I wish there were a book of 60s/70s Far East soul 7” covers.
Here’s the way music recommendations, whether algorithmic or human, usually work: “If you like [well-known artist] you might also like [lesser-known artist].” I’m a total jerk, though, so here’s how they work sometimes for me: “If you like [lesser-known, maybe even obscure, artist”] you will also like [thing you have heard many times before by famous artist likely responsible for the other thing sounding like it does]. Or, to put it another way: Today, Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” came on. I thought to myself, “Hey, this is kind of sweet. It sounds a lot like Clifford Coulter’s The Better Part of Me”. The Better of Part Me might be my favorite modern soul-ish record. It’s from 1980, and produced by Bill Withers. “Lovely Day” is 1977. I know it backward and forward, and for a while thought I was sick of it. Then I realized how much it owes to this later, lesser Withers production, and the sky opened up before me.
Wrote about Otis, “Otis”, and “Try A Little Tenderness” for the Awl.
Redding recorded “Try A Little Tenderness” because Sam Cooke had. Everything Cooke touched had a golden quality; he made other singers see potential everywhere, even in material that Cooke himself hadn’t exactly pushed to the limit (If restraint was Cooke’s most potent weapon as an interpreter, it was also code for all that he stood for as a stylist). In the studio, Otis amplified Sam Cooke’s “Tenderness,” turning it from a handy little number into a vehicle for, well, soul (he nearly did the same with “Tennessee Waltz”) and splitting its plaintive core wide open. The more tenderness Redding tries, or suggests trying, the more he found it already waiting there; along with strength, passion and the clarity that the daily grind and macho posturing can block from view. In Redding’s hands, “Try A Little Tenderness” became a celebration, not only of romance, but of honesty and self-discovery. Redding, who isn’t even talking about his woman but gets just as caught up as if he were, makes the song about discovery, not problem-solving. For the narrator, “Tenderness” is an occasion to tear the house of self down.
Read the whole thing here.
When news breaks, we respond. When someone dies, we produce sentiment. When it’s a celebrity, we draw up a verdict for history. When we do all of these things at once, and it falls flat, it’s called Amy Winehouse.
Let’s get the formalities out of the way: Amy Winehouse was tremendously talented, an “artist” with one, two, three, maybe size capital letters if you want. She could be hammy at times, and lent herself to insult in both the things she could control and those she couldn’t. As a singer, though, she was damn good. As a symbol—a crazy, nose-jobbed, Brit-JAP who recreated herself as blue-eyed soul’s answer to both Billie Holiday and Tina Turner—Amy Winehouse was indispensable. That she frequently pulled it off, and made listeners forget what a bizarre fantasy she constantly embodied, is the highest compliment we can pay her. Instead of being a celebrity merely acting out, or playing a role, she was able to convince us that her version of reality was not only worth our time, but maybe altogether natural.
However (and at 3PM ET, I’m hardly the first person to say this), there’s nothing surprising about her death. Unfortunate, sad, a shame that the curtain fell so soon. You would be hard-pressed, though, to find a public figure as blatantly, even smugly, self-destructive as Winehouse. Her big radio-friendly smash decried rehab, a stance that not even Pete Doherty would take that brazenly. He has bouts of remorse, moments of reversal. Winehouse, even if I’m glossing over a quote or two, was bad news 4 life. She was a junkie and a drunk, and made little attempt to hide it. She was slavishly devoted to a worthless man. And, well beyond the normal ravages of dope and booze, she seemed intent on seeing her body fazed out through eating disorders, and the corrosive mask of tattoos, big, wild hair, and a wardrobe whose scarred properties seemed to transfer straight to her actual skin.
Here’s that crucial breach, where I remember that we don’t really know famous people; that our relationship with them is fundamentally external, while the things that drive self-destructive behavior lurk deep within; and that, paradoxically, having any first-hand authority on these subjects might make us even less qualified to comment, since that just exposes us as observers with a personal stake in the perception of Winehouse and others. I don’t understand Amy Winehouse, and even if I choose to sympathize, it’s only slightly more dignified than her biggest fan bemoaning the end of the music. So all we have, as in life, is Winehouse as metaphor, whether for a certain kind of creativity, or the wrong way to live your life.
That said, I feel okay with the following: Being great did Amy Winehouse no favors. We can debate for days whether pain makes for better music, or simply makes people more likely to cry out somehow. I’m pretty sure that saying Winehouse did pain, and nothing else, is an insult. As a performer, she had far more range, and emotional texture; pain done well is almost never monolithic or one-dimensional, which is part of why Winehouse the person could be so clown-ish. She should have known better. She certainly sounded like she did. Of course, that presumes that the voice reflects life. Or maybe life makes the voice. Winehouse was dripping with affect; this much is obvious, whether you go by the records or the queen of the tabloids.
We may never know which one got closer to the real her, and which one was the noise. Maybe it’s best to leave it at this: There weren’t necessarily two sides to Amy Winehouse. But from the outside, she seemed torn between “Jimi&Janis&Jim&Kurt” or “Younger Than Jesus”, and being a vessel for a more mutable, less deliberate, and decidedly universal kind of angst—a proselytizer for what she had become. She was busy getting rid of herself, while at the same time making perfectly happy people understand why self-destruction was an option. Sadly, it turned out these two goals were at odds.
My fondness for Prince Gideon, and pretty much any YAHWEH-related media, is no secret. Though maybe it should be. Whatever, the music is gorgeous, if really unsettling, and cults are always fun until they hurt the ones you love. Bonus: Here’s a non-Gideon entrant into the field, which really cuts to the lo-fi devotion quick of it all:
How could you not want to buy this man’s record? Ed Motta and Conexão Japeri, “Um Love”, 1988.
I don’t know why so many Korean issues of American LPs look like this. Single-color, silk-screen-looking oddities, they translate full-bore cover art into a Warhol-esque specter. I can’t get enough of these, though I can’t decide if they’re a legitimate piece of design, or lo-fi indignity visited upon Dionne in that fancy dress. The prog rock and metal ones, blotchy and demolished, fare worst. But funk and soul covers somehow come out looking like they mean it. Not quite austere, or angry, they still manage to strip away all pomp. They turn outlandish outfits and artificial landscapes into muscle and skein, albeit the color of Mars and noxious gas in space. No one said that “psychedelic” had only one mode, or was always going to choose the rainbow.