Listen, and expand your definition of soul music
Soul Sides is sure to stretch your comprehension of soul music. Aretha Franklin’s face might come to mind when soul styles are mentioned, or Marvin Gaye’s smooth singing may be triggered by the genre’s mention. But this CD, while also including a few icons like Al Green and Esther Phillips, contains a number of names that may be unfamiliar -– even to aficionados of the genre.
For instance, Toots & the Maytals once sang how reggae’s got soul, and this CD includes a few reggae/soul exercises, such as “Be Thankful For What You Got” by Donovan Carless, as well as Byron Lee and the Dragonaires’ “Express Yourself”. But then again, Marcia Griffiths’ cover of Al Green’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” is hardly reggae at all. And she’s a former Bob Marley backup singer, for goodness sake.
The disc’s standout track is “Che Che Cole”, by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, a New York-based group that formed in 1998, which mixes together Nigerian Afro-beat, American soul, and Latin dance grooves. The recording features funky guitar, African chants, handclaps, and popping bass. The guitar part, in fact, sounds a lot like that Match Game theme music. You know the one; that lick came off like porn movie soundtrack music. A close second is Los Mozambiques’ “Viva Tirado”, which is a strange medley mixture of “Summertime” and “I Think I’m Going Out of My Head”.
Along the way, there are also a few instrumentals. One of these is a keyboard-driven, Booker T. and the MGs-y cover of “It’s Your Thing”. Another non-vocal number is “Walk On By”, that old hit for Dionne Warwick. It’s performed by El Michaels Affair and is primarily a horns and organ match-up. Organist/drummer Leon Michaels leads this modern—yet backwards looking—combo, which thrives on late-‘60s/early-‘70s deep funk, jazz-funk, and soul jazz.
The aforementioned Al Green can be heard covering the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Veteran Esther Phillips is in especially prime form on “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”. The song is as sad and tragic as its title suggests. “Home is where the needle marks / Try and heal my broken heart”, she desperately sings. Laura Lee is another big name included within, singing the bonus track, “What a Man”.
A few of the lesser known performers filling out this collection perhaps shine brightest. Spanky Wilson gives her best James Brown groove on the sax-honking “Kissing My Love”. The scratchy-voiced O.V. (which stands for Overton Vertis, by the way) Wright is heard loud and clear during “Let’s Straighten It Out”.
I’m not sure about the whole point of this eclectic compilation. Maybe it’s to present familiar songs in unfamiliar contexts. I’m certain, at least, that Lennon and McCartney never imagined “I Want to Hold Your Hand” could ever sound this sexy as it comes off here. But then again, anything Al Green touches comes out bedroom-ready. However, Marcia Griffiths takes Green’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and cools that song’s heat down considerably. And that’s a little odd.
This set’s combination of African, Jamaican, and American recordings also serves to show how soul music is truly international. Singers like Laura Lee influenced her fellow countrymen and country-women, it’s true. But it’s clear that old school soul vocalists impacted aspiring singers around the world, also. And when you mix, say, African chants with American urban soul, the results can be something truly special.
Listening to all these tracks back-to-back will stretch your definition of soul, but the whole experience will not stretch you unnaturally. Taken together, it starts to become clear after a while how these various elements ultimately fit together like a thematic puzzle you never knew existed. It’s essential for true fans of soul music to immerse themselves in Stax-Volt, Motown, and Philadelphia International. But these record labels only show different sides and periods in soul music history. Soul Sides helps connect the dots in ways no single record label could ever accomplish. Listen and you’ll get down and get funky in ways you may never have imagined.