby Womack, Donny Hathaway and Anita Baker. Like many modern soulsters, she wears her influences lightly and is more than happy trying on different styles for size. There are plenty of funky grooves amongst the big ballads and, on WTF Opus Pt 2, she even performs a full-on George Clinton wig-out. Oya's Daughter is rewarding, defiant, moving, witty; everything a Soul album should be. Thanks to Morrison and art vanderlay for pointing me to her direction.
Cody ChestnuTT has spent ten years making a follow up to Headphone Masterpiece, a DIY, sprawling, eclectic epic album, the Hip Hop equivalent of the White Album. Landing On A Hundred is sweet soul, evoking the spirit of Marvin Gaye, recorded with a ten piece band, partly in the Memphis studio where Al Green did some of his best work. The band is a well-oiled unit with strings and horns and a slinky rhythm guitar driving some cool funky grooves. The production is old-fashioned analogue and feels warm with greater depth as a result. The songs deal with redemption, the power of enduring love, loss, drug addiction, cultural heritage and the adoration of his mother. Cody is charmingly lost in the joy of singing his heart out, so much so, he continues to sing even when the band has stopped. Landing On A Hundred was released last October but it is such an engaging, pure Soul album, I'm compelled to include it on this list. I'd say it is one of the albums of the 21st Century. atfc recommended him, even posting a clip.
Gregory Porter is a big bear of a man with an eye-catching taste in facial hair and headgear. His voice is a delicious, creamy liqueur of a baritone. Some people categorise him as Jazz. His third album, Liquid Spirit is released on Blue Note and he is backed by a traditional jazz trio (melodic piano, brushed drums and plucked stand-up bass) with scattered brass embellishments. However, his songs are packed with the weary world experience, lost love and stoicism of Soul. He often taps into the rich, dignified, story-telling style of Bill Withers. Plus, he pulls off an unusual cover of The "In" Crowd. Liquid Spirit is fabulous, seeping through the listeners' pores and nourishing the heart. Alias highlighted his Soul credentials.
Nicole Willis is of a similar vintage to Sandra St. Victor and, like her, lives and works in Europe. Nicole has settled with Jimi Tenor in Helsinki. Afterworders may remember her as a backing vocalist for The The but she is probably better known for her work with Curtis Mayfield and Leftfield. She has surrounded herself with Finnish musicians, The Soul Investigators. They clearly love Soul music with a passion but are less committed to popping the one than the 'tight' Stax and Motown house bands. On Tortured Soul, there is a lot of the flavour of Curtom, burning with cinematic strings, punchy horns and fuzzy grooves. Variety comes in the shape of skittish, uptempo frivolity, moody balladeering and, even, a Northern Soul number. Best of all is On The East Side, which smoulders into a mesmerising, Hammond-led instrumental at the halfway mark. Tortured Soul's enthusiasm and laid-back grooves are infectious. Thanks to Aah_Bisto for the heads up on Nicole.
Troy 'Trombone Shorty' Andrews has spent quite a few years experimenting, as most young people do, trying to find himself. He has a great band, Orleans Avenue, with a muscular rhythm section, a rock guitarist and a couple of meaty saxophonists to support his sparkling, fluid horn playing. On Say That To This, he teams up with Raphael Saadiq as producer and between them they have put together a tight, lean, exuberant album lasting only thirty-six minutes and consisting of ten tracks, four of which are instrumental. The headline is that the actual Meters are back together for their own Be My Lady but it's the weakest number here. The other songs fizz with disco-funk despite Troy's somewhat thin sub-Kravitz vocal. The true revelations are the four instrumentals, each of a different character, in which Troy displays his full range of skills from gentle blues to emotional balladry to overwhelming power to ecstatic joy. The future looks very bright for this young man.
Janelle Monáe has everything; she has the chops, the pipes, the strides, the locks, the moves and the bonkers concept. Electric Lady is part IV and V of a seven part suite that soundtracks her adventures on earth as an alien android. I know. The album starts off brilliantly with two collaborations, one with Prince that makes me yearn for a new Prince release and the other with Erykah Badu. Maintaining that standard is tough. She does reach some wonderful heights, but there is too much messing about with the concept and she falls into the Beyoncé trap with a few too many similar ballads. I do hope next time she gets Raphael Saadiq to instil some discipline and quality control. Then, she would shake the world. Mike_H & colrow26 encouraged me to persevere with Janelle.
