Southern Soul Guide: Sweet Angel, Mel Waiters, and Luther Lackey

A pack of thoroughly modern throwbacks

What's amazing is how much of this music transcends its limitations: Gerod Rayborn's October release Call Before You Come!!!—backed by what sounds like a full band, and featuring several men and women sharing Rayborn's last name—is as intense a marriage-soul battle as any since mid-'80s Womack & Womack. Who's Rockin' You, the new Ecko 10-songer from 51-year-old Texas smoothie Donnie Ray, as soakable a quiet-storm-throwback bubblebath as the latest (quite good) albums by El Debarge or R. Kelly—neither of which is any more verbally distinctive, neither of which can touch Ray's most sugar-sweet beach-soul hooks. That Thang Thang, out in late 2010 from Ray's more huskily shouting and alcohol-obsessed Clarksdale, Mississippi, labelmate O.B. Buchana, is funkier, funnier, and even catchier, with an excellent Bobby Womack cover and a focus track where a couple expend equal energy fighting and fucking.

The Preacher's Wife, last year's unusually lovely and thoughtful album by Buchana's brother, Luther Lackey, who writes his own songs and clearly draws inspiration from country and gospel as well as Sam Cooke, made my Pazz & Jop Top 10; belatedly, so did the self-released mid-2009 Jerri Curl Muzik by Bigg Robb, a prolific graduate of Ohio's talkbox-funk scene who Southern Soul partisans have accepted despite the fact that he doesn't exactly sing—guests like Carl Marshall and Shirley Murdock and "Larry from the Floaters" mostly do that for him—and his deluge of lengthy albums revolve around a Gap Band/Cameo default setting. That's as trendy as this genre gets: Robb learned his trade from Zapp's Roger Troutman, and Kurtis Blow raps on Jerri Curl. So caveat emptor, if "datedness" bugs you.

Give or take the occasional flicker on lower rungs of the blues or "urban adult" chart, this stuff barely registers on Billboard anymore. But to me, it still feels like 2011 anyway, and presumably it also does to the primarily working-class, baby-boomer Southern black crowds who pack outskirts-of-town roadhouses and Elks Lodges every weekend—and arena package tours and state-park picnic spots every spring and summer—to watch these artists. Mom-and-pop record stores and local radio (some stations, like WMPR in Jackson, Mississippi, now Web-streamable) get the word out. And if the national recession and music-biz depression have wreaked havoc on both small neighborhood businesses and the lives of the fans who rely on them, Southern Soul doesn't whitewash hard times, either. Luther Lackey croons about clipping coupons and shopping at yard sales and shining shoes when unemployment turns permanent. Bigg Robb, who like Lackey sometimes comes off like a small-town minister consoling his down-and-out flock, keeps the party going even when he can't afford to go to the mall. Mel Waiters does "Everything's Going Up (But My Paycheck)"; Sweet Angel does "I Like The Money But I Don't Like the Job," about keeping her daughters fed. "I Lived It All," Carl Marshall's 60-years-on look back at his impoverished youth, will tear your heart a new ventricle. One of my favorite 2009 singles was the hilarious plea-to-Obama "I Need a Bailout," by Austin's CDBaby-distributed Larry Shannon Hargrove. This ain't no VIP Room—the action takes place at holes in the wall, or even VFW halls. Somehow, the singers stay good-humored about it.

And I'm sorry, but Aloe Blacc's "I Need a Dollar"—to pick a better-than-average example of the alleged retro-soul typically embraced in indie-adult-alternative circles these days—sounds, in comparison, like the tastefully antiseptic HBO theme it is. And if the museum embalmers at Anti- Records hadn't Anglicized them into arugula suitable to dour and delicate Wilco sensibilities, Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette could maybe still sound half as alive as, say, the call-in-advice-show title-talker on Rubenesque raunch queen Ms. Jody's doubly horny new Ecko album, Keepin' It Real. If you're into Sharon Jones or Cee-Lo dressing up vintage, that's your choice. But if so, you really owe it to yourself to acknowledge a thriving world where soul music, as originally understood, never stopped being vital—where it's something more than mannerisms reverently simulated from a distance. A place where, as Bigg Robb would say, you can still smell chicken, catfish, and pork chops all cooking in the same grease.

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