Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur. There is a bit of backlash against Kathleen Edwards' new album, and it's hard to figure out exactly why. Usually when an artist who starts in a roots community moves up in the polish department, there are some long-time followers who cry foul. But on this set it's not like she's being backed by Justin Bieber's band. Maybe producer Justin Vernon of Bon Iver develops Edwards' sound into a more processed sound, but also maybe that's a good thing. You can't hang out with the banjo players forever.
The singer's voice continues to be a gorgeous revelation. It is sweet without ever becoming cloying, and rings in all the right places. Possibly the kind of songs she writes allows Edwards to fill the spaces with an airy earthiness. Canadians are known for that knack, whether it's Neil Young or Barenaked Ladies' Steven Page. It must be all those months locked inside when everything's covered in snow but they sure learn how to sing up north. Also, being a diplomat's daughter likely allowed Kathleen Edwards to do some serious culture-dipping when she was young and finding her way forward.
If you've been a fan of the first three albums, don't listen to the idle chatter. "Empty Threat," "House Full of Empty Rooms," and "Going to Hell" capture an artist in full growth mode. "Change the Sheets," on the other hand, goes all moody and propulsive to take the lady into brand new territory. Good for her too, because like her glorious countrymen before her, it really is all about exploring the world and finding new homes wherever you go. Voyageur, eh?
The Soul Rebels, Unlock Your Mind. A good subtitle to Unlock Your Mind would be And Your Feet Will Follow, because nobody supplies a more appropriate soundtrack to dance floor tomfoolery than New Orleans' brass bands. They were born of a tradition of taking the music to the streets, and still do. Right along with that has been a steady progression of groups that twist and turn the sound into irresistible configurations, but each and every one manages to get people steady going for the groove. At this point it's almost Pavlovian: throw down a badass tuba bass line and snappy snare drumming and all hell breaks loose. Add on some blasting horns and big bass drum beats and watch out.
The Soul Rebels are one of the more exciting luminaries on that scene. They have been around awhile, but this latest incarnation seems fully loaded and ready for action. Kicking things off with "504" and a rousing cover of the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams are Made of This" is like laying out a mission statement: things are going to get sweaty right away, and don't expect any breaks. Song after song turns up the temperature so that by the end, with Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" riding right into "Let Your Mind Be Free," everybody's going to be looking for a chair and a cool glass of water. The Rebels take no prisoners.
At the beginning of the '80s the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were creating a big disturbance every Monday night at New Orleans' Glass House. A small club in an otherwise nondescript neighborhood, the Glass House inside was a jam-and-packed testament to communal insanity. The regulars were creating dance moves seen neither before nor since, and even with the occasional pistol shots being fired inside there was an overwhelming glow of shared exuberance. The Dozen eventually made their way into the world's biggest concert halls while the Glass House became too hot to handle. But like they say, all things must change and the Soul Rebels are a proud example of the attributes of musical evolution. Long may they blow.
Wendy Rene, After Laughter Comes Tears: Complete Stax & Volt Singles + Rarities 1964-65. No one digs through crates of old 45 records more devotedly than soul music collectors. It has become a religion, and as tight a hold as the Catholic church has on many of its true believers, it's nothing compared to what an original Eddie & Ernie single of "Outcast" can do to a feverish fan. One of the great lost names of Memphis soul is singer Wendy Renee. She started in the Drapels but quickly found better footing on her own, and proceeded to scorch the earth for a few years before hanging up her microphone and high-heeled sneakers. Our loss was motherhood's gain.
Leave it to the Wu Tang Clan to resurrect the singer's name. They sampled Wendy Rene's song "After Laughter Comes Tears" on their "Tearz" single, followed by Alicia Keys remaking it into her "Where Do We Go From Here." It doesn't take long to hear what they loved, which is a voice that is drenched in pure feeling, fronted by a raw innocence right out of a high school talent show. Rene gets right to the bleeding heart of a song, and doesn't wait around for anyone to push her. Having musicians like Stax vets Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper stoking the fires sure doesn't hurt. But it's the young woman's voice that carries the weight. This lady flat out burns.
Near the start of the soul music crush Wendy Rene caught the glory train and almost rode it into the spotlight. What's obvious hearing these 22 songs all at once is how profoundly talented she was. Whether walking through the overgrown sidewalks on McLemore Avenue near Stax or holding court at swanky dances at the Peabody Hotel, nobody else at the time could lay it out quite like Rene. She had the voice, the songs, the look, the band, the record company, the everything. She was slated to play with Otis Redding at the show the Big O died trying to get to. Wendy Rene closed the door on singing then, and really hasn't opened it since. That's what makes this reissue so special: somebody at Light in the Attic Records saw the need, put together an A+ compilation, and did it for her. Right on.