Melissa Etheridge: MEmphis Rock and Soul

MEmphis Rock and Soul finds Etheridge lacking the secret ingredient that once made these songs timeless classics.

Melissa Etheridge

MEmphis Rock and Soul

Label: Stax
US Release Date: 2016-10-07
UK Release Date: 2016-10-07

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.






Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.