Joss Stone, The Soul Sessions Vol. 2. Here's a pop quiz: what second volumes end up better than the first? None immediately come to mind, but there must be the exception. For Joss Stone, this new go-round of her laying into some super-fried soul songs comes close to matching the original album, but doesn't quite get to take the victory lap. Her voice is all there, and even some of the songs hit the top notch. Still, there's a busy feeling on too many of the recordings that sounds like she's cashing her lottery ticket before the winning numbers have even been announced. What's the hurry?
Possibly call it forced enthusiasm, when effort takes over from emotions. In soul music there's a lot to be said for holding back and letting the tension of what's not sung do a lot of the dirty work. Try Etta James. She could stir up a heatstroke by looking at the microphone and maybe cocking one eyebrow just right. There didn't have to be a tizzy every time. Think "I'd Rather Go Blind" or "At Last." And Irma Thomas. Now there was a singer who could drop the big bomb in just a few words, never really raising her voice. Thomas let the lyrics do a lot of the damage and was the consummate clean-up woman who would then come in and take it all home. Think "Wish Someone Would Care" or "It's Raining."
Sometimes Joss Stone flat-out gets too worked up, like the world's going to end if she doesn't get wild. Luckily, there are enough times on The Soul Sessions Vol. 2 where she stays in check and really goes for the down home beauty this music specializes in. Think "I Don't Want to Be with Nobody but You" and "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye." As Stone ages and finds her way to subtlety and grace, the sky is the limit. Until then, be glad someone cares enough to study soul music at all.
Jon Dee Graham, Garage Sale. If there is a poster boy for eccentric Austin musical characters, the ones who listen to themselves and break every career move in the books, it would be Jon Dee Graham. Though that eccentricity might confound some, it also supplies an endless well of deeply inspirational music, the kind that heads straight for the heart and proceeds to pull and push that organ's strings in every which way. Guaranteed though, once he's found his way there Graham never turns a fan loose.
He was an early proto-punk on the Austin bar scene in the late '70s as a founding member of the Skunks. When they met an early demise Graham found his way to the True Believers, who for better or worse got tagged with starting the New Sincerity movement in River City. His guitar has graced stages with everyone from John Doe to John Hiatt, and while that musician-for-hire sign provided a stable living for years, Graham's original songs are what gets his name written in big letters in the sky. He's one of the best Texas songwriters ever, and Lord only knows why he isn't talked about in the same sentences as Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt. It might be because the man refused to color within the lines, and isn't afraid of creating as big a mess as humanly possible, starting at the first downbeat.
Garage Sale is another in a line of stellar sets. It's made by something called the Panda Collective, which sounds like a cool idea dreamed up in the Armadillo beer garden late one sweltering summer afternoon. Needless to say, it works just right. Jon Dee Graham gets to record whatever he wants however he wants, and that's all that really matters. Once again, song after song pours out of him, like he's building himself a life raft of music to stay afloat yet another day in a world that sometimes refuses to cooperate with his lonesome ways. No matter, because when you write stunners like "Unafraid," "Yes Yes" and "Collapse," all future debts are immediately paid and the karmic rush that promises life will stay in the plus column becomes apparent. While some may say this unique individual is an acquired taste, what he really is is a bright sun that will not disappear. His light always shines just right.
Little Willie John, Complete Hit Singles A's & B's. If ever a soul man ended his career on a tragic note, it's the indescribably great Little Willie John. After a string of powerfully rich hit singles that began in 1955, John stabbed and killed a man in an after-hours bar. He was sentenced to prison in Washington state, where he died of pneumonia in 1968. The singer was 30 years old. But before that awful end, one of the great voices that actually helped give birth to modern soul music propelled songs like "Fever," "All Around the World," "Need Your Love So Bad" and over two dozen others into the stratosphere. There was nothing little about Willie John's musical gifts.
Naturally, the young boy began singing with his brothers and sisters in the gospel group the United Five. Willie John would sneak out of his family home to enter talent contests singing secular music. Naturally he won right at the start, and talent scouts quickly discovered the jewel in their midst. Once John joined King Records, his run on the charts was spectacular, and with the massive hit "Fever" a true star was born. His label boss Syd Nathan was notorious for wielding a strong hand, but for a few years Little Willie John was right there with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke as someone whose voice took spiritual music to the streets.
Listening to these 32 recordings together, there's a feeling of what could have been if the young man hadn't pulled a knife in 1964 and taken someone's life. As he was growing older, John's voice was taking on new depth and there is no doubt the future was wide open. Even the early Beatles used to cover John's single "Leave My Kitten Alone," as good a stamp of credibility as existed in the early '60s. And while many fans of rhythm and blues are part of Little Willie John's fervent cult, there's still a whole world that never got to hear the voice that turned a corner for popular music, and set up what was to come. Soul music lost one of its best friends far too early, and each one of these songs shows why.