Friday, March 20, 2009

Soul Sides

Candi Staton - Who's Hurting Now? (Honest Jon's, 2009)
Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It (RCA, 2008/Sony UK, 2009)

Here are two albums both indebted to the vibrant soul tradition, but with a very different approach to production and execution. The return of Candi Staton to the secular mainstream has been one of the major soul revival stories and it’s slightly disappointing that a quick Google search reveals very little internet writing on this new album. Longstanding legacy artists like Staton of course don’t need the short term buzz and hype that the web provides (the likes of Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective, however, positively thrive on it). Yet I often find it slightly irritating that bloggers so often opt to concentrate exclusively on the shock of the new. Unsurprisingly, then, Raphael Saadiq’s second solo album, also excellent, generates more results for its sleek modernisation of the classic Motown sound.

Staton, perhaps wisely, has opted to stay with the same team that helmed her outstanding ‘His Hands’ album from a couple of years ago. Former Lambchop member Mark Nevers stays in the producer’s chair and Will Oldham contributes another superb song (the title track from ‘His Hands’ is among the best things he’s written, but perhaps there’s too much love for Will here at the moment). The album has a relaxed feel, with plenty of reserved but gritty grooving. It sounds convincingly recorded live, with the sort of house band feel that characterised the best Memphis recordings from the Stax era. Whilst there are no explicitly religious songs here, there’s plenty of gospel fervour, and Staton’s gospel heritage adds real depth and conviction to her take on Mary Gauthier’s ‘Mercy Now’.

Although Staton apparently had her reservations with Will Oldham’s contribution here, the selection of this and the Mary Gauthier track neatly demonstrate the links between deep southern soul and country music. The album also opens superbly with a relatively recent Dan Penn composition, one of the slow-burning, gutsy tracks that best suit Staton’s wonderful voice. It’s about a slow seduction, with the woman initially reserved and resistant. Staton assumed it was a song about weakness, and initially didn’t want to sing it, but later re-interpreted it to be about overcoming doubt and fear in relationships.

As is so often the case, soul singers and their chosen songs offer huge insight into human emotions and relationships. Will Oldham’s ‘Get Your Hands Dirty’ continues his preoccupation with concepts of work that can also be heard on his own ‘Beware’ album. Again, Candi brings a rawness and emotional clarity to his work – Oldham would have rendered it more elusive and translucent. Just as I was bemoaning the lack of intelligent songs about remaining single, a flurry of them seem to be emerging. ‘Lonely Don’t’ is a song that imagines ‘Lonely’ as a partner that won’t mistreat and neglect you in the way that real life partners often do. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking sentiment. Even more daring is Staton’s sole original contribution to this set, ‘Dust On My Pillow’, another smouldering deep soul ballad, but a novel one which genuinely seems to be about Viagra. Staton is interested in its negative effects on long term marriages as newly restored men seek younger girls.

At its best, be it with dirty grooves like the title track or gritty ballads, ‘Who’s Hurting Now?’ plays to Staton’s considerable strengths as a communicator and vocalist. If there’s a limitation to this album, it’s in the occasional over-familiarity of the material, which occasionally risks veering into soul cliché. There’s a nagging sense that a couple of the tracks (‘The Light In Your Eyes’, ‘I Don’t Know’) are slightly icky. Still, it’s a small quibble with an otherwise appetising set that provides a powerful reminder of how timeless and durable deep soul music can be.

Raphael Saadiq is a high profile writer, singer and producer in the States but is only just receiving his dues here in the UK. He was a member of the underrated group Tony! Toni! Tone! (I willingly admit I’m relying on Wikipedia to get the various Tonies in what is hopefully the right sequence). He then went on to produce the femal R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl and work with D’Angelo and Joss Stone, who guests on a track here. His debut album ‘Instant Vintage’ earned five grammy nominations, but didn’t seem to kick up too much of a storm here. It’s taken a while for ‘The Way I See It’ to get a full UK release (it’s been available in the US since late last year) but it has now at last arrived.

Suddenly, everyone seems to have latched on to Saadiq’s almost slavishly faithful facsimile of Motown gold (particularly the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound) and I see no reason not to join the chorus of approval. Unlike the Candi Staton album though, this is definitely not a live-in-the-studio recording though. Saadiq is much more open to modern studio techniques. As such, ‘The Way I See It’ reproduces a classic template, but filters this through the influence of contemporary R&B and hip hop, mostly without diluting its effect. This is somewhere where guest artists Stevie Wonder, Joss Stone and Jay-Z can all feel at home (although Jay-Z admittedly murders the second version of ‘Oh Girl’ with his awful half-rapping, half-singing).

As a singer, Saadiq doesn’t quite have the force and range of the great Motown voices, although there is a real insistent quality to his delivery that is difficult to resist. His vocal phrasing is as crisp and driving as his precise rhythm tracks. As a producer, he understands the crucial role played by the bass and the rhythm guitar in the construction of those irresistible grooves. The playing on the opening double whammy of ‘Sure Hope You Mean It’ and ‘100 Yard Dash’ is impeccable.

Saadiq also has a knack for combining musical and sexual impulses. ‘Let’s Take A Walk’ is a good deal less innocent than its naïve title suggests. In fact, it’s about as unsubtle a seduction song as has ever been penned, set to a suitably filthy groove. In fact, many of these tracks seem to be primarily physical, with both ‘100 Yard Dash’ and ‘Keep Marchin’ emphasising movement. Perhaps the Motown track this most reminds me of is Edwin Starr’s imperious ’25 Miles’, one of my very favourites.

Then there’s the more complex trick of setting life’s more difficult lessons to remarkably breezy, upbeat accompaniment (‘Staying in Love’) – this was one of Motown’s greatest stylistic tricks and is a general hallmark of successful pop music. Saadiq also proves himself capable of a sensitive touch, with a handful of equally well crafted ballads. Mercifully, these aren’t the token slow warblers that so often hamper contemporary R&B albums, but essential constituents of a successful whole.

‘The Way I See It’ is a spirited and enjoyable album, steeped in history but with an effective contemporary sheen. Given the buzz surrounding it at the moment, it will surely raise Saadiq’s stature in the UK. Clearly this has been long overdue.

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