Monday, April 11, 2011
The New Soul Music
At South By Southwest this year, the biggest, most audible buzz (at least for those of us who didn't attend, at least!) was for a group from Silverlake called Fitz and the Tantrums. No angular indie or beardy folk group they -- the Tantrums play what could probably be termed "classic soul" music, heavily influenced by the sounds of Motown and Stax from the mid-to-late '60s.
And they're certainly not alone. Fitz and the Tantrums are part of a larger move back into the vintage soul sound that's been echoing loudly across the R&B genre for the last three or four years (at least in the overground -- even longer in the underground, natch). Indie listeners have slowly been crawling on the bandwagon, too -- the Tantrums, Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears and other New Soul artists have been creeping onto typically homogenous, whitebread indie radio playlists.
Why now? What happened?
As with any musical movement worth its salt, the New Soul started off as an underground revival movement. East Coast indie-soul groups like the Dap Kings and the Budos Band started cropping up five, six, seven years ago, and a largely underground soul revival movement based primarily in New York (and primarily around the Daptones label) began to bubble under the surface.
It could have been one of a thousand short-lived revival fads -- remember the swing revival in the late 90s? The burlesque revival in the early 00's? -- if it wasn't for the emergence of a few mainstream artists who championed this New Soul sound to the masses. Producer Mark Ronson grabbed onto the sound with both hands, and used the Dap Kings to back up Amy Winehouse on the Back To Black LP, the first mainstream New Soul album and still perhaps the finest.
Mainstream R&B was ready for this New Soul. It had been evolving towards a more organic, classic sound for a long time. After New Jack Swing, perhaps the next real "forward" evolution of the form in the late 90s and early 00s was the so-called "Neo-Soul" movement (D'Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu), which already embraced some of the New Soul values -- deep, often complex songwriting; influences from the 60s and 70s, organic instrumentation, and a "conscious" vibe that was as far apart from mainstream love-ballad-driven R&B as indie rock was from modern radio pop.
Perhaps the next most important New Soul salvo after the Winehouse album was Raphael Saadiq's exquisite The Way I See It. Saadiq, a founding member of Tony! Toni! Toné!, was already an important writer and producer in the Neo-Soul movement, having worked with D'Angelo on the seminal Voodoo LP and been a member of Lucy Pearl before striking out as a solo artist. On The Way I See It, Saadiq fully embraced the sound of Motown, even going so far as to work with some of the original Motown backing musicians.
What made the album great, though, and more than just a "revival" album or "retro" album, is that he remembered that Motown was more than just a "sound" -- it featured great, memorable, diverse songs. For years, the primary sound of R&B had been sexy bedroom ballads with nary a hook among 'em, but The Way I See It was top-loaded with popping dancefloor classics like "100 Yard Dash" and "Let's Take A Walk," all of which were loaded with great soul beats and memorable hooks.
Saadiq's album, too, was a hit in the indie world -- it received airplay on alternative and indie stations around the country, and received plaudits from normally soul-free "best of the year" lists. In a way, the mainstream success of Amy Winehouse gave the movement a voice, but Saadiq's success gave it cred -- no producer's darling he; Saadiq was a genuine R&B/hip-hop practitioner, and his refusal to sell out to trends made New Soul look like more than just a revival movement or brief side-track or fad.
Since the release of these albums, the New Soul movement has exploded. Artists previously associated with other movements scrambled to keep up, sometimes to excellent effect. John Legend, previously a smooth/adult-contemporary artist, teamed up with Neo Soul hip-hop group the Roots and made Wake Up, an album of fiery, stomping covers of 60s and 70s songs. Even R. Kelly -- known as much for his sex-crime exploits as his batshit crazy song moves -- got in on the action, releasing the excellent Love Letter, a smooth R&B album that channeled mid-70s Marvin Gaye. And improbably, talk-show-host son Robin Thicke released the amazing Something Else, an album of heavy, horn-driven R&B that sounded as gritty and as realistic as anything from the underground.
And what's interesting about the New Soul movement is that, like the Stax label in the mid-60s, it's fully integrated, a word that means more in the '10s than it should -- there are as many white artists as there are black ones, as many male as female, and as many old as young, all equally valid and "genuine." Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings are the perfect picture of this New Soul movement -- Jones is an over-50 African-American woman, fronting a band made up of black and white members of various ages. Fitz and the Tantrums features a white, over-40 lead singer, a mid-20s black female co-lead, and an integrated membership made up of members of various ages. The Budos Band feature no lead singer, a mostly-white membership and yet sound more like the early-70s Meters than anybody ever has. It all, impossibly, works.
And then there's Eli "Paperboy" Reed. Paperboy is a potent, gritty soul belter and one hell of a performer. Close your eyes, and you hear Memphis or Detroit in the mid-60s. But Paperboy's a 20-something nerdy white kid -- almost impossible that such a seasoned, powerful voice could even come from that body, but "Come And Get It" is possibly the best single yet in the New Soul sweeps, a horn-driven rocker that could have just as easily been written in 1965 as 2011.
But what keeps New Soul from being just another revival movement, embraced for a moment but soon forgotten? And why wouldn't you just go on to iTunes and download a bunch of old Motown, Stax and Gamble/Huff records?
I'd argue -- and of course time will either prove me right or wrong -- that its longevity is what makes it a genuine movement rather than just a retro sidestep. It's developing and growing within itself -- the new Saadiq album, for example, sounds like a logical extension of his last one, but with new influences, and an even more pronounced sense of experimentation, while the awesome Black Joe Lewis album sounds even grittier and funkier than its predecessors, an aggressive angle taken from, say, the White Stripes. This evolution means it essentially is R&B right now -- even though it exists parallel with whatever's on mainstream R&B radio at the moment (you know, autotuned electro-pop) it is informing what's happening within the genre and will probably push even further into the mainstream as time moves on and people take more risks.
Too, what does "retro" even mean in this information age? In a time people have absolutely equal accessibility to albums of all vintages and genres, is it even valid to call something out for being "old?" What does that even mean anymore? As information moves at the speed of a blink, genres can be born and die with the speed of a meme, shouldn't we be more concerned with great songwriting, with longevity, with substance, with excellence than whether something sounds "old" or "new?"
I'd also argue that there's quite a few albums within this genre -- Winehouse's, Saadiq's two, the Fitz and the Tantrums, both "Paperboy" Reed LPs, even R. Kelly's! -- that stand quite strongly against whatever Motown you wanna stack 'em against. Again, time will prove me right or wrong, but I'd say you could take Saadiq's album and stack it song-for-song with the Four Tops' mighty "Reach Out" LP and you wouldn't be throwing it out the window. You know?
It remains to be seen how far this New Soul will go. Will it continue to run parallel with mainstream R&B until it produces masterpieces like What's Going On or Innervisions? Will it fade out and be replaced with something utterly else? It's absolutely hard to say, considering how capricious the music industry is and has been lately. But for those of us who love the vintage sound of a horn section, a gospel/soul belter, a funky dance-beat, it's a ride that promises at least a few awesome highlights along the way.