Where can you start with Otis Redding? The man is an essential artist, possibly the greatest soul singer ever to open his mouth and sing words, but finding a specific starting point is a difficult task for novice listeners. There are dozens of compilations, each of which mash his biggest hits with an amalgamation of deep cuts. For an artist as flat-out important as Otis Redding, the entry point shouldn’t be so confusing. Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding seems on the surface to be an attempt to correct that flaw in Otis’ discography. In the process of creating an easy entry point for new fans, the compilers of this album did something even more remarkable: they made what could be the most cohesive album with Redding’s name on it since Otis Blue.
Lonely & Blue makes a bold — and ultimately wise — choice by eschewing some of Redding’s biggest hits in favor of thematic consistency. This is a slow burning album focusing on heartbreak and despair, so songs like “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Respect” don’t really have a place here. Instead, we get the gloriously heart-wrenching “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” as the closest thing resembling a big hit. Lonely & Blue is more focused on highlighting a specific side of Redding as a singer and a songwriter; we get Redding at his most openly expressive here.
What made Redding such a phenomenal singer was not just his vocal range, but the emotions he could express through his voice. Take “I Love You More Than Words Can Say”, which gives us an Otis who is calm, soothing, yet confident as he confesses the title to the object of his affection. Minutes later, on “Everybody Makes a Mistake”, the regret and sadness in his voice is evident as he struggles to finish each couplet. Few singers have Otis Redding’s vocal range, but almost no one can say so much with their voice.
That voice has never sounded better, either. It can’t be stressed enough just how good the remastering work on Lonely & Blue is. Redding’s voice sounds as clear as it did when he was alive. Every inflection in his voice is apparent to the listener. His backing musicians sound fantastic, as well. The finely picked guitar on “Free Me” has never sounded better, and the horn sections carry these songs more than they originally did.
Alas, there isn’t much on Lonely & Blue to interest longtime Redding fans. If you really love Otis, you’ve probably heard most of these songs before, remastered or not. The closest thing the album has to a real rarity to lure in die-hard fans is an alternate take of “Open the Door” which eschews Redding’s spoken word introduction on the original in favor of a slower version in which Booker T. and the MGs steal the show. It’s a superior take on one of Redding’s better deep cuts, and it’s essential for die-hard fans, but it’s still a shame that there isn’t more about this record that makes the listener really reconsider Redding’s work.
Truthfully, there’s not much I can say about Lonely & Blue beyond that it’s an album by Otis Redding, and therefore has songs that need to be heard if you haven’t heard them yet. The concept behind this record is an interesting one, and if it’s not a selling point for more experienced fans, the excellent remastering of these songs should be. There really can’t be too many ways to appreciate a talent as rare as Otis Redding’s.