The 21st Century Soul Men


April 9, 2013 by NowhereButPop

By Steve Secular

I’m about to say crazy things. Crazy things that I’ve only halfway thought out and are probably wrong.

Twenty to thirty years from now, when I look back on the music produced from this era, I’m going to say that the period from 2011 to 2015 is my favorite era of soul music. It isn’t even debatable. Hell, it’s like I’m already in the future and have decided. Let me explain:

I’ve been listening all week to Charles Bradley’s new album, Victim of Love, which has easily become my favorite album of the year so far. Bradley is everything great about 1950s to 60s Soul and R&B, all rolled into one artist. He’s got the smoothness of Otis Redding and the frenetic excitement of Sam & Dave, and he’s backed by the excellent Menahan Street Band, who provide instrumentation straight out of the Memphis Horns and Booker T. & The M.G.’s playbook, and backing vocals as heavenly sounding as The Ronettes. In summary, this album is great.

But while the album is a perfect distillation of everything soul, it simultaneously remains apart from all of those old greats. Bradley and the Menahan Street Band consistently do things that I’ve never heard before from a soul record: prominent acoustic guitars alongside the horns, the psychedelia of the song “Confusion,” the seeming parodic backing vocals on “You Put the Flame On It”. The album is both a tribute to golden age soul music and a deconstruction of it. Yet this reflection upon the genre makes the album pure soul in a way that even the soul of the 60s never was. Bradley incorporates everything: the backing vocals, reverb-drenched guitar, horns, and bluesy keyboards, across fast-paced and slow songs alike. If I’m sitting in my room and jonesing for some soul music, I think I’d sooner turn to these newer soul artists, the ones who like Bradley embody every cliché of soul and R&B – artists like Raphael Saadiq, Fitz & The Tantrums, Nick Waterhouse, and arguably the originator of this recent resurgence, Amy Winehouse.

It reminds me of another great era – my favorite era of blues music. And no, it’s not the 30s, 40s, or 50s. My favorite era of the blues is the 1970s, another span of music that, like this new soul sound, came about 40 years after the heyday of the genre.

Now I wouldn’t say that today’s soul is the best in soul music, nor would I say that the period from 1968 to 1973 is the best era of blues. But they’re easily my favorite respective periods. Late 60s, early 70s blues was the perfect distillation of everything great about blues music. It was around 30 years after Son House made his first of the famous Library of Congress recordings for Alan Lomax, which was just the right amount of time for blues to able to reflect on its tropes. More and more albums began cropping up like Super Black Blues in 1969, a supergroup consisting of T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann, and Joe Turner, or John Lee Hooker’s collaborative albums, like 1971’s Hooker ‘n Heat with Canned Heat or 1972’s Never Get Out of These Blues Alive with Van Morrison.

These albums captured the intense grit of Son House and the electrified boogie of B.B. King and Hooker himself, all while deconstructing the sound. They mixed in soul, jazz, and rock styles in ways that artists like The Allman Brothers Band and John Mayall had already begun to successfully do. Mainstream rock music started to incorporate the blues in the mid-60s, especially the white British musicians that had grown up with it from across the Atlantic, and now, the older blues artists were beginning to reincorporate the reinterpretation.

Is this getting confusing? Okay, here’s what I’m saying: white guys took the blues and added in other influences, hence the blues-rock-folk sounds of The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. This forced the blues genre to rethink its own clichés and tropes, and so a new blues sound emerged, one that both embodied the old sound and captured the new sounds.

This feels like the same process that’s happened today. It’s been about 40 years since the heyday of soul, and therefore it’s the perfect moment for soul’s resurrection, the perfect time for soul to understand what it used to do while also being able to experiment with the genre, expanding it in new and unforeseen ways.

This is usually the point of an essay where I try to come up with something larger and more transcendent to say. Something like “I wonder what this says about music. Maybe it’s about the relativity of ____ and _____.”

I don’t think I have anything to add this time. Maybe it’s simply that music is weird. Or that music is the best. Or that sometimes, the best music is the kind that comes 40 years after the creation of a particular genre, when people get all nostalgic and start deconstructing the music. As we’ve seen with 1970s blues, this process isn’t exactly new, and so I’ll be anxiously awaiting the next great resurrected genre. Hopefully it isn’t a deconstruction of a deconstruction though. I’m not ready for that.

Oh and here’s this, because you can never have enough John Lee Hooker:

One thought on “The 21st Century Soul Men

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