The thing that made classic soul music so classic was its grit. Plain and simple. This truth is especially accurate when considering the southern arm of the genre. All the great Stax records were great because of their honesty, their tenacity, their lo-fi ethos, and their determined approach. (Most everything recorded at Muscle Shoals, to this day, should be packaged with literal sweat, tears and earplugs.) The soul of Motown was made to be heard while wearing a suit; the soul from below the Mason-Dixon was made to be heard while gambling that suit away.
That’s why trying to recreate the brilliance of those 1960s records in the year 2016 is a dubious task: you aren’t going to fully capture the grit of those original songs, no matter how hard you try, and God knows it’s impossible to imitate the spirit of everything that was created some half a century ago. It was a different time culturally, yes, but perhaps more importantly, music was hungrier back then. The appreciation for this kind of stuff transcended record sales and Cadillacs, and it connected with a very specific and very sensitive nerve in a way that heals the soul far more accurately than any form of medication a doctor could prescribe.
All this to say—well—that if you’re going to put together a covers record, at least take some pages from the Alabama Shakes or St. Paul and the Broken Bones playbook, and pay attention to the aesthetic by which these songs are presented. Unfortunately, Melissa Etheridge does not do that with MEmphis Rock And Soul, her latest vanity project aimed at reintroducing a set of classic soul ditties that, frankly, don’t need her help to shine. (Especially if that help includes polish and comes devoid of all grit.)
Yet that’s what we have here, a sparkly 12-song album that does little to expand the iconic original ideas these once were. The choices veer from predictable (“Hold On, I’m Coming”, “Rock Me Baby”) to only kind of predictable (“Memphis Train”, “Who’s Making Love”). Anyone who’s already familiar with these classics isn’t going to find much to latch onto here; instead, MEmphis Rock And Soul often feels more like a lazy attempt to cash in on songs that dozens—if not hundreds—of artists have already cashed in on.
One of the stronger takes, “Respect Yourself (People Stand Up)”, works because Etheridge’s understated vocals feel like they would have fit in perfectly with the Staples clan all the way back in 1971. She even occasionally comes across as an updated version of Mavis herself, that rasp only occasionally peeking through when she calls upon it at mostly the right times. It’s also one of the moments that gloss escapes the production and that’s a good thing. Plus, the drums sound beaten and the organ sounds hot.
Both “Wait A Minute” and “Memphis Train” also stand out as some of the set’s high spots. The former is a welcome shift from the past and, considering how it comes from soul revivalists the Excitements, an homage to the present. At under three minutes, it’s a shot of R&B energy that surfs just as well as it slides. The latter then takes Rufus Thomas’s 1968 single and updates the production with warmth and passion. A little too clean for comfort, it probably would have been more fun had Etheridge opted for one of Thomas’s earlier hits, like “Walking The Dog”. Still, you can’t blame her for going for it vocally, and though the mix feels overly updated, you can tell that her heart is in the right place (which is true: these songs were recorded at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios and among the backing players are the Hodges brothers, who backed Al Green and appeared on a lot of Hi Records classics).
Pure intentions or no pure intentions, however, there aren’t enough apologies in the world for what she does to Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love”. What made the 1968 hit so memorable was the singer’s infectious feistiness and his band’s undeniable funk, yet here Etheridge opts for slowing things down, mistaking groove for soul, her irrelevant acoustic guitar driving the verses. It’s a disappointing miss that feels more like it was made for yuppie rich-people parties than it was for the mischievous nights and threatening mornings after which the original rendition was modeled. It may have been Taylor’s best moment of his career, while here it’s Etheridge’s most glaring failure.
“Hold On, I’m Coming” also lacks the intricacies that made the initial composition so timeless. Steve Cropper’s guitar parts on the verses are all but forgotten, and even that iconic horn line is buried more than it should be. “Rock Me Baby” is a fine-enough slow blues that Etheridge has made a career out of perfecting, but ask yourself: does this world really need yet another version of the B.B. King standard? And “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” lacks the power that only Otis Redding could give it. Sure, the arrangement is pretty, but as a whole it’s missing the secret ingredient that made it such a classic.
That secret ingredient, of course, is grit, and while Etheridge has a fine amount of it in her voice — and, it should also be noted, it’s not like she’s historically been a slouch when it comes to vocal prowess — it doesn’t match the amount or the type that it takes to successfully embody these songs. Couple that with the reality that these performances too often feel like they’ve been processed through a Big Shiny Pop Machine, and what you have is a soul record that lacks soul.
Born under a bad sign, perhaps—and that’s even if her dreams of Stax-esque success are hard to forget.