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Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens

Cold World

(Daptone; US: 29 Jul 2014; UK: 28 Jul 2014)

Daptone Records continues its impeccable winning streak, plucking older artists (Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley) from relative obscurity and bringing them the wider audience their music and artistry so richly deserves. With their second release for the label, Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens prove themselves a more than worthy addition to what is proving to be a stellar catalog of contemporary soul music from artists steeped in the genre’s best traditions.


Where their debut, 2009’s What Have You Done, My Brother?, sounded a bit sparse at times and was far more piano-driven in its arrangements, Cold War amps up the soul quotient, filling in each track with a full band sound that perfectly complements the vocal works of these soulful ladies who, in turn, sound settled into and comfortable in their sound.


With its organic production, note-perfect girl-group backing vocals, and gritty, soulful leads from Shelton, Cold World sounds, like nearly any other contemporary release on Daptone Records, like a lost gem from soul’s most fertile, creative periods. It’s not just that these perfectly ape the overall aesthetic of the best soul records from the ‘60s and ‘70s; rather, they uncannily capture the very feel and—for lack of a better term—soul of those albums to the point where, were they played back to back, it would be difficult to tell which was the contemporary recording and which was an older one.


Nothing here date-stamps the music, save the record label behind it, which thereby transcends the trappings of contemporary music and its myriad labels and subgenres, subsequently placing the focus squarely on the music itself. And what music it is. Each track is a solid, funky affair that perfectly showcases Shelton and her backing vocal group, the Gospel Queens, who excel at capturing a very specific girl-group backing vocal style that often sounds forced when employed by contemporary artists but here flows with a natural ease that sounds less studied than it does from the original source. Sympathetic production and soulful players certainly aid in this, making Daptone into a modern day Stax or Muscle Shoals with its stable of more than capable musicians ready and willing to create some of the funkiest, soulful music this side of the 21st century.


“Bound for the Promised Land” rides a funky beat and backing vocal accents as Shelton preaches the gospel in classic fashion, while the title track takes a page from late ‘60s James Brown with its chanted title refrain and Shelton’s vocal raps over an aggressive, punchy piano figure. “Sinner” and “Get Up Child” take the listener to church with their organ stabs, handclaps, and shuffling beats, making it nearly impossible not to sway back and forth in time with the music and creating a strong case for the healing power of gospel music.


Clearly never one to rest, Shelton picks things up on the back half of the album with an easy, funky shuffle that finds her ad-libbing more than presenting predetermined vocal lines or melodies, lending the music an intimate immediacy and an organic warmth that sits perfectly alongside the best examples of classic soul sides.


While nothing here stands out immediately as single-worthy, it functions so solidly as a whole that to take even one piece out of context would do the work as a whole a disservice. Like the best sermons, this is to be enjoyed as a whole for the message it’s imparting and not casually sampled out of context. Those looking for the perfect formula for crafting an ideal gospel or soul record need look no further than Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens’ Cold World. A real gem.

Rating:

John is a Michigan-based musician and writer. He currently reviews music for PopMatters and Spectrum Culture, while also working his way through his ever-expanding record collection at www.tumblr.com/blog/vinylcompulsion.


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