2012's greatest album you never heard is a trip back to Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1968, when Stax Records was bubbling into the mainstream and soul music still mattered.
The question of who Ralph "Soul" Jackson is, is a bit of a complicated one to answer. Depending on where you look online, you'll find bits and pieces of the following three talking points: 1) He comes from Phenix City, Alabama. 2) He snuck into the deep south's music clubs in the 1960s as a kid, thus exposing him to an acutely original kind of soul and funk. And 3) The Alabama Love Man may or may not be his first actual proper album -- after nearly a half-century in the music business -- despite reports that he was brought to Muscle Shoals decades ago to record his first single.
And that's it. That's the list.
But despite those confusing, disputable truths, there's still one thing missing from all the record label bios and dead links that clutter a few Google search results: His latest eight-song effort on The Rabbit Factory imprint is the single greatest music release of 2012 that you almost certainly have yet to hear. It's got soul, it's got funk, and most importantly, it's got more authenticity than the Alabama Shakes playing on a back porch during a 95-degree day in Jackson, Mississippi.
Actually, the recent success of Brittany Howard and company was probably something that helped push Jackson into getting this underground masterpiece out and on store shelves, anyway. Though if that's the case, 2011's buzziest band better watch their backs because not only does "Soul" upstage them when it comes to old school funk, but he also knows how to craft more pop choruses than his closest contemporaries. This, friends, is what soul music is supposed to be.
The Alabama Love Man is dirty. From the opening guitar lines of "I Can't Leave Your Love Alone" to the final croons of "I'll Take Care Of You", Jackson's weathered voice sounds like it comes directly from a 1967 house party at 926 East McLemore Avenue. And his band certainly holds up its end of the bargain, too, as the cats he recruited for this modern-day dose of retro perfection play the parts flawlessly, accentuating the horns when they call for it, switching up the groove when the tempo begins to lag and showering it all with a rainstorm of funk that is as sincere as it comes.
"You've Been Very Good To Me", for instance, simply sounds like Duck Dunn had a hand in its production, and Estelle Axton immediately began playing the 45 in her Satellite Record Shop. Dedicated "to all the pretty ladies out there who have been real good to their man", the track bleeds the Stax sound as Jackson evokes Otis Redding's falsetto and Rufus Thomas' unorthodox growl. The slow feel simmers so consistently for three-and-a-half minutes that anybody with a pulse can't help but shake their shoulders by the time verse two comes around.
"Vehicle" is funky enough to get any Memphis party started with its pitter-patter vocal track and the climactic pre-choruses that allow for an explosion by the time the hook appears. "There Must Be A Reason" showcases a doo-wop approach for people who like a side of 6/8 waltz with their Al Green ballad. "Searching" is as poppy as true soul can get, making a darn good case for the most unheard Top 40 hit of 1971 (recorded in 2000-something-or-other) as its horn line promises to stay with listeners for days.
Jackson is at his best, though, when he opts to combine his strengths, which is why "I Can't Leave Your Love Alone" is easily the set's most memorable. A shoe-in for year-end Best Of lists, the track's wah-wah-heavy funk guitar gives way to a fantastically precise horn part that confirms the artist's place among today's most authentic and original soul acts. There is nothing "neo" about this as Jackson's low moans add a type of yesteryear flavor to selected spots of the verses and the slightly sugar-coated chorus all but promises to have any soul-music-lover's attention for days. It's pretty great stuff.
Actually, The Alabama Love Man as a whole really has nothing but great stuff, and if you've ever jived to a Booker T. and the MGs record or turned the volume up to an Eddie Floyd classic, these eight songs should reserve a spot among the best rhythm and blues records you own. It's a timeless sound, the one that Ralph "Soul" Jackson seemingly finds so easy to emulate, but it's also a sound that is typically shunned in favor of the kind of modern-day gloss that always seems to creep its way into every recent soul recording. None of that pop production is here, though, and the end product is a lot better off for it.
Is this really the first release from a guy who has spent 40 years in the music industry without managing to get a single full-length album on store shelves? Who knows. But then again, who cares? When you put out something as good as The Alabama Love Man, you're allowed to take your time. Besides, these eight songs sound just as good today as they would have in the 1960s, when this kind of spectacular blend was more the norm than it was the retro or the hip. Here's hoping there's more of the same that's ready to come down the pipeline, and here's hoping it doesn't take another 40 years to finally get it in our hands.