Minute By Minute is full of the Southern grit of Stax Records in the sixties and, if released by Wilson Pickett, would be lauded as a classic Soul album. In fact, James Hunter is from Colchester. It is credited to The James Hunter Six in recognition of the band he has been touring and making records with for decades. It is produced by Gabriel Roth and released on his Daptones label. Roth and the Six suit each other perfectly. The songs are beautifully crafted, the band spark and bounce and the brass and vocal are given a lusty swagger. If this is mere nostalgia, I need a whole lot more. It is easily their best album and it is in glorious mono.
You've got to love a diva in feathers. Giovanca sports a beautiful headset on the cover of Satellite Love, her third album. The Dutch singer, songwriter and model has a light, gentle voice reminiscent of Diana Ross around Love Hangover. Satellite Love is disco in style and delivery with Latin flavoured strings and horns. There is even a harp and a vibraphone. Just like the best 'disco' albums, the quiet ballads are intimate and smoochy. It is a sumptuous listen. Check out Moose the Mooche's Nights In. Surely, there is always room for a disco diva in the pop pantheon.
Electronic Soul, anyone? Jessy Lanza has released a debut produced by Jeremy Greenspan, called Pull My Hair Back. It is full of Soul melodies and beautiful, poised vocals set to spacious, skeletal electronic noises. When the instrumental track is so spare, the songs have to shine and the songwriting is never less than intriguing. Mostly, the album is mesmerising but it even has a disco tune, Keep Moving, including club-ready guitar. James Blake's Mercury winner was described as soulful but he's nowhere near as soulful as this Canadian lady. Jessy Lanza is quite something. She may not use many human musicians but Pull My Hair Back is as much Soul as any other album on this list. Don't be put off by the miserable cover. SimonL first spotted her charms and soul nflections.
Who could believe that a simple piano man, John Legend, would need twenty-five different producers? The result, Love In The Future is remarkably uncluttered and consistent. There are plenty of touching moments, as you would expect from such an honest vocalist, especially when the songs and the backing are kept straight forward. However, the songwriting is sometimes laborious and there are times that the album, at thirteen tracks and three brief interludes, feels overlong. Overall, it's a smooth, glossy, very soulful listen. If John Legend wants even more love in the future, I'd recommend he sticks to just three or four producers. Still, there is no doubt he carries the torch for Soul Music in the 21st Century. Moose & SimonL were both keen advocates.
There's plenty more. Charles Bradley, at the age of sixty-five, has just released his second album, Victim Of Love. His is quite a tale, having been born into poverty and starting off in the music business as a James Brown impersonator, he was spotted by Daptones only a couple of years ago. His material, co-written with his producer, is authentic soul in a pre-Brand New Bag way mingled with Norman Whitfield. It glows with positivity. He knows that this is his moment and he has to make the most of it. It is a joy to behold. Catch on to his coat-tails while you can, as commended by colrow26.
Earth, Wind & Fire are veterans from the early seventies whose latest album, Now, Then & Forever, is their best for decades and probably their most soulful ever. They are a touring twelve piece band and the album benefits from keeping almost all of the writing and producing in house. There are still the characteristic uplifting ballads and the visits to the dance floor are dignified and ooze class. It is a hard heart indeed that can resist Bailey's soaring falsetto, the pulsing bass and the funky horns.
Soul Music is actually thriving in 2013. It's just under the radar and needs a bit of digging out. It may be a lazy shorthand to liken modern artists to a Soul legend, one of which I'm guilty, but it does convey the overall tone of a record to someone who hasn't actually heard it. However, all of these acts have influences from the broad spectrum of Soul and bring their own unique flavour to the genre. Take for example James Hunter. His songs are new and personal to him. I mention Wilson Pickett but he could never perform, let alone compose such a sweet love song as If Only I Knew. Even the most 'retro' of these albums are no dusty relics. They are all speaking of now, the 21st Century and how it's great to be alive no matter what shit gets thrown at you, delivered by passionate, genuine musicians and vocalists. All this, excluding Frankie Ocean because channel ORANGE, an album so full of Soul it oozes with loss and disappointment, was released in the middle of 2012. My search for young soul rebels might not have unearthed many youngsters but I've discovered many great albums that are rich, complex and life-affirming. As a consequence, 2013 has been my best year listening for decades. All I need next year is for Prince to release something new.