The Triumph of Soul’s Second-Stringers


If the spirit in which soul music was made seems now as irretrievable as a cheap Saturday night out, the aesthetic charge of even the second-rate stuff can still be tremendous. A Northern soul favorite like Elvin Spencer’s “Lift This Hurt,” one of 40 tracks on the two-disc Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation, comes across as amusingly suave. An accurate Jerry Butler imitation, it’s a summation of formalist soulfulness, and gets as close to greatness as Nate Evans’s Chi-Lites tribute “Main Squeeze.” Pretty near, in other words, but somewhere outside of spitting distance of the real soulsville.

Twinight collects the forgotten products of a forgotten label. Before its 1972 demise, the Chicago imprint boasted just one hitmaker, Syl Johnson, who eventually defected to Memphis’s Hi Records. Stax 50, on the other hand, marks Concord Music’s new proprietorship of the label by chronicling the most famous productions and lease jobs of the famously doomed soul enterprise. Disc one begins and ends with Carla Thomas, the saucy, self-possessed foil to Otis Redding’s tramp. Early Stax, like the Mar-Keys’ wobbly “Last Night” and Rufus Thomas’s riff-tune “Walking the Dog,” sounds canny, oblique, and unconcerned about any aspect of the world that doesn’t feed its own silliness. But it’s the post-blues reality of Eddie Floyd’s curlicued 1966 hit “Knock on Wood”—and the experimentalism of Isaac Hayes’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”—that point toward a future the label couldn’t hope to realize.

Booker T. and the MGs’ “Time Is Tight,” the instrumental that leads off disc two, qualifies as supreme art if only for Al Jackson’s drumming, which stretches tight a line for the other musicians to grab hold of. First-rate, for sure. But returning to Twinight, Renaldo Domino’s “Two Years Four Days,” a 1971 single, lays out a vision of domestic bliss so overwhelming that Domino can’t bother with poetry. “Oh, baby, when I had to leave you/I thought that our marriage was really over/Now I’ve served all my military time/I’m still the same soul-sweet guy,” he sings. The song rejects the heroic, and suggests it’s the sweet second-raters who are welcomed home with open arms.