Most everything written about the 50th birthday of Stax Records has been pretty straightforward nostalgia-mongering–the cover package of the current issue of Stop Smiling, for instance. That’s fine–great music, good story–but it’s one reason Ann Powers’ review of a Stax anniversary show in the Los Angeles Times provides a contrast, as she dissects the label’s glorious past and a future she never pretends is guaranteed. Still, there’s one statement near the end that deserves a closer look.
Discussing the appearances of younger artists Angie Stone and Lalah Hathaway at the show, and their potential were Stax to sign them, Powers writes:
If Hathaway and Stone succeed, Stax could be the label that finally reinstates black voices within the “retro soul” trend exemplified by Winehouse. Their upcoming releases will tell; for now, rich history must suffice.
The problem with this in vocal terms is that “retro soul”* is a trend exemplified by almost nothing but black voices. Specifically, older black voices: much of the selling point of artists like Lee Fields and especially Sharon Jones (whose group, the Dap-Kings, backs Winehouse in concert) is that they have connections, however tangential, to genuine old-school James Brown-style funk. (Plenty has been made, legitimately enough, of the fact that Jones hails from JB’s hometown of Augusta, Ga.; it’s the subject of the first question in Oliver Wang’s Q&A with Jones in the aforementioned issue of Stop Smiling.) If anything, the white, British Winehouse’s place in its firmament is a fluke.
Still, Powers is probably onto something. For fans of Daptone and like labels such as Desco and Soul Fire, retro-soul has been going on for a decade or so. For a lot more people than that, who love Winehouse’s music without necessarily attaching it to a scene, the Dap-Kings’ involvement with Winehouse is the beginning of a line, not a turning point. That a charismatic trainwreck with regular tabloid exposure who’s sold a zillion records is helping put a formerly obscure demi-genre on the map is probably a good thing–if Sharon Jones, a fine singer, gets a boost, even better. But what “retro soul” ends up meaning post-Winehouse is anyone’s guess, rich history or no.
Nostalgia reigns, future beckons at Stax celebration [Los Angeles Times]
*“Retro soul” here is different from “neo-soul”; the point of retro is that it replicates old textures and styles faithfully; “neo” reaches back while remaining in the present, sonically.