4:00pm

Fri October 14, 2011
The Record

How To Keep It Real When Making New Soul: Three Attempts

Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 2:23 pm

I'm always bemused when people adopt a melancholy attitude about the twilight of "physical" music. I love record stores, because they bring people together to share discoveries, provide employment for music experts and serve as a great place for misfit arty kids (and grownups!) to hang out.

I'm old enough to know what it felt like to record and hand-decorate a mixtape for that certain someone. I've used CD covers as workplace cubicle pinups, and even framed a vintage single or two (Uni Records had really cool labels). I've also been impressed with the ingenious artisanal ways certain artists have reimagined the music distribution process – Matthew Dear's totems, Jed Davis' revamped wax cylinder, Bjork's touchpad apps. People like commodities; artists enjoy and profit from personalizing those commodities. And that's never going to end.

As the Internet's cloud supersedes palpable forms of sharing, though, it's important to remember that the packaging process begins before anything's put into a box, or onto an iPhone. The artist who participates in the musical marketplace necessarily packages herself, first as a way of comprehending how she fits into whatever scenes or histories inspire her, and later, because of the need to communicate to an audience — to signal what she stands for and how her music advances a tradition and/or challenges it.

These observations aren't breaking new ground, I know. But they came back to me this week, as I considered yet another small batch of young artists — Mayer Hawthorne, Allen Stone and the Alabama Shakes — staking a claim within one of pop's primary realms. This time it's soul: a genre that's often hailed as all feeling and essence, but whose key practitioners have usually been masters of personal style and carefully planned performance. In other words, of packaging.

What these musicians are making has been dubbed retro-soul — a subgenre in which the packaging can get trickier than anywhere else. Exceedingly aware of history, often proudly frugging toward pure revivalism, retro-soul's leading artists (from Sharon Jones to the late Amy Winehouse to Raphael Saadiq) have embraced the signifiers of another time, both sonically and in terms of beehived, be-fringed or bespectacled personae (for a great run-down on the retro-soul basics and some problems with the classification, read these two essays by Oliver Wang).

The artifice of retro-soul is obvious, especially the way practitioners tend to locate themselves almost exclusively within one cluster of references. But at the same time, retro-soul artists are expected to be less "fake" than other musicians, because the legacy they mine is so strongly linked to ideals of "down home" authenticity and "raw" emotional openness.

Those ideals are, on the one hand, positive expressions of the way music can touch us, from head to hips. They're also representative of certain problematic assumptions about African-Americans — that they're more in touch with their bodies, less intellectual, more out of control than their white peers — that anyone living in the 21st century has to question. This leads to a mess of contradictions that the best grapple with, and the less self-aware ignore.

Still, artists have to put on clothes, choose instruments and recording techniques, and celebrate or conceal their songwriting influences. Whenever a young musician takes on the soul label — be it retro, Nuevo, blue-eyed, brown-skinned, whatever — he can't help but confront the process of what Cornel West, referring to the African-American arts, once called honoring your particular "somebodiness."

So what do you do if you're Mayer Hawthorne, a Jewish guy raised in Ann Arbor by a musician dad from Detroit? Or Allen Stone, a preacher's son, not from the South, but from rural Washington state? Or Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, an African-American woman leading a band of close friends, all white guys, in a small town not far from southern soul central: Muscle Shoals, Ala.?

You wrestle. You remember that you — your body, your voice, your fingers playing guitar — are the package that carries forth and individually transforms whatever tradition to which you're indebted. And if you're smart, I think, you make sure that package isn't too tightly constructed, so that it can adapt to further growth.

Many people have already shown their love for Hawthorne's self-conception. The former DJ, who was born Andrew Mayer Cohen in 1979 and moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles some years ago, uses his crate-digging skills to form a sonic pastiche that's multifaceted yet strongly cohesive. Like Saadiq, Hawthorne finds strength in getting the details right, but the mood he cultivates is less aggressively masterful.

On his major label debut How Do You Do? Hawthorne plays with the "revival" idea by mining several interconnected eras. Songs touch down in the New Romantic moment of Brit bands like ABC and "Maneater"-era Hall and Oates; at the point in classic rock's evolution where R&B-inspired bands like The Hollies went more psychedelic; and in the corners of Motown most heavily influenced by crossover rock acts like The Beatles. Hawthorne's mostly-falsetto voice floats above it all, more like a butterfly than a bee. At first it all seems a little safe and lukewarm. But after a while, the sound starts to feel natural. He's made the leap across the racial boundary that always exists for non-African American soul performers as if it were no big deal.

I'm impressed with Hawthorne's cool. But I feel like retro-soul, TARDIS that it is, shouldn't land too smoothly. I need a bit of struggle in the sound. Allen Stone gives me that.

The 24-year-old former church boy from tiny Chewelah, Wash. has just self-released his second album on iTunes, and it's meant for those of us who like our R&B slightly unkempt and exceedingly feelingful. Stone's earning attention partly because his blond hippie-coder visage (he freely admits to being "kind of a peculiar looking human being") so drastically contrasts with his charged, virile vocalisms.

Being startled by Stone's artistic prowess makes you realize just how much fashion factors into today's general perceptions of soul. He — a man apparently oblivious to details — is the opposite of Hawthorne. But the proof comes in Stone's sound, which is inspired by the messily adventurous early-to-mid 1970s instead of the natty '60s: he's all about the moment when everybody let their hair grow out (iIncluding his idol, Stevie Wonder.) Working with Saadiq's regular band and veterans like Darren Johnson, who played with Miles Davis, Stone excels in self-penned songs that get thick and heavy: music meant for contemplation more than choreography. A sense of promise permeates these tracks. Stone recently told an interviewer that seeing Prince at the Forum this past summer changed his life. An artist who's still open to being transformed like that is good for any genre.

Brittany Howard's life is changing rapidly. The singer and guitarist in the Alabama Shakes, who like Stone is in her early twenties, has begun a trajectory toward what feels like inevitable acclaim. The band hails from Athens, Ala. — and started touring regionally only a few months ago. Early acclaim from the influential blog Aquarium Drunkard put Howard and company in touch with Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, which in turn led to bigger touring pastures, including a CMJ showcase next week at the Bowery Ballroom.

"Classic soul," not retro, is the term Howard and her fellows apply to the Shakes sound. They're not into fashion. Howard dresses a lot like Kristin Hersh did in the early days of Throwing Muses, and though bassist Zac Cockrell has a dandyish beard, for the most part these guys look like a bar band. Like Stone's music, the sound of the Alabama Shakes is loose and evolving, but it has a harder, more rockish edge. When I met Howard outside Tuscaloosa's Bama Theater before seeing the Shakes play a set that resulted in the sale of every single bit of merch they'd brought, she told me that she was inspired by Aretha and Janis, sure, but also by Led Zeppelin and Kings of Leon.

Kings of Leon? Why not? Copping to an influence that no self-respecting vintage-wearing hipster would ever claim is part of what makes Howard herself: a young woman living in the now, wrapping her arms around a tradition without letting it carry her away. Listening to the self-titled Alabama Shakes debut EP, available on Bandcamp, I can hear her taking her voice to different kinds of edges — the punk edge, the heavy metal edge, the blues edge — while her band stays solid and swinging behind her. It's the sound of someone inventing herself.

The Alabama Shakes will certainly change soon, in ways, I hope, that refine the band's sound without quashing its enchanting unruliness. It's not that often these days that a band so promising comes to us only partially packaged. It's going to be fun to watch what happens as they start to sew things up.

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