12 March 2007

so, soul...

[or: "talkin' loud, sayin' nothing"]

one of the great things about soul music is there's not that much you can say about it. well that's not true. there's not much that needs to be said about it, maybe - at least anymore. or how about: whatever there is you might say about it, it's gonna pale mightily compared to what can be conveyed by the music itself. hm hm...well, better not try to talk about it too much, because you're gonna end up tripping over your words.

yeah, setting it up as anti-intellectual like this has this uncomfortably essentialist twinge, but...there's something there to do with its purpose, and its power, no? (soul has a massively complicated relationship with Otherness - on one level it's fundamentally antithetical to it - predicated on a universal commonality of emotion - but, at least in the current cultural/historical moment, it seems almost to be defined by its relation to an absent place and time - it can never be fully and unambiguously Present. so there's a lot to be said there, but little likelihood it'd help matters much.)

i guess it'll go without saying (see) that Soul is a superword, which more or less means it can't be defined (and don't ask me what a superword is, either - the best definition i can fully get my head around is something like "genre descriptor.") but, and this is maybe what i was (not) saying before - it's obvious when you hear it. i mean, we all know what soul sounds like (and so, we don't need to talk about that.) that's because, in part, it's a style with highly specified parameters. which might be another way of saying it all sounds the same. (which is true, i think - and i don't think that's a bad thing nor does it stop me from seeking out more and more of it.)

which, again, points to why there's not much to say about it. isn't it telling that i've gotten this far without mention any specific examples of artists or songs? i don't know whether that supports or undercuts (or both?) this little argument i'm having (with myself) - is it intellectual laziness on my part, or just endemic to the topic? it seems to me that when folks mention specific songs and artists in the context of a discussion of soul they're either using them as placeholders - arbitrary examples (and always the same ones too - aretha, marvin, otis, james) standing in for the genre as a whole - or something comparable but slightly more nuanced (as in the the fairly well rehearsed topic of regional stylistic differences, wherein the entire output of certain labels - stax, motown, philly international - are treated as more or less interchangeable and homogenous wholes.) or else they're getting really specific about the music (comparing the vocal approaches of different singers, for instance), which is sort of a different level of discussion from what i'm primarily concerned with here.

not that any of these things is bad, necessarily. i'm just making observations here.

so, i'm obligated (says me) to write about soul (as much as i'd really rather not) and/or specifically about

4 i got you babe Y etta james

which as everyone knows is actually a groundhog day song, and not a valentine's day song. but it's both a fun cover and pretty darn great in its own right, and besides i just had to choose any old soul song to represent the genre as a whole, and more or less any one would do, since they're all about love anyway. (well, i wanted one about happy love, which is always a taller order.)

seriously, etta's tell mama: the complete muscle shoals sessions, in addition to appealing to both the albumist and the completist in me [it's a genuine original album, plus over an album's worth of equally-stellar bonus tracks, and it's her entire muscle shoals output, as the title indicates, all on one cd] is perhaps the biggest revelation (so far) in my recent and ongoing soul binge. (a.k.a. building a reasonable proper library of the essentials.) i put it on s/r/s'd with elvis' get happy!! while stirrin' up some fry a while back, and it just blew me away... it's dynamic, fiery, fun, funny (check out "mother-in-law"), funky (even the ballads, somehow, not to say they're not heartfelt too), top-notch from start to finish: i would recommend it to anybody without hesitation. (anybody with an interest in soul music, that is - but who isn't these days?)

but i don't have much more to say about it - i couldn't really convey anything about what makes it great, but it would all become immediately apparent on listening to it - i'd be left musing about how so many of its tracks overlap with the (also awesome) clarence carter comp i got around the same time, and you just wouldn't be interested. is there something that makes this particular album so damn RFG, beyond the standard RFG-ness of vintage southern soul? maybe so, but it's probably nothing that mysterious, or at least nothing that could be mystified without a lot of painstaking attention to subtle detail. (you know: the songwriting, the singing, the arrangements, the playing. the remastering probably helps too.)


