Beg, Scream and Shout:
The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul
Blame it on The Big Chill. The 1983 celluloid blowjob for the baby-boomer set not only created a mid-'80s explosion of oldies radio ("music for the Big Chill generation," they called it), it also cemented the mainstream perception that '60s soul music amounted to nothing more than whatever came out of Motown Records.
Of course, Motown was an astonishing hit factory, but it was only a small component--and a diluted one at that--of that decade's soul achievement. Often lost in the miles of print devoted to the warp-speed evolution of rock in the '60s is that soul also reached its creative zenith during that decade.
Soul took the impassioned testifying of gospel and fused it with secular themes. The '60s marked a lucky nexus when soul's first wave of pioneers (Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson) was still in good form, and the third wave (Al Green, the O'Jays) was already beginning to assert itself (check out Green's 1967 semihit "Back Up Train" and the finger-popping obsessiveness of the O'Jays' "Lipstick Traces"). And the second wave, energized by the social changes of the time, delivered some of the greatest music America's ever produced.
Rhino Records goes a long way toward rectifying popular understanding of '60s soul with the new six-CD set Beg, Scream and Shout. Wisely, Rhino largely sticks to no more than one song per artist and avoids the obvious, done-to-death songs that lost their currency years ago. Sure, "My Girl" is a great song, but when it's forced into commercials and tepid Greg Kinnear romantic comedies, it begins to tell us less about '60s soul than about '90s nostalgia.
The music that emerges on Rhino's collection is every bit as kaleidoscopic as the acid-drenched rock of its time, and a good deal funkier to boot. Great soul could get as lush as Chuck Jackson's "I Don't Want to Cry," as hip-shaking as James Brown, as country as Joe Hinton covering Willie Nelson, and as stylish as Bobby Womack doing "Fly Me to the Moon." It could get as silly as "The Oogum Boogum Song" or as socially conscious as the Impressions' "Choice of Colors."
Much as integration changed the social landscape of America at the time, the music in this set reflects a never-repeated level of racial cooperation in the recording studios. The music intoxicated white America to the point where soul classics began to flow from the unlikely pens of white Southerners like Dan Penn, Tin Pan Alley whiz kids like Carole King, and mature pop composers like Burt Bacharach. One senses here that black and white music were influencing and enriching each other in a way that would not happen again until hip-hop changed all the rules in the '80s.
Rhino eschews chronological order, instead pairing the songs by theme: whether they beg, scream or shout. It's a pretty shaky concept, and hard to apply in many cases. Where do you fit an instrumental like "Twine Time"? And why is Dobie Gray's "The 'In' Crowd" slotted with the "scream" songs?
In any event, these tracks are so uniformly strong that it hardly matters where they're positioned. The great reward of this set is the rediscovery of half-forgotten gems that spent so many years on hard-to-find, out-of-print or import records that most of us gave up the search years ago. Whether it's Bob & Earl's great original version of "Harlem Shuffle," Mel & Tim's "Backfield in Motion" or the Joe Jeffrey Group's irresistible "My Pledge of Love," this is the story of fabulous single shots, 45 rpm manifestos imbued with deep grooves and high spirits. If you want to make sense of America's most explosive decade, this is the most fun place to start.
If Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook had grown up in Tennessee, he might sound a lot like Ross Rice. A product of the failed early-'90s Memphis band Human Radio, Rice guardedly emerges from creative hibernation with this winning collection of mercurial pop. He's not only the oddball on Steve Earle's new, predominantly roots-rocking E-Squared label, he's probably a bit too twisted for prime time.
Possessed with not only a gorgeous falsetto but formidable multi-instrumental skills, Rice knows the value of a good tune, but you sense that in his heart he wants to jam. Like a young Todd Rundgren, he's a musical virtuoso slumming it in the world of three-minute pop, and this results in some tortured but fascinating aural schizophrenia. Simplicity is hard work for him, and the strain shows when he spoils the pretty "Dig Down Deep" with a drab, choogling chorus. But "Next to Nothing" is the kind of achingly beautiful ballad that Neil Finn would give his eyeteeth for, and the rocking "Miss July" would be a hit single in a better world.
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Easy Listening for Armageddon
Since the term was coined, "trip-hop" has been associated with the moody, noirish sound collages, rap-singing and slow-churning electro-beats of folks like Tricky and Massive Attack--music that's hip-hop-identified, but stylistically miles away from current rap flavors. With his debut, Easy Listening for Armageddon, 26-year-old poet Mike Ladd offers a different take on trip-hop. Like Tricky, he's more hip-hop in theory than in practice; but unlike most trip-hop, Ladd's divergence from convention is driven first and foremost by his lyrics. While Easy Listening is full of trip-hop's musical signposts, the tracks are always spare and elastic enough to accommodate what's really trippy: Ladd's freeform, stream-of-consciousness, over-the-top and deep-down-inside verse.
Like most classic rap, Ladd steeps his monologues in Afro-culture and American politics, and, of course, Afro-American cultural politics. But instead of representing black with shout-outs to Malcolm X or his 'hood, Ladd's poetry is Afrocentric without resorting to propaganda or cliche--by simply being self-aware. While his performances are endowed with a Last Poets-style social commentary that keeps them frighteningly grounded in reality, there's a clear postapocalyptic vibe to pieces like the wacky title track, "Blade Runner" or "I'm Building a Bodacious Bodega for the Race War," which all borrow from the George Clinton/Sun Ra school of Afro-sci-fi psychedelia.