What Is (Retro) Soul?

Jul 19th, 2007 // 9 Comments

stax_logo2.gifMost 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.

  1. Charlie Kerfelds Jetsons Tee

    I will stick to old soul, thanks.

    The Numero Group’s stuff has been in CONSTANT rotation for me for the past two months or so…

  2. Reidicus

    There’s a definite trend gaining momentum here, even if we have slurry Winehouse to thank for it. I just caught The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker here in Atlanta last weekend, and I hadn’t had such a good time dancing a show since the last time Sharon Jones was here.

  3. mike a

    AKP: wasn’t Joss Stone’s initial selling point that she was working with a team of ’60s Miami soul artists? I think you could make as much a case for Stone as Winehouse as “retro soul” frontrunners, though I’m not particularly a fan of either.

  4. loudersoft

    Can I just add that new funk/soul records from KUTIMAN, DJ Day, Lefties Soul Connection, and many others that are part of this whole resurgence seem to be getting overlooked in the U.S.? I hope this brings those records and artists to the light of day.

  5. annkpowers

    Hey Mike,

    Yes, that was Joss’s original selling point. What’s funny is that she has since updated her sound (well, as much as working with Raphael Saadiq will do so) and yet I see her lumped in with Winehouse all the time now. I guess it’s easy lumping.


  6. Reidicus

    I’m not much of a Joss Stone fan now, but with her debut she did turn me on to Betty Wright (“Clean Up Woman”) and her Miami soul crew, with hits mostly in the early ’70s, and for that I’m thankful.

  7. annkpowers

    I knew I would get nailed for that!! I should have qualified my statement a bit, maybe to say “reinstate black voices at the fore of the retro-soul trend” or something. I simply meant to point out that “retro soul” as it’s surfacing commercially is dominated by white performers, despite the pioneering work of folks like Sharon Jones. In the mainstream, the trend is now (wrongly) associated with Lily Allen and Joss Stone as well as Winehouse, and Marc Broussard’s getting a bit of attention too. I hope Sharon gets her chance to move beyond cult status with her next effort. And I hope Angie Stone, especially, gains renewed attention for her new work! That gal is great.

    Thanks for the diligence, Matos. Gotta run and pick up my kid from day care.

  8. loudersoft

    It is to be hoped that the reinvention of Stax will serve a broader and greater purpose than merely to retro-fit the current generation’s interest in classic soul. I, too, hope that Sharon Jones (who puts on one of the most insanely good live shows I’ve ever seen) gets her long-overdue due in this game. We in Memphis could not be more hopeful or more proud.

  9. plasticaisle

    All the great shows I saw last year combined couldn’t best Sharon Jones’ birthday party @ Irving Plaza. Phenom!

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