hold on. just realized: i think i meant that there's not much to say about soul music in and of itself. but of course there are things to say about it, in contexts. and what seems relevant in particular is soul in the context of music, c. 2007. and specifically this notion that's floating around about soul revival(ism?) which is what my EMP proposal was about, of course. and, i did say that i would (or not) try to write about that stuff here since my paper wasn't accepted.

i noticed that not many of the papers that were accepted are about soul (there are a handful, but any fewer would really raise my eyebrows), and almost none (as far as i can tell/remember) of them have do with revivalism - certainly not soul revivalism. which is actually kind of surprising to me, because it's a perfect topic for the theme of the con, and an extremely timely one as well.

or has its time passed? - when there's a new york times sunday feature about it, does that mean the "pontificating about what's going on with all of this soul stuff" phenomenon has jumped the shark? no i don't really think so either. even though i am very late (it's my wont!) in getting around to mentioning it. pretty interesting article, though probably less for what it says than how it says it. here, have a link where you can actually read it. (thanks 'net!)

the first four or five grafs are nothing but a laundry list of different ways and places that soul has popping up in the cultural landscape of late (dreamgirls, james brown tributes, stax @ 50, candi, bettye, kanye, cat power, etc. etc.) i'd say lumping beyonce and mary j. blige (?) in with this still-rather-dubious "trend" is a bit of a stretch (on the basis of one sample on b's album?), but not as much gnarls barkley. (really now...not getting into it now, but i could if you like)

so, there's all of this stuff. but it's so disparate (and aimed at so many different groups of people) that it's hard to really call it a movement, or even a phenomenon. quoth craig werner: “It’s coming out of the hip-hop world. It’s coming out of the R&B world. You’re hearing it in pop music too. No matter which vector you’re following, you’re winding up with soul music.”

well ok. i'm not entirely convinced by this largely circumstantial evidence (or by the several paragraphs devoted to the alleged soul connections of current grammy-nominated songs and artists.) could it be enough just to say 'soul happens to be "in" these days' and leave it at that? (but in for whom? the demographics of the resurgence are still pretty mysterious to me: who's going to see bettye lavette; who's watching dreamgirls; who's listening to ghostface and cat power - are they all the same people, and if so are they conscious of these things being related?) there are all kinds of things going on all the time in cultureland, and it's easy enough to pick and choose where you're focusing... anyway, assuming this is a coherent phenomenon, is there any explanation for this sudden confluence? oh yeah.

three more quotes:

“People have been fed prefab music for so long that it’s starting to resonate with them that it’s not real” [Doyle Davis]

“Electronica came along and gave soul to the machines, but now people are coming back and saying they want real soul played by real musicians,” Mr. [Matt] Abels said. “People want that smoky feel again.”

“People want something that sounds authentic, which I think to them means something that’s not being designed, something that’s not being distanced by advertising images or forced into a mode,” he [Werner again] said. “I hear that from my students all the time. They hate anything that sounds mechanical or processed. They feel like there’s an immediate response to experience in soul music. They hear it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s what’s adding the flavor to the hip-hop cuts.’ ”
okay, yuck. so here's where the article really gets my goat. setting aside (for a second) the kneejerk "prefab" headache...why does the emergence of one thing have to explained fundamentally in terms of the rejection of something else? can't soul music simply be great (and deservedly popular, if it is indeed actually "popular") without it being the more "real" and "authentic" alternative to some other music that must therefore be disparaged? [is "authentic" even allowed in the dictionary any more without scare quotes?]

does this explanation even make sense? people are giving up on electronica (which last i checked wasn't actually that popular in america - although i do like the notion of it being 'soul as played by machines') and mainstream pop (er, implicitly), and instead listening to, um, john legend (and christina aguilera)? how are dreamgirls and gnarls barkley and, sure, candi's astralwerks comeback and bettye's on anti- (oh man that label name is so fraught) not "designed" or complicated by advertising images? and i happen to know that not all of craig werner's students "hate anything that sounds mechanical or processed" - i'd wager most of them don't - because i heard one of them waxing rhapsodic about the pussy cat dolls and passionately arguing that britney and ashlee deserve the same props as the crystals and betty everett (hey charles, hit me up sometime!)

meanwhile, it's not just pop and electronica that's taking the fall here - the "experts" get in their smug indie digs too, on the weird and contentious grounds that rock and folk concerts are boring and lifeless, unlike soul performances (which have tended, historically speaking, to be polished, "sophisticated," revue-style affairs, putative rawly emotive content notwithstanding):
“People love the messiness of live music,” Mr. Werner said. “They love that sense that the players are actually listening to each other and that everything’s not all preplanned.”

