A few years back, a friend of this blog moved back to his hometown Iowa City. Asked what the music scene there was like, he had two words: “Sarah Cram!”
She’s one of the three phenomenal lead singers for the Diplomats of Solid Sound, who were every bit as important in the Midwest for keeping the flame of classic 60s soul burning as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were here. Happily, the Diplomats are still together. Even though their band members have dispersed, they still make great vinyl records chock full of catchy songs that would have been hits fifty years ago. And they still tour occasionally. Their new vinyl record A Higher Place is streaming at Spotify. Pretty much everything here is three minutes or less: no wasted notes, uncluttered purist playing, a real clinic in retro beats and riffs.
The snap of bassist Ben Soltau and drummer Forrest Heusinkveld kicks off the opening track, Common Ground, a Marvelettes-style, go-go flavored number, the band’s formidable vocal frontline – Cram, Katherine Ruestow and Abbie Sawyer – harmonizing over Nate “Count” Basinger’s punchy organ and Douglas Roberson’s spare guitar. Saxophonist Eddie MacKinley’s bright riffage is the icing on this sonic cake.
The strings behind Cram’s warm, comforting vocals and playful jump-rope melody combine for Supremes ambience in Crazy About You, Basinger’s organ fueling an unexpectedly edgy bridge. Good to Do is a punchy, serious wake-up call to a girl who’s gettting played: it brings to mind New Jersey’s excellent One and Nines.
Sometimes starts off as a guitar-driven swamp-rock tune, then the band take it back even further in timewith an early 60s vibe. Gotta Find That Man is a sly, bittersweet, hungover post-hookup scenario set to a snaky Booker T groove. Move On could be a Bill Withers tune with horns and a sultry trio of voices out front. Then the band pick up the pace even further with Already Gone, a pulsing roller-rink bubblegum soul tune with a cool garage-rock bridge.
Fool – as in “You’re a fool to let her go” – shows what else the group can do with that same Girl From New York City riff, in this case making an early 70s-style soul strut out of it. The lushly orchestrated Brave New World is a cynical, spot-on look at how social media and online dating are killing romance.
Hole in Your Soul has a mid-60s Memphis bounce and some nifty stairstepping piano, then the band slink their way into dramatic soul-blues with Take Some Pity on Me Baby. They wind up the album with a toweringly gorgeous Muscle Shoals-style ballad in 6/8 time, Dry Land, the women’s vocals rising from matter-of-fact angst to a defiant wail. The group claim to have twenty million Spotify hits (for which they might have earned a few dimes or quarters). Although online numbers can’t be trusted, it’s hardly a stretch to believe that count. Sharon Jones has sadly gone off to the great stage in the sky, but the Diplomats of Solid Sound are still going strong: nobody does oldschool soul better than this crew.
The Diplomats’ next gig is a hometown show on Sept 20 at 8 PM at Wildwood Smokehouse and Saloon, 4919 Walleye Drive in Iowa City; cover is $15.