November 22, 2010


Can a Nerd Have Soul? (ROB HOERBURGER, 11/10, 10, NY Times Magazine)

Since the golden age of soul, roughly 1964 to 1974, the days of bell-bottoms, Afros and Don Cornelius, the music has proved to be among the most adaptable in the pop spectrum. There’s been hip-hop soul, soul gospel, soul jazz, soul country, more kinds of soul than you can shake a Grammy category at. “Even the best rock singers were sprinkled with soul,” says Black Wolf, a lead singer of the Milwaukee soul group Kings Go Forth. “Like Steve Perry” — he’s referring to the lead singer of the lumbering ’70s-’80s rock group Journey, whose song “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” was most recently resuscitated by the TV show “Glee.” “Totally soul.”

Yet the youth movement has coalesced only in the last year or so, and according to the singer-guitarist Eli (Paperboy) Reed, the tripwire for it was planted by “all those baby-boomer parents who had soul records that their kids listened to.” Like Hawthorne, Reed was a white middle-class Jewish kid (real name: Eli Husock). He started out listening to country and early rock ’n’ roll; most of the music played at his bar mitzvah was gangsta rap like N.W.A. and Gravediggaz. “Then I became an angsty teenager,” he said, and he started rooting more deeply into his father’s soul-heavy record collection. Around this time he also discovered he had a natural wailing blues voice, and at his Boston high school on Martin Luther King Day in 2002, when he was a senior, he sang Sam Cooke’s totemic soul anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

If for Mayer Hawthorne soul is a true love but he still wants to play the musical field, then Reed has, in the words of Beyoncé, put a ring on it. Now 27, he just released his first major-label album, “Come and Get It,” 12 songs of punchy, dripping soul in the manner of Otis Redding and O. V. Wright.

“Soul music is just pop music to me,” Reed, in a black T-shirt and Clark Kent glasses, said affably on a rainy afternoon in August at his apartment on a quiet block behind Prospect Park in Brooklyn. A Jerry Lee Lewis gospel album from the ’70s played on the turntable. “The term ‘pop music’ has negative connotations, but for me it doesn’t. I think it’s music everybody should want to listen to.”

But not a music that just anyone could make. Even with his raw talent, and constant exposure to soul in his formative years, Reed knew he wanted to steep himself in the music before he tried to make a living of it. He delayed his freshman year in college and lived in the Mississippi Delta, a white Northern teenager deep in the land of the blues. The library of songs he knew how to play got him onto a few juke-joint stages, a couple of which he was yanked off, while he was honing his craft. There were plenty of opportunities for doubt to creep in. “One night we were driving from Clarksdale to Kansas City for a gig,” Reed said, “and I noticed that the guy at the wheel was drinking strawberry wine. I thought, I am so in over my head.” The next year he did go to college, in Chicago, and sought out Mitty Collier, a ’60s soul singer who had become a minister, and played organ at her church. He put in some time as a busker back home in Harvard Square.

That’s a lot of dues-paying for someone who was born the year before “Purple Rain” was released. But the more Reed talked, the more it became clear that for him soul music has a kind of code. It involves live playing; for his album, he insisted on recording on tape instead of digitally, because he wanted “real performances” from his band. Some kind of church background goes a long way: one reason Beyoncé is a great singer is that she grew up in the church in Texas, and “if you asked her who Shirley Caesar was,” he said, referring to the gospel legend, “she’d know.” As does an appreciation of the music’s history that delves beneath the surface. He politely dismissed Motown as if it were soul easy listening. “I liked it, but I wasn’t the biggest Motown fan,” he said, “except for the early Marvin Gaye records.” Most important, there’s no fear of love songs. “I’m pretty strict about that. . . . People are always asking me why don’t I write protest songs, political songs. Well, love is a serious business.” The righteousness of that last stance seems a bit extreme; the number of pop songs that aren’t love songs is statistically insignificant. Yet even a romantic like Hawthorne has a state-of-the-world song (“The Ills”) on his album. For Reed it’s all love songs, all the time.

Like Hawthorne, Reed rankles at any attempt to label his music as a “throwback.” “Look, I’m 27,” he said. “I’m here. I’m now. That should count for something.” Yet no matter how passionately Reed defends and performs his music, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s an old sound. Energetic and expertly executed but still within the confines of a 40-year-old idiom. Of all the artists I talked to, the one who most owned up to his music’s vintage was Aloe Blacc, whose song “I Need a Dollar,” from his album, “Good Things,” has become a chant of the new recession. Blacc (real name: Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III), who is 31, writes like Gil-Scott Heron (pointed social barbs) and sings like Bill Withers (slightly-rusted-weather-vane wisdom). “Call it whatever you want,” he said. “I didn’t make this stuff up; there’s no way I could have done this on my own.”

Blacc, who like Hawthorne has put aside hip-hop for now, says that the question of new versus old misses the argument this music is making. “Perhaps the reason soul music is relevant in 2010 is that it’s timeless,” he said. “You can’t put a date on it. The reason it’s not prevalent is that the music industry is pushing junk down our throats. It’s McDonald’s every day. People are hungering for solid food.”

The British soul singer Jamie Lidell (real name: Jamie Lidderdale), who is 37 and released his fourth album, “Compass,” co-produced by Beck, in May, allows for a modern element. His own vintage-soul sound is soaked in electronica, and he says the reason Amy Winehouse “nailed it” with “Rehab” was that “she brought the music into today; if Sam Cooke were alive and making music today, he’d be on top of that.” Yet Lidell echoed almost verbatim what Reed said to me about today’s soul not being a throwback. “If bringing back soul is retro, why isn’t playing electric guitar and three chords retro?” Reed extended the argument, though around a more curious bend of logic: it can’t be retro if the people listening to it don’t know the references. “I saw all these 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds at my shows in Europe,” he said. “They didn’t care where the music was coming from. They were just dancing their heads off.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 22, 2010 5:01 AM
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