Monday, March 15, 2004

I was listening to a talkshow on NPR the other night (long live NPR), and there was a program with an African American host, probably the Tavis Smiley show, and Tavis was interviewing a jazz pianist, I don't remember who. He was one of Quincy Jones' many discoveries and the author of the Taxi theme song (written before the fact), and many other genre staples too I imagine. As I listened, I couldn't tell the ethnicity of either the host or the guest at first (don't ask me why I even consider such things, but I do), but soon enough the inevitable "whose got soul?" question came up, and I soon inferred from the discourse that the host was black, and his guest white. And get this, his guest, the white fellow, was one of those sacred "white people with soul"...That's right! A white guy with soul in the year 2004--I was stunned! Obviously not a Justin Timberlake fan. I came to learn that the guy was on of a very short list with other esteemed white soul honoraries such as KENNY LOGGINS and JAMES TAYLOR among its golden ranks. Great pillars of body moving smooth groove, indeed! What exactly is the berth of this guy's exposure to the larger world of jazz and pop and who does or doesn't "have soul"? I know, I know, he's probably too busy having a family, a day job as a respected writer and a life to develop any real taste on the subject at hand, but I still have to take a moment here.

"Soul" to me is like so many of those other genre buzz words that journalists come up with to simplify complexity and explain the unexplainable. There is unquestionably a soul music genre, as exemplified by greats Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Smokey Robinson, etc, and they call it soul for a damn good reason...but there's also quite obviously "soul" in the definitive sense of the vernacular: that is the central or integral part; the vital core of a being. When it comes to the question of that soul, ethnicity or creed has little to nothing to do with one's measure. You either got it or you don't. You can argue that all conscious creatures have it, and someone out there might be foolish enough to agree with you, but I've seen enough blood-thirsty Nazi vermin in this world to know better. Soul is precious, and to be able to share it with someone else is probably the most precious gift one person can give another. That's why all those zombie movies are so inherently disturbing. It's not the constant barrage of imaginative eviscerations and watermelon-like head explosions that make us go "eww"...It's the idea of life without a soul. Who wants that? Who already has it? I bet you know at least one zombie in your immediate family or social ranks. So, unlucky reader, I have taken it upon myself to assemble a list of 7 great soul songs in the definitive sense, no particular order, complete with descriptions and explanations, for the soul-impaired:

1. Steven R. Smith "Lineaments" from the album of the same name, Emperor Jones (2002). Yes, it's an instrumental, and a non jazz one at that, but I dare you to find a more cosmically aligned harmonic concordance. Builds from a low rumble of scattered percussion and cranking gears; smoke from broken rays of guitar drone and bowed strings slowly smolder in the distance before massed guitar symphonies wail against wind swept dunes. A sense of massive space viewed intimately, awe mixed with humbled devotion.

2. Angels of Light "Kosinski" from Everything is Good Here/Please Come Home, Young God (2002) A haunting kiss goodbye to someone dear. This has to be heard to be felt, with its shimmery wall of acoustic guitars and Michael Gira's hypnotic vocal painting an enchanted image of fading life and obscure mystery against a backdrop of swelling overtones, haunted violin and choral arrangements.

3. Alexander "Skip" Spence "Diana" from Oar, Columbia (1969) A moan of despair from a broken heart. The damaged intricacy of Spence's fingerpicking, along with his gruff world-worn voice, relay some of the most tangible sadness and regret ever heard in a song with words that cut through to the marrow of what it is to be lost and in need of finding.

3. Alastair Galbraith "Everybody's Got Pain" from For the Dead In Space, Vol 3, Secret Eye (2003) Though Galbraith didn't write this, it's instantly Galbraithian in tone and execution, with his strangely familiar Kiwi accent and stark acoustic picking in top form, but it's the lyrics of universal pain and empathy delivered with conviction that make a song that could be trite sound so profound and true in a way that very few will ever match, or even understand. May just be the most disarming cover put to record since the Band forged "I Shall be Released" in harmonic gold.

4. Low "In Metal" from Things We Lost in the Fire, Kranky (2001) A perfectly naked song...a love song, but not that kind. One written from a mother to her daughter, as a variety of sentimental metaphors are applied in a conversation between mom and infant with a tenderness very rarely glimpsed in pop. The music, building from a hushed whisper to something more rousing and provocative sees Low at an impasse where faster tempos and alternate energies are paradoxically entwined--now there's a metaphor for a parent's love.

5. Chris Knox "Light" from Seizure , Flying Nun (1988) A sweet, strumming singalong of a song to make even the most dire cynic at least a temporary idealist. There's no great revelation here, merely an introspective glance at the sunrise and a knowing breath of satisfaction delivered in Knox's trademark minimal psych-pop manner. He hits the universal chord in terms of what it takes to live (and feel) life between the shadows.

6. Chris Bell "You and Your Sister" from I Am the Cosmos, Rykodisc (1992) Bell wrote so many songs like this. Songs about damaged lovers and devoted losers and not giving up. It melts me every time I hear it in a way I can't really communicate other than to say that when he sings "Your sister says that I'm no good/ I'd reassure her if I could," I know he's letting me in. It's fitting that Alex Chilton lends some incredible harmony backing on what's basically a song about second chances.

7. Nagisa Ni Te "Song About a River Crossing Song" from Feel, Jagjaguwar (2002) A subtle folk-pop masterwork from Japan's most prized abstract folk group about the need for a steady hand when crossing over the sharp rocks at the river's bottom. Such a plaintive image rendered in brilliant multiple hues with hypnotic electro/acoustic guitar employed with perfect restraint. Rich vocals, harmonies, rhythms and a masterful sense of pop structure that never fails to floor me every time I hear it.

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