It’s amazing that Shawn Lee can find the time to prowl around his London studio, Trans-Yank, in a tiger head. In the last year alone, the maverick multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer, who answers to the name of the “Funky Tiger”, has released three albums, including his seventh as the instrumental side project the Ping Pong Orchestra, Miles of Styles, and a chilled-out collaboration titled Clutch of the Tiger (tiger fetish, anyone?) with Clutchy Collins — a spectral mystery producer whose identity is unknown, but oft speculated upon among the cult of Clutchy, the Misled Children — which blur the textural lines between hip-hop beats, jazzy soundtracking, and ambient electronica. There is, however, one musical constant amongst the multitude of shape-shifting soundscapes created in Lee’s studio: the hard working wildcat’s taste for the funky side of soul as a rhythmic foundation stone.
“Soul music has always been a strong part of my musical identity,” explains Lee, former drummer in the Gospel choir at the local Baptist Church on the ouskirts of Wichita, Kansas, where he grew up, “It resonates deep within and never fails to inspire me.” Now it appears the time is right for the musician and, as it turns out, extremely effective soul singer to get back to his roots and pay some respect with his latest album Soul in the Hole, a homage to the southern grit and urban grooves of the 1960s and 1970s.
Recording over the last couple of years, Lee has gathered around him an exceptional line-up of guest vocalists to help him out, including Paul Butler from the Bees, Finnish-based Nicole Willis, whose last album Keep Reachin’ Up with the Soul Investigators is well worth investigating, and the lost-but-now-found ’70s California soulman Darondo. Together, they’ve cut a solid record of stylistic touchstones that echo rather than mimic the music he obviously cares so deeply about.
With deep fried pipes reminiscent of Syl Johnson during his late-’60s stint at Twinight, Lee launches into the cavernous, funky soul struttin’ title-track opener before returning to the mic twice more, on the smoother, uptown “Land of Soul” and the closer “The Stuff”, a sweet, jazzy funk duet with his wife Kirin Lee that’s anchored by some very fine spacey bass guitar. Sandwiched between Lee’s vocal outings is a sonic soul travelogue that visits the Northern soul dancefloor with Willis on “Jigsaw”, goes deep with the southern soul ballad “Something”, an excellent Al Green cover taken from 1976’s Have a Good Time on Hi and sung by Karime Kendra, while Dakah Hip Hop Orchestra vocalist Fanny Franklin gets on down at the disco on “Cruel Women”.
The standout, however, has to be reserved for Franklin’s other lead vocal on “Too Tired to Sleep”, a shimmering southern soul ballad spiced with western blues harp, subtle bursts of horn, shuffling drums, and hazy organ that provides the perfect bedrock for Franklin’s yearning, oak-aged voice to soar. And apart from the occassional distraction of one too many overdubs on a smattering of numbers — the worst culprits being the blue-eyed soul-pop of “Whatever Side You’re On” featuring Butler and the second of two songs sporting Darondo on the mic, “Playboy Bunny” — the ten tracks collected here are, as the man laughingly says on the press release, “All killer, no filler.”