Last week's column discussed the dearth of decent millennial soul and the "Mtume Factor," the process which led to the death of classic rhythm and blues. Producer/musician Mtume's own career illustrates this, as the Philly-bred son of jazz sax great Jimmy Heath went from playing with icons like Miles Davis and Dee Dee Bridgewater to producing urban contemporary in the 80s. Perhaps no one cares who stole the soul, since that genre's 60s heyday was so long ago. However, with Hurricane Katrina having decimated the storied culture of New Orleans funk, it's something that weighs on my mind.
Urban radio's impoverished state as a black hole of soul means that the best of bluenote pop now comes from the margins: experimental mavericks with cultish urban followings and the ever-contracting pool of legends whose voices have not faded with time. Southern soul colossi Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham fall into the latter category. In the 60s, working the incredibly rich axis between Memphis and Alabama's Muscle Shoals area, Penn (and Chips Moman) wrote "The Dark End of the Street" for the late James Carr. Carr gets a moving shout out on Moments From This Theatre: Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham Live (Proper American; Rating: *** 1/2), as the duo launches into the aching ode to the down-low. Recorded in the United Kingdom and Ireland while touring with Nick Lowe in Nov. 1998, the disc is a perfect premillennial summation of what the South gave to global music. Other prime cuts: "Cry Like a Baby" (which they penned for the Box Tops), and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," covered by both Aretha Franklin and Gram Parsons. Take this CD to heart and I'll always love y'all.
The most significant Southern soul architect and leading influence on Penn and Oldham's generation of blue-eyed soul men is the immortal Ray Charles. The late American master has recently been memorialized by a veritable suitcase of a box set: the exhaustive record of his most vital years, Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959) (Rhino/WEA; Rating: ****). And there's his second superstar duets collection, Ray Charles: Genius & Friends (Atlantic/Rhino; Rating: ** 1/2). Stacked with equally legendary producers -- Quincy Jones, Ahmet Ertegun, Phil Ramone -- and good-to-great singers from different eras/genres -- Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, George Michael, Mary J. Blige -- it's almost irrelevant whether any of these performances fly. It's Brother Ray! But "Imagine" with Ruben Studdard and "Compared To What" with Angeleno spitfire Leela James do shine.
Another Southern soul great -- who's often overlooked as such -- is Slab Fork, West Virginia native Bill Withers. As he's long retired from the rockbiz, any reissues of Withers' singularly detailed, story-centered brand of soul-folk are most welcome. The new dual disc of Just As I Am (Columbia/Legacy; Rating: *** 1/2) includes the 1971 LP's standards "Grandma's Hands" and "Ain't No Sunshine" and a video doc on the recording of the album. Vintage footage not only captures the simple thrills of Withers' field holler once-removed singing and guitar playing but his blue collar appearance and progressive speech pinpoint the prebling era poignantly.
V does R&B's antibling brigade and Jersey proud with The Revelation Is Now Televised (BBE; Rating: ** 1/2). Singer V's electro soul overlaps with that of Jamiroquai, but the CD's intro alone has a wider scope of Black diaspora aesthetics, referencing Quincy Jones' haunting Roots theme, Michael Jackson covering Sinatra and Lonnie Liston Smith's acid jazz/hip-hop manifesto "Expansions." Jilly from Philly guests on trippy, poetic "Born Again," which should bring V's dulcet, jazzy tunes into Stateside nu-soul circles.
On Space Shift (Sound In Color; Rating: *** 1/2), Steve Spacek is also self-consciously angling to be considered amongst experimental soul's elite. And with good reason, since the disc (appropriately cut in Los Angeles) acts as a sort of concept album -- the theme for an imaginary space opera: Bronze Barbarella. While throwing noise and scratches around like grenades, the space cowboy singer-songwriter also tethers his outta space funk with organic vocals in the vein of genre pioneers Omar and Seal. Spacek's dreamy falsetto wraps around a "warm robotic" sound that drifts between trip-hop, drum 'n' bass and even more forward-looking cosmic soul for the Xbox Era. "Thursday" is possibly what space-age pop king Esquivel would've sounded like had he been a dub-conscious, 70s soul-loving member of the New Black Aesthetic gang instead of Mexican. Closer "Look Into My Eyes" echoes Withers' sunny twang. Spacek's range is also illustrated by the presence of both Marvin Gaye's legendary collaborator Leon Ware and of-the-moment hot producer J Dilla. Methinks the Yank future soul vanguard just got served by Space Shift's gorgeous, ethereal electronics.