‘Street Symphony’: subdudes at their best
September 6, 2007
Soul seems to be the flavor of the moment. From the other side of the Atlantic, young British singers Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse are battling it out over whose soul is superior. (In the spring, Winehouse’s “Back to Black” became the highest-charting debut in the States for a female artist; Stone topped her a few weeks later.) Here in the valley, Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ most popular festival ever was soaked with soul: Ben Harper, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi’s Soul Stew Revival, Joss Stone, and Ryan Shaw. And everywhere, singers old and new are latching onto the legacy of Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin.Here’s a look at some new sounds in soul.The subdudes, “Street Symphony”produced by George Massenburg(Back Porch)With most of their feet in New Orleans, the subdudes figured to have a social angle in their post-Katrina music. But the fact is the ‘dudes (whose other feet are rooted in Colorado’s Front Range) have been using their distinct soulful harmonies and acoustic take on soul music to conscious ends from their beginnings; one of the staples of their live show is “Poverty,” from 1994’s “Annunciation.”Katrina and its aftermath seem to have made the activist side of the subdudes come to the fore, and also sharpened its effectiveness. “Poor Man’s Paradise,” a celebration of New Orleans’ simple pleasures – fishing in the Bayou, neighbors, Dixie beer, Fats Domino – features the band’s finest groove, and the most affecting vocals ever (which is saying something).They also get their most political; “Thorn In Her Side” is a minor-key dagger thrown at the Bush administration, using the Statue of Liberty – with tears in her eyes and a thorn in her side – as a powerful metaphor. “Brother Man” uses gospel tones to urge humanity toward a greater unity.
Ryan Shaw, “This Is Ryan Shaw”produced by Jimmy Bralower & Johnny Gale(Columbia/One Haven/Red Ink)Ryan Shaw, a 26-year-old Georgia native, makes his passion for old-school soul clear. The title of this debut CD links him to the ’60s, when new soul singers would announce their arrival with titles like “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin.” The opening song is “Do the 45,” a reference to the 45 rpm records that played on jukeboxes. The old-fashioned, sepia-toned album cover has Shaw singing into a vintage microphone.Beyond the titles, Shaw brings the goods. “Do the 45” is an absolute blast, with a groove that, in another era, would have the kids turning the local malt shop into a dance party. Through the album are little snippets – a guitar riff, strings or horn, layers of harmony – that connect Shaw to the likes of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. And mostly there is his voice, powerful, clear and committed. Lyrically, Shaw’s style leans heavily toward the more romantic side of soul; five of the tracks here have the word “love” in the title. Though that is as much a reflection of Shaw’s deep religious views as anything. No surprise that there is a big gospel element to his sound.Shaw made his local debut at last week’s Labor Day Festival, and demonstrated a charisma and voice that could well catapult him into the soul stratosphere.
Joss Stone, “Introducing Joss Stone”produced by Raphael Saadiq(Virgin)Despite the title, this is not the debut from Joss Stone. But Stone, at all of 20, believes she has been through enough, after two albums and much success, to reintroduce a changed singer and person. She proclaims as much throughout the album, beginning with the opening track, “Change” – a spoken word bit performed, oddly enough, not by Stone. (Standing in for the singer is Vinnie Jones, a British soccer star-turned-movie star.)The album introduces a musician determined to stand on her own. This means that Stone, credited as executive producer, wrote most of the lyrics, adds hip-hop and neo-soul flavors to her vintage sound, and sings a lot about stepping out and stepping up on her own. Stone is convincing in her newly assertive role; on “Tell Me ’bout It” and “Put Your Hands on Me,” she couldn’t be more demanding without crossing the line from soulful to violent. She’s barreling toward adulthood without a hint of awkwardness.
Soulive, “No Place Like Soul”produced by Stewart Lerman and Soulive(Stax)No, the label indicated above is not a mistake, nor is this a reissue. The new album by New York’s Soulive marks the return of Stax, the Memphis label that once upon a time featured Booker T & the MGs, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and more. As the inside cover announces, Stax is back.It’s a new-old label, and a new-old sound for Soulive. Formerly a jazz-groove trio of the Evans brothers – keyboardist Neal and drummer Alan – and the immensely talented Eric Krasno on guitar, the group has added singer Toussaint to move in a more solid soul direction. On “No Place Like Soul,” the grooves are smoother, the jams shorter, and the vocals are out front.Thelma Houston, “A Woman’s Touch”produced by Peitor Angell(Shout! Factory)Former disco singer Thelma Houston returns with her first CD in 17 years. It’s an interesting concept she’s got, covering songs by a variety of male soul stars: Luther Vandross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Percy Mayfield and more. But while her voice is strong, her style is a slick, by-the-numbers take on soul.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org