R’B doesn’t seem to mean what it used to, and it’s easy to see why. Today’s chart-topping R’B songs have abandoned the genre’s original roots in favor of pop elements like auto-tune and synthesizers. Remember, R’B stands for rhythm and blues, and whether it was the gritty southern soul of Memphis, Tenn. or the suave tones of the Motor

City, the genre used to actually contain both elements.
Fortunately on April 6, two new R’B albums were released that prove that the genre is not entirely lost.

The first release is ‘Nothing’s Impossible” by classic soul artist Solomon Burke. Although he has never received widespread recognition or crossover success in the manner of Ray Charles or Wilson Pickett, he has been one of the most influential figures within the R’B field. Many of his early recordings such as ‘Cry To Me” and ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” have become standards.

For ‘Nothing’s Impossible,” Burke was joined by legendary producer Willie Mitchell, most famous for his work with Al Green.

Sadly, Mitchell passed away in January, making this his last project. His influence is obvious throughout the record, which features sophisticated arrangements that are lush with strings, horns and guitar.

Mitchell also left plenty of room in the arrangements for Burke to capitalize on his unique vocal phrasing. Although his range may have decreased from what it once was, it doesn’t matter. Burke’s ability to emphasize and convey emotions has only improved.

The songs on this record are generally strong as well. Highlights on the album include ‘Oh What a Feeling,” ‘I’m Leavin’,” ‘Dreams” and ‘It Must Be Love.” Their slow tempos and emotional lyrics allow Burke to make full use of his powerful voice in exploring their meanings. ‘New Company” is another enjoyable track, where Burke’s voice is joined with a jazzy horn line, reminiscent of a Van Morrison song.

He is similarly successful with livelier numbers like ‘You’re Not Alone” and ‘Everything About You,” delivering them in a manner that makes it sound like he was having fun doing it. Even unremarkable songs come across well due to his unique interpretations.

While ‘Nothing’s Impossible” may not be an edgy album that will redefine its genre, between its vocals and production ‘Nothing’s Impossible” is worthy of a five star rating.

The second release is ‘I Learned the Hard Way” by Sharon Jones ‘ the Dap-Kings, a newer group who has created a name for themselves with their ’60s style arrangements, a modern funk edge and Jones’ tremendous voice.

The performances on ‘I Learned the Hard Way” are impeccable. The Dap-Kings exercise their musical prowess with horn lines and guitar parts that are the best of their kind. Although the Dap-Kings never stray too far from the core of the genre, they easily incorporate elements of Ska and Latin Jazz into their sound.

With the exception of an instrumental track entitled ‘The Reason,” the band never eclipses Jones’ voice. Considering the sheer amount of vocal power that she possesses, though, it is actually difficult to imagine overshadowing her.

That