For those who only know of Candi Staton for her later soul-tinged disco work, this should come as a revelation. This is sweet soul music in the best ‘70s tradition. It has everything you’d expect: the songs don’t all sound the same, the lyrics are all about something and sometimes have a memorable twist or conceit, and the vocalist is both expressive and distinctive. Given all that, the only question left is how good the album is.
Well, it’s really good, good enough to make you wonder why you haven’t heard of Candi Staton (more often). Staton has a physically strong voice that she’s not afraid of pushing to its utmost limits, so that hers is a strong voice that’s not willing to just get by on its physiological prowess alone. Her voice is the sound of a great heart bearing the maximum of even its great endurance.
Recorded with FAME Records of Muscle Shoals (that other Southern Soul label besides Stax), these songs demonstrate all the best qualities of the era. Though FAME wasn’t as well known as Stax, they had their own staff of razor sharp studio musicians who were staying on top of the game. After having recorded such artists as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, the changes since the late ‘60s were not lost on the songwriters and musicians at FAME. Horns blare in the background, of course, but the beat in a fast number swings harder than it would have in ‘60s soul or R&B, showing the influence of James Brown and Al Green.
In that respect, it might be argued against these songs that they’re not particularly innovative. Staton’s take on “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, for instance, isn’t a great departure from Otis Redding’s trademark version. Rather, she gets by on the sheer passion of her voice, a voice both frayed and powerful.
And that should be the point. It may not be groundbreaking, but even good music usually isn’t (I suppose you could argue that Greatness requires some sort of formal innovation, though I might not always agree). Soul—like blues and, to a lesser extent, rock—hasn’t been a particularly innovative genre for at least the last two decades. And, unlike prog enthusiasts pointing out the complex chordal changes in their favorite Rush composition, soul fans usually play up, quite rightly, the ecstatic quality of the music, the amalgam of using gospel fervor to express secular passion. As a singer of passionate emotion, her (less lush, less florid) take of (the florid classic) “In the Ghetto” was enough to earn her a fan letter from Elvis Presley.
Still, as an interpreter of familiar material, what she does to Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” clearly shows Staton is a singer capable of bringing fresh feeling to a song. There is nothing resigned or un-feminist about Staton’s take. Rather, standing by a loved one who is “after all, just a man” is, to Staton, an act of fierce personal pride. Even if the musical elements are familiar to soul listeners, the emotion Staton brings to the song should be new and surprising to anyone familiar only with Wynette’s version.
Besides, if you have to have historical innovation and context, the later numbers have even funkier beats and basslines. The one-two punch of “Freedom Is Beyond the Door” and “I’ll Drop Everything and Come Running” both have (especially the former) more reliance on a steady bass than do the earlier tracks. Though the instrumentation is still pure soul (and Staton switches back to simmering ballads for the last two songs), the jump she like other soul artists would make to disco should come as no surprise.
But the songs here are good enough to make you wonder if the technical innovation of disco was really progress, after all.
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