As Elvis Costello asked, have we come this fa-fa-fa to find a soul cliche? Three decades ago, being on a label was an imprimatur that implied, if nothing else, that a band was at least popular enough to get signed. After all, what label would invest in a band that didn’t have any shot at earning a significant audience? Today, we know that most of those bands never had any following to begin with, one reason why so many of them got dropped. There’s no little irony that these days, being on a label is immediate cause for suspicion, the implication being that you’re working for the man, willing to cede creative control and street cred and probably the lion’s share of whatever money might be coming in. Soul-funk band the Revelations may be on a label, and their new lead singer, like their old one, may come out of a corporate background, but damned if the band doesn’t establish itself as an interesting and ultimately fun group with an original sound, mashing up retro and current-day styles with an energetic expertise. You can see how well this works live when they play a free show at BAM Cafe on Saturday night, Nov 22 at 9 PM.
Their latest album The Cost of Living is streaming at Bandcamp. It kicks off with Mama, which sets oldschool soul tropes – a big suspenseful build at the beginining, echoey Rhodes piano, slinky wah guitar and big jazzy chords – to a hip-hop beat with lyrics whose feminist POV isn’t exactly convincing. Why When Love Is Gone takes a hard-hitting mid-60s pulse and turbocharges it with Wes Mingus’ growling, distorted guitar and hot brass from the Royal Horns. Higher is another solid track, hitching an ornate early 70s-style ballad to an irrepressible vintage disco groove with gospel tinges and bluesmetal guitar.
It’s OK opens with Ben Zwerin’s growly bass and Mingus’ eerily tremoloing guitar – it’s noir soul as written by guys who grew up with the Wu-Tang Clan rather than Little Milton. Money Makes the World Go Round blends gritty funkmetal, noir soul, hip-hop and straight-up heavy rock. The band goes back to 1973 or so for The Game of Love, fueled by Stax-Volt vet Charles Hodges’ organ and a delicious horn chart. With its slinky sway, jubilant horns and dancing wah guitar, This Time goes back another seven years or so. The album ends with a rocking Isley Brothers-inspired take of the Gladys Knight hit I’ve Got to Use My Imagination, Mingues capping it off with a searing guitar solo. It’s too bad that in an age where most of the best lyrics in the world are coming out of hip-hop, the ones here barely rise to the level of generic, and the vocals aren’t much better. It’s testament to how good the music is that this album succeeds as as well as it does: fans of acts like Black Joe Lewis ought to check it out.