For Mr. Davis, “It’s not the same as seeing the latest buzz-band rock band come and perform their album that just got a rave on Pitchfork.”

“You see the indie-rock kids who, if they were at the Sufjan Stevens or Iron & Wine show, would be completely reverent, stroking their beards or whatever, and here they are dancing with giant grins on their faces,” he continued. “I call those epiphanous musical moments. When you go see Bettye LaVette, you have that.”
blech. well, i can attest to having danced with a giant grin at a sufjan show, right along with the dancing grinning cheerleading illinoisemakers on stage. eh, i don't think i'm going to dignify this obvious snidery with further response. (though i would definitely really like to see bettye's live show, which from the description in the article sounds a lot more exciting than her decidedly subdued album.)

okay, i get that these folks are just being typically shortsighted, prejudiced people, of the sort that are routinely considered reasonable, and i shouldn't hold them accountable for such commonplace snobbery. i also get that there's some relevant truth to their confused rhetoric - the "rejection" notion is a red herring, and it's not about a logical pattern of listening choices conforming to an easily discernable trend - i'd say it's not even about the sound of the music so much (remember, it's happening in a wide range of genres), but there is something about the soul impulse, as these folks lay it out - earnestness, humanity, passion, and sure, authenticity. which isn't too hard to link back to that whole death of irony business (can you believe it's been six and a half years? do you miss irony yet?) it just so happens that i find these qualities in plenty of pop and techno and indie rock - in fact, couldn't one say that these are things that most or all "good music" strives for? and soul just has an unfair advantage, being preternaturally predisposed to raw, emotional potency?

(which doesn't mean that you can access that potency just by sampling it or 'sonically alluding to it' [a lá gnarls, i guess], but you can try, and maybe fool some people - or you can at least remind them of soulfulness without actually achieving it.)

[at the end of the article, a Michael Gray offers a more concrete, less romanticized explanation for the trend: “What’s changed is what’s happening in the culture and the music industry. Platforms are being created to promote these artists.”]

interestingly, the article fails to mention the two artists that i consider to be doing the most exciting things with soul these days: sharon jones - whose concerts feel like actual small-scale revivals, in the old-timey religious sense - and jamie lidell, who's been more ambitious and successful than anyone i can think of at creating something truly new that still retains that evanescent soul impulse. i can see how jamie's steez is too actually musically innovative for the nytimes, but i'd say it's borderline inexcusable for them not to mention sharon/daptone at all.

a recent philly weekly article about the "giddy white men" phenomenon does mention sharon, in passing. (i'm guessing writer craig lindsay didn't draft that silly subtitle - the copy editors nabbed it from this line - "I eventually let my colleague borrow the album; I haven’t seen a white man that giddy about getting some soul in his life since David Bowie married Iman" - which is the second bowie marriage reference in two posts, for those keeping score.) mostly the article focuses on the wave of reissues from the likes of stones throw, ubiquity, numero group, and daptone, along with o-dubs' "soul sides" comp and the like - which is another aspect of the phenomenon that has a bit for relevance for me.

actually, it's been interesting trying to be a record collector/librarian with completist tendencies amidst all of this. with a new "undiscovered classic" being hyped and rediscovered seemingly every other week, one gets the sense that the soul canon is possibly in the midst of a shaking-up and reappraisal. time's gonna have to tell on that one - but it's possible that a few years down the line candi staton, for instance, will be seen as a more important and central figure than she was a few years back.

anyway, i've been trying to keep abreast of current reissues to some extent, but lately i've been more concerned with building a solid collection of the truly canonical stuff, both to have that frame of reference, and also because there's plenty of great stuff there that's not getting much attention these days. in fact, a number of the supposed greats (according to the likes of peter guralnick are still relatively underanthologized on cd) - especially the goldwax folks (james carr, o.v. wright.) i've been using the discography in the back of guralnick's book and, so far, mostly going with what's available cheaply through bmg and half (including a lot of rhino/atco reissues of stax and atlantic stuff.)

i've been held up actually reading the book because i wanted to more have the music in place to listen to alongside - i'd gotten as far as the sam cooke chapter and then paused, since i felt ray charles greatest hits cd wasn't enough to accompany the 50+ pages on him. but now that ray box set has finally arrived, so i'm ready to proceed. from there it'll be smooth sailing on into solomon burke and then stax and muscle shoals heydays...so i'll let you know how it goes.


Frank Kogan said...

Ross - tiny point, not really having to do with your piece, but since I'm the guy who coined the term "Superword," here's a brief summary of what I mean by it:

A word is a Superword if: (1) We fight over the what the word means, and this fighting is a big part of the word's use. That is, we use the term in order to engage in arguments over how to use the term. So if "soul" is a Superword, we don't necessarily know it when we hear it, or at least other people disagree. But that's not enough for a word to be a Superword. (2) The arguers sometimes believe that any performer or song - and all performers and songs - can fall short (in someone's ears) in the attempt to be soul. But for the word to be super, not only must people disagree on the ideal, but some people must consciously or unconsciously keep changing what the word or ideal is supposed to designate so that the music is always inadequate to the ideal, even if the music would have been adequate to yesterday's version of the ideal. So think of the fan or musician or critic reaching down to grasp the concept "soul" but simultaneously pushing his foot forward so as to kick the concept just out of reach.

When I say a word is a Superword I mean it has Superword tendencies. That is, if you were a record store clerk you might have no trouble directing someone who says, "I'd like some neo-soul like Bettye LaVette" to a Solomon Burke record, but then you might, if you're so inclined, get into an argument that evening with a friend over whether Solomon Burke's recent stuff is really worthy of the term "soul." And it does seem to me that some of the people quoted in the Bill F-W's Times article are coming up with standards of integrity that no soul past or present has ever met; but also, someone who doesn't care as much about the integrity issue, might simply say that the neo-soul, whether it's Blige or Burke or Gnarls (can't say that I'm seeing a movement here, but maybe "movement" is a Superword) simply isn't doing what real soul of the past did (it might be doing something equally worthwhile, but it's not the same), so it can't be soul.

But right now, "pop" as the poptimist crew uses it, and "hip-hop" as Nas uses it, are much more Superwordish than "soul" is, since those genres are much more alive, hence there's more significance in declaring them dead.

Ross said...

hi frank. thanks - actually i did have a better understanding of the term than i was pretending to (i like be mildly sarcastic in undetectable ways.)

do people really not know pop and hip-hop when they hear them? do people say that pop and hip-hop that they don't like are not really worthy of being called those things? (i know, maybe they'll say something' "not hip-hop" - kinda like "not cricket" - but that doesn't actually mean they think it's not hip-hop, right?)

funny, to me neo-soul very specifically suggests the late-90s movement (which definitely was a movement) including d'angelo, jill scott, erykah, et al. (and although i like plenty of that stuff, i definitely wouldn't call it soul without the qualifier.) and i would call new bettye and probably new burke (though some of it's almost country) and definitely sharon jones Soul. which is to say soul isn't completely dead (even though it mostly is.)

i wouldn't call blige or gnarls soul, but because i actually hear them as different genres, not because they're not up to snuff in some less tangible way. if that makes sense - so maybe that's a distinction that makes soul seem less superwordy. (although apparently some people would call these things soul?)

seems like soul is starting to become more of a superword than it maybe ever was before; with this new vanguard questionably "resurrecting" it, there's gonna have to be a skirmish for the banner.