Recently I've been listening quite a bit to The Complete Stax/Volt Singles (released in 1991 as Atlantic 7 82218-2), a 10-CD set from the the label that billed itself in the sixties as "Soulsville USA" and made a lot of money and a lot of good music. The music is wonderful but maybe just a bit too thin.

A lot of this music will be known only to harcore pop/soul aficionados. A few (on average one or two tracks on each of the 10-disk set) are classics that are firmly wedged into the collective unconscious: from Booker T and the MGs (mostly Green Onions) Otis Redding (Dock of the Bay and more), Same and Dave (I Thank You, Soul Man, and many more including my personal fave Wrap it Up (I'll Take It). There is also a lot of Rufus and Carla Thomas (underestimated, but not that underestimated, some startling raw blues snarls from Albert King, and a host of one-hit wonders and minor soul strutters.

The music is pretty pure, it is deep, many of the vocals are titanic, and the horn arrangements (particularly the ones behind Mr. Redding) are razor-sharp. This is the music that the Blues Brothers would have liked to have been able to play if they'd had any real talent.

This is music you can sit down and listen to carefully, turn up at a party, or put on at background levels at dinner time to cheer the place up a bit.

So what's the problem? The production gets out of the way so that (unusually for pop music) when you listen you can hear all the instruments: there's Otis, there are 5 horns in that section, there's Steve on guitar, Booker on the organ, Jim on the drums, and so on.

That's nice, but it's not very, uh, big. Decades of visionary pop music producers ranging from Phil Spector, the Tamla/Motown gang, George Martin, through to the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and today's sound sculptors, Moby at one end of the spectrum and badass gangstas at the other, have got us used to a big sound.

Why not have 25 horns, not just 5? Why not enhance those drums to make them more explosive? (The first time I ever noticed this was Talking Heads' version of Take Me To The River, but now everybody does it all the time.) Why not crank the fuzz and sustain on the guitar, and overtrack four or five more guitar lines and load in some big keyboard fill?

Well, I don't know. I like music with room between the notes, and I like being able to hear the individual players play. But when Otis or Same and Dave or a lot of these other singers really lean into a note, well that's like a whole symphony orchestra and a guitar solo all at once, and maybe a little more paint on the sonic backdrop would be a good thing. Maybe we do make progress.

author · Dad
colophon · rights
picture of the day
January 26, 2003
· Arts (11 fragments)
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