Lovers Bite: The Resurgence of Neo-Soul
Neo-soul. If you look for its definition, you’ll more than likely find pop singers who incorporate some hip-hop, some electronica, and some pulsating rhythms, all thrown in with a dab of revisionist soul. It’s not my cup of tea, as it sounds to my ears too corporate, cynically made and devoid of depth and feeling. Perhaps that is overstating it somewhat, but it does stake out my territory.
This also takes me back to where I grew up — in my high school Motown was more popular then the Beatles. While I could appreciate the talent and showmanship, it was just too homogenized. Instead, I preferred the rawer R&B of James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Ruth Brown, LaVerne Baker, and the Atlantic and Stax/Volt artists. Even though I had grown up thinking Hank Williams was still alive, the first time I heard Ray Charles I thought I had heard the voice of God.
While the soul of the 1960s never really went away, it morphed into the Philly Sound, Soul Train, and funk. Later it lay dormant and was mostly trotted out as nostalgia acts. But in the past few years we have seen a resurgence of bands and individual artists who use R&B and soul not just as as starting points but who embrace its essence while taking note of what has happened in music during the past 50 years. Many of these artists still utilize horns but have more of a biting edge, a deeper sense of self and even rhythm. This is what I refer to as “neo-soul.”
It does, however, have one thing in common with a lot of today’s music — it is best experienced live. I was reminded of this when I saw the Family Stone this past summer, when they played a late afternoon set at an Americana music festival. It was a packed crowd than went wide and deep. Remember “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — which sold 12 million records and won a Grammy, but couldn’t get played on the radio? That’s the same situation neo-soul seems to be in today.
Some of the better-known artists on that scene include the Alabama Shakes, whose latest album produced by Blake Mills certainly shook up the Americana world. There’s also Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, who have played just about everywhere, and Lake Street Dive. Speaking of whom, LSD have a new record due in February 2016, on the prestigious Nonesuch label, produced by Dave Cobb. Cobb also produced Jason Isbell’s last two albums as well as the most celebrated efforts from Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
But there are some other bands in that genre that appear to be on the verge of breaking out, including the Suffers, who have recently done an NPR Tiny Desk Concert and will open for Lake Street Dive as they begin a national tour when their new album is released. Talk about a double dose.
These folks do not sound like each other. They have their own distinctive flavor. But they all have two things in common: dynamic lead vocalists and tight bands behind them. Once they pull you in, they hold you there and don’t let you go.
Last, and certainly not least, another newish band that I have taken quite a shining to is Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, a septet from Brooklyn. One of the several things that sets them apart is their full-time, essential harmonica player, Jackson Kincheloe. He adds just the right amount of the blues and then, at a moment’s notice, bursts into it full time. The horn players, too, set themselves apart, especially Brian Graham on sax, who, at times, ventures close to Morphine-land. (Morphine is a band which I sorely miss.)
Of all these noted bands, Sister Sparrow has the leanest and bluesiest sound. Another two names who were new to me when I started writing this are Nikki Hill and ZZ Ward. But not any more. Ms. Hill and Ms. Ward deserve your attention as well.
Now, enjoy this week’s take on neo-soul. And on Thanksgiving Day, instead of watching football, spin their records and see what it’s all about.