Jan 142022
 
Carla Thomas

Musical obsessions are not always as cut and dried as “this is my favorite song/ album/ band/ genre.” Occasionally you will find yourself in uncharted territory, involuntarily drawn to something so specific and esoteric that it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of an actual existing category. Hmmm… I’m making this sound way more dignified than it is. What I’m trying to say is, most dyed-in-the-wool music nerds have what I’m going to call an imaginary friend. By that, I mean that they have an obsession with some weird-ass thing or self-invented category, one that may not be audible to the ears of others, but feels oh so real to them.

I am now going to introduce you to my imaginary friend, my Harvey, my Snuffleupagus, my Drop Dead Fred. It’s a “thing” I’m obsessed with, which, while exceedingly specific and adhering to a strict set of self-invented rules, doesn’t technically exist as an established, formalized entity.

In a nutshell, I have an insatiable fascination with R & B covers of ’70s Soft Rock songs. Specifically, those recorded in the same era as the originals, when the originals themselves were still young, topical, and ubiquitous.

This oddball interest has roots in all the times I spent as a captive backseat passenger in my Mom’s 1972 white Chevy Nova with the sunflower painted on the side (only one word for that car: bitchin’). It was in this magical machine that my musical foundation was established and my taste was, some might say tragically, molded into shape. Meaning I was exposed to a helluva lot of ’70s AM pop radio as a kid. And there were two things being churned out in ample quantities back then that I especially loved:

1. R&B aka Soul Music (the first single I ever bought was by The Spinners, the first LP was by Billy Preston)

2. Soft Rock, primarily the candy-coated version (“Shannon is gone, I heard…”)

For a specific subgenre, “Soft Rock” is a pretty broad descriptor. The term has come to characterize the adult incense burning-cool babysitter sounds of Carole King and James Taylor, as well as the candy-coated, big-chorus-ed corniness of Barry Manilow and the Captain and Tennille. While we tend to draw a distinction between these two types of Soft Rock (the former is “cool,” and the latter… isn’t), back then, to my kid ears, they were the same damn thing, 100% equal in terms of their artistic credibility. They were all served up on the same radio stations, so in my world, Jackson Browne and Helen Reddy were as one. It was all pop music.

My sloppy love for both the Soul and the Soft did not trigger a lightbulb moment where I thought, “hey, I love these two things and I wonder if there are artists who have perhaps married the two.” Lord no. That would have been far too sophisticated a notion to have ever sprouted up in my eight-year-old peanut brain. My fascination with the marriage was a more random pursuit that defined itself over time. I think it may have been triggered by hearing The Four Tops’ incendiary cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” on some compilation in the ’80s. I honestly can’t remember. What I do know is that as technology advanced, my pursuit grew more and more fanatical with each passing day.

Once I could get at discographies with the touch of a button, the nerd assembly line kicked into high gear. Stores were scavenged for Soul-ified Soft Rock treasures. Mixtapes were assembled, followed by mix-CDs, finally culminating in an immense iTunes playlist I pathetically titled, yup, Soul in the Middle of the Road, that grew to feature hundreds of songs. They ran the gamut from transcendent (some rivaling or surpassing the originals in terms of beauty) to horrible (oh man) to just straight-up bizarre (you’ll see).

As alluded to earlier, my main interest is in covers that were recorded during the same era as the originals, in or on the edges of the ’70s. These covers offer a direct nod to the ubiquity of the originals and capture the spirit of that swingin’ era in a way that is impossible for a latter-day cover to achieve (to me, anyway).

I now humbly offer you 30 of the finest, weirdest, and “what the holy hell was that” soul-infused covers of classics and beloved deep cuts from the sweet ‘n’ vast Soft Rock canon. Now I’m sure some of the artists I’m about to mention would bristle at having one of their works characterized as “Soft Rock,” but hey rock star, you made a Soft Rock song, so you know, that’s on you (also thank you, you sexy thing). At the end of the day, they should all feel grateful and flattered to have had their sweetest sounds so soulfully celebrated.

As for me, I hear love in every one of the covers that follow and genuinely hope you can too. Take it away, Tops

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Aug 292020
 

Blackbirds LaVettejenn champion the blue albumIt is hard to believe Bettye LaVette is 74… actually, scratch that: it is only too easy, what with her raggedly powerful voice etched deep with the experience of hard knocks. In what she laughingly now calls her 5th career, the fact she is here at all demonstrates the quiet determination and self belief that has seen her drag herself up onto her uppers, clawing her way into the limelight some decades after she was carelessly and callously dumped by the industry she had dedicated her life to. And still does, as her new album Blackbirds demonstrates.

Like many, I first heard of her in the noughties, on the background of a disc of shelved recordings making its way to Gilles Petard, a French soul music aficionado who re-released those 1973 tapes, Child of the Seventies, as Souvenirs a full 23 years later. Avid ears liked what they heard and she was off. Many of those ears to appreciate that LaVette had had her first hit single in 1963, and was a running mate alongside all the soul greats–Aretha, Otis, Marvin–if less willing to play the party line, preferring her own counsel.

Since then, LaVette has produced a regular stream of releases. Not a major songwriter, she has always styled her work as re-interpretation, specializing in the rock and pop acts of the ’60s through ’80s, rather than the Motown and Stax staples you might expect of her. The term cover version is arguably insulting of her talent; she refuses to simply echo the originals, blitzing both Laurel Canyon hippiesque and British Invasion bombast into a raw R’n’B screw-you. Her last album, 2018’s Things Have Changed, consisted entirely of Bob Dylan covers. She has scooped up awards and kept active to the astonishment of many of her initial peers: her 2012 book, A Woman Like Me, is a roller coaster read, outlining her unchanged approach to life then and now. Your mother would probably not like her.

Her new release Blackbirds is slightly different, taking a wider perspective and is to celebrate the songs of, largely, her peers, black women singers with something to say and who made damn sure they did. (Black birds, yes?) So she covers the likes of Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Leonard Cohen’s longtime writing partner and backing singer, Sharon Robinson. Tipping a more overtly jazz and blues hat than her usual rock’n’soul style, there is also a timely take on Billie Holiday’s chilling “Strange Fruit.” Plus a slightly surprising closing track. Backed by a slick quartet, led by album producer Steve Jordan on drums, the overall feel is of a single set piece, the backing as tight as LaVette’s voice is loosely compelling.
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