Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul, by Mark Ribowsky

maxresdefault Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called him “the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen.” Impresario Bill Graham felt his concert at the San Francisco Fillmore was “the best gig I ever put on in my entire life.” His performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made the Rolling Stones’s Brian Jones cry. Janis Joplin was characteristically blunt: “Otis is God.”

One of America’s greatest performers, Otis Redding enjoyed less than a decade of fame before dying in a plane crash in 1967 at age 26. Just days earlier he recorded the song that would become his biggest hit: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the sixth most-played song in the 20th century.

Redding’s death was tragic, but his life was not. This is the central challenge for biographer Mark Ribowsky in “Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul.” Redding was a gifted, hard working songwriter and singer — he was a pro. At age 15 he won his hometown of Macon, Ga.’s citywide talent show 15 weeks straight. From then on, the force of his talent provided a fairly unimpeded path to stardom.

Compared to the lives of some of his peers, such as Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Marvin Gaye, Redding’s life was uneventful. He wasn’t a drug addict or alcoholic, nor was he emotionally tortured, although Ribowsky does wring some drama out of his relationship with his father, a man of strict religious beliefs who initially discouraged his son from a life of show business but eventually became his champion. Every few chapters we get a glimpse of Redding’s early idol, fellow Macon native Little Richard, who scandalized the public with his bisexuality, drug use, and freaky charisma, and think: Wow, remind me to pick up his biography next time.

Ribowsky thus makes the wise choice to broaden his scope to the Southern Soul scene itself, particularly the unlikely triumph of Memphis’s small but influential Stax Records (Redding’s label) and the music industry as a whole. Ribowsky is pleasingly candid: “The record game, to be polite, is one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known, and a bane to creatively inclined people easily manipulated by power brokers with a fast line and legal levers to rip them off.” As Ribowsky shows, Stax itself fell victim to the same “insidious but legal backstabbing” when Atlantic Records virtually stole Stax’s world-famous back catalog (including recordings by Redding, Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and many others) and all the royalties associated with it.

But before all that ugliness, the tiny, family-run Stax, with its racially integrated staff and seat-of-the-pants production, managed to create a unique and influential sound that rivaled Motown, gained the admiration of fans around the world, and “converted one of the whitest bastions of the post-Confederate South into the vital core of black music.”

It’s a great story but one that is often interrupted by Ribowsky’s awkward phrasing. A recording studio has “glutinous echoes”; he describes Little Richard as “bold and daring yet conventionally spiritual enough to wear the label derived from a centuries-old religious conceptualization of the immortal essence of the human spirit and its undying connection to a higher power,” whatever that means.

One gets the sense that Ribowsky is turning up the volume a little too high to try and make his point. It’s a shame, because the subject practically speaks for itself. Notwithstanding the soul-baring theatricality of Redding’s performances on songs such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” the power of soul music has always been, paradoxically, its sense of restraint. The greatest soul singers are masters of dynamics, starting out softly with a slow build to the climax. “It wasn’t the size of his voice,” said keyboardist Booker T. Jones of Redding, “we knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang.” “Dreams to Remember” provides some fascinating historical context, but most of what you need to know about the emotional biography of Otis Redding can be found in the still-vital and moving recordings he left behind.

Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul

By Mark Ribowsky

Liveright, 400 pp., illustrated, $27.95

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on June 13, 2015.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Multi-Love"

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This music review originally ran in Sounditout.com on June 2, 2015.

It can be difficult for those who came of age before the 1980s to find the sound of soul in a synthesizer (just ask my dad). But the rest of us know it’s possible: look no further than Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” propelled by the all-digital funk of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. And Ruban Nielson, the mastermind behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, knows it, too.

Nelson wrote and recorded the new album, “Multi-Love” in his Portland, Oregon basement during sessions lasting long into the early morning, eventually calling on his brother Kody Nielson Riley Geare, Jacob Portrait and his father, jazz trumpeter Chris Nielson, to fill out the arrangements. Although “Multi-Love” has been promoted as a sort of audio diary of his Ruban Nielson’s experiment with polyamory, you would never know there was any concept behind it other than a quest for soulful songs and the heartfelt expression of emotions.

Deploying a palette of synthesized keyboards, drum machines and bright, versatile falsetto, the songs call back to some of the 1980s’ great purveyors of heartbreak-with-a-beat, from A Flock of Seagulls to Split Enz, especially in the title track and on “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty.” There’s a good helping of “Raspberry Beret”-era Prince here, too; check out the psychedelic swirl of “The World is Crowded” and “Necessary Evil.”

The greatest heroes of disco and New Wave triumphed when they were able to combine technical perfection with a dab of that special sauce known as human frailty, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra aims for the same recipe here. And while the turbulent story of Nielson’s polyamorous adventure has been told elsewhere, the emotional record of it–this record–provides as much drama and detail as most of us need. Is it complicated? Sure. But it’s fun, too.

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Tennis: "Easter Island"

tennis-220x162 This music review originally ran in Sounditout.com on April 13, 2015

When you hear the title of this song, don’t think “Easter Island” as in giant, looming monolithic heads staring out to sea. Think “Easter” as in Peeps, chocolate eggs and pastel-colored baskets because it’s a bouncy, clappy, sweet little number that has nothing to do with scary statues standing lonely on the most isolated island in the world. No, kids, this is happy stuff.

The new single from Tennis, the Denver-based trio comprised of married couple Alaina Moore (vocals, keyboard, guitar) and Patrick Riley (guitar, bass) and drummer James Barone, continues in the poppy, 1970s AM-radio style they moved into on their second and third albums, “Young & Old” (Fat Possum, 2012) and “Ritual & Repeat” (Communion, 2014).

Moore’s bright, clear vocals are right out in front; you can envision a little white bouncing ball (maybe pink?) skipping over the lyrics as they pass by onscreen some Saturday morning of Long Ago. The echoey production and dominant harpsichord-like keyboard make me want to suggest it to Wes Anderson for the soundtrack of his next film. Like his movies, the music of Tennis feels slightly out of time, as if it’s been scooped out of a candy-colored historical era that never quite existed, and daintily deposited into the here and now. Enjoy–it’s calorie-free.

Sailor & I: "Disorder"

sailor-i-440x440-300x300 This music review originally appeared in Sounditout.com on May 18, 2015.

It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand, On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no man’s land…

If you’re used to hearing these lyrics flying by in the tick-tick-ticking metronome of Ian Curtis’s drone, you may not even recognize it as a cover of the Joy Division song “Disorder” when performed by Alexander Sjodin, the Swedish DJ, vocalist, and indietronica musician who records under the name Sailor & I.

While the original is dark and propulsive, Sailor & I’s version is soft and languid, Bernard Sumner’s whining guitar replaced by delicate piano and lush synthesized chords. The original “Disorder” evoked manic anxiety; this new one invites the listener to lean back and if not relax, at least sit still until the inevitable club remix kicks in.

The best cover songs teach us something new about the original material and bring out an aspect of the songwriting that was hidden before. In this case the spare, elegant approach of Sailor & I peels the frenzy of punk away from “Disorder” and reveals a gorgeous little melody that had been hiding there all along. Imagine David Sylvian + Ryuichi Sakamoto covering the Stooges, or Stateless covering Siouxsie and the Banshees. It’s—wait for it—so crazy it just might work. And in this case it does. Beautifully.

FKA Twigs, "Glass & Patron"

FK My review of the new single and video from FKA Twigs is now up on the terrific music site, Sound It Out. You can also read it below:

OK, places everyone! Here’s the video concept for the new FKA Twigs single, “Glass & Patron”: a white van is parked in the middle of the piney woods and inside a pregnant FKA Twigs goes into labor and gives birth to a magician’s endless multicolored silk streamer that billows in the breeze … fade into a “Paris is Burning”-meets-“The Cremaster Cycle”-style vogueing ball that takes place on a long mirrored runway in the middle of those woods, with an enthroned FKA Twigs judging from the far end and telling the half-dozen dancers: “Hold that pose.” Got it? Go!

The bizarre, fascinating new video (from the album LP1, released by Young Turks) is classic FKA Twigs, with its slow build, extreme close-ups, high-drama sexuality and energetic dancing. As with all her videos, Twigs directed this herself.

The FKA Twigs cocktail is a mix of equal parts “Controversy”-era Prince + the falsetto soul of James Blake + Manchester-based late-1990s trip hop/drum and bass duo Lamb + the daffy physicality of Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s version of “Popeye.” She’s really something. Weird, intense, with a beautiful wavering soprano that floats over the stuttering static and deep bass undulations of her band, this is dark, erotic music. No matter how much you dig it, this will never be your summer jam. It’s more of a darkest-night-of-winter jam. “So do you have a lighter?” she sings, “Am I dancing sexy yet?/I can’t wait to make your body my own.”

Like Madonna and Lady Gaga, she emerged from an underground club scene (Twigs performed in London’s burlesque clubs and was a backup dancer for Kylie Minogue and Jessie J) with a highly refined total vision of herself, from the music to the fashion to the performances. Many of FKA Twigs’ points of reference seem to borrow from early 1990s Madonna, especially “Sex,” “Erotica” and of course, “Vogue.” But Twigs is no copycat. This isn’t Miley Cyrus licking a wrecking ball. This is something more convincing: a serious performer with a 360-degree artistic vision. She may be young, she may look like Prince’s runty kid sister, but like that crazy club kid Maddona Louise Ciccone before her, this little Bjork chop clearly has world domination on her mind.

You can watch the video here: [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNbFc-fa-ww[/youtube]