In 2012, Frank Ocean released Channel Orange, a spectacular album by any standard, full of soulful R&B that was catchy enough to chart, but complex and original enough to make even non-R&B fans take notice. It was a bridge album — “crossover” quite doesn’t capture it, because it crossed so many boundaries — that undoubtedly paved the way for more talented R&B artists to step outside of the R&B charts and sell some music to a much larger audience over the next few years.
Everyone loves the album. I don’t know anyone who didn’t put it on their best of 2012 album list, and many of those lists had it at the top. It really is a spectacular accomplishment. Two years on, however, the soul and R&B album released in 2012 that I cannot get out of my mind is not Channel Orange, it’s Lee Fields’ Faithful Man. Unlike Ocean, Fields isn’t at all interested in taking 21st century R&B to new heights; hell, he isn’t interested in 21st century R&B. While Ocean was making people who hadn’t listened to R&B recorded after the 1970s take notice, Fields was recording soul like the 1970s never ended. You know, the sort of soul that can only be pronounced with a really long “o” that drops a few notes in the middle; long and low enough to convey just how smooth this groove is. Soooooul:
Fields, in his 60s, has all the energy of Ocean, who 26. What his music lacks in structural complexity when compared to Channel Orange it makes up for in depth and richness. Ocean’s sound is often sparse, but Fields’ is filled with horns, background vocals, bass, guitar, and pretty much everything else you need for proper soul.
Fields released his first album Let’s talk it Over, an uneven collection of funk and soul, in 1979. He didn’t release a second album until 2002, and waited another 7 years to release a third. But it was on his fourth album, Faithful Man, that he, at 61, truly came into his own:
That one gives me chills (and where can I get that jacket?).
Fields is not the only one making old school soul and R&B these days. After recording his three albums for Truth and Soul Records, he recently joined Daptone Records’ excellent stable of artists, all of whom record retro soul, R&B, funk, and afrobeat at the Daptone’s House of Soul in Brooklyn, using exclusively analog recording methods to give the classic styles an even more classic sound. Daptone’s philosophy is essentially all 60s and 70s all the time, and they’ve become damn good at it.
The pioneers of the Daptone sound are Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (the Dap-Kings toured as Amy Winehouse’s band for a while, and she actually recorded Back to Black at the House of Soul), who’ve been in throwback mode since 2002, perfecting a sound that never gets old and, in their hands, seems remarkably fresh:
Oh my god, woman, sing that shit and make me cry. Wait, did I say that out loud? Anyway, Jones is from Detroit, of course, and you don’t have to listen hard to hear the Motown in her music:
Oh, and there’s Fields at the beginning of the video, trying to keep Jones from catching her man doing somethin’ he ain’t supposed to be doing. Later in the video, making a brief appearance (in the bar scene), is yet another Daptones artist, also a late musical bloomer: Charles Bradley. Bradley released his first album in 2011, at age 63. Before that, he was a James Brown impersonator performing under the name Black Velvet. I shit you not. His vocals and lyrics may not be as polished as Fields’, but at times I find him just as irresistibly soulful:
I got nothin’. Seriously, even the video is perfect. Notice how he’s got that wrinkled brow, I’m in pain R&B face down pat? I guess you learn how to do that well being a James Brown impersonator. Anyway, I just want to wallow in it:
Bradley records primarily with the Menahan Street Band, a bunch of guys from Brooklyn who couldn’t have been very old when the era of their music ended, but who can still make it feel like they were born to play it. For example, in this performance, which starts slow but amply rewards the listener around the 1:35 mark when the horns erupt:
Of course, the new-old-soul thing isn’t limited to Daptones. Breakestra has been playing old soul and funk since the late 90s, and they’ve got it down to a science:
And I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t throw in at least one electronic throwback track:
Well, I suppose now it’s all over but the crying (and if you listened to all of these, crying is a very real possibility). I recommend checking out Daptone’s YouTube page, where you can find a history of the company or hang out in the House of Soul with the Dap-Kings, and a bunch of great music.