Be still my soul. Lawd have mercy. When soul first came out, so many social issues made so many people so PO’d (civil rights, Vietnam, rioting in seemingly every urban area, drug abuse, the specter of nuclear war) that retreating into gospel-sounding soul music was a welcome respite–and a way to constructively vent the emotions that otherwise might drive a man or woman to commit an act that was, er, socially nonconstructive.
Welcome to 2009, the post-Bush wasteland of scorched-earth economics, war and pestilence, terrorism, drug abuse and bad, bad pop music. Along with acts like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, James Hunter, Amy Winehouse and a fistful of other neo-soul artists my peers have been writing up on Popdose (Ken Shane’s Black Joe Lewis piece is one example), Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens have come to rescue us from the stuff we hear about on the radio and see on the TV and flat-screen computer monitors that just plain don’t make no sense. Like a shooter going off in Binghamptom at a facility whose sole reason for existence was helping noncitizens become citizens here in our land of milk, honey, and executive bonuses. I mean, WTF?
Naomi Shelton, raised in an Alabama church, is no Lily Allen, and she’s no Amy Winehouse. She’s better. The real gospel deal, working the clubs in New York since before old Lily was a gleam in her papa’s eye. If she were recording in the 1980s for a label that would have released her music, she would have been produced by some smooth operator who would have created what was then considered a “blues” album: Bright and digital with punchy horns and treble overtones that would have hurt your ears.
In today’s “Soul 2.0” revival, as I like to call it, producers understand how and why vintage soul sounds so good. Find an authentic singing talent like Shelton, add a hot B-3 organ player, a Wilson Pickett sideman, a couple of Dap-Kings, and you have a record that sounds as if it were made somewhere along the 1966 Memphis-Muscle Shoals line, from which came some of the finest original music America’s ever produced. Just listen to cuts like Naomi’s “What Have You Done,” the title cut–and first singel (yes, “single!”)–from the new record, or “I’ll Take the Long Road,” the B-side.
It is the authentic, blues-drenched gospel equivalent to what Raphael Saddiq copies beautifully, what Ms. Winehouse wishes she could do, what Otis and Aretha were striving for when they belted out their greatest hits back in the day.
We are so blessed to have the full gospel sounds of Naomi Shelton. Soul scholars like me had given up on new recordings in this style, but it indeed is back. Here’s a little sound and vision, if you’re not yet quite sold on the power of Naomi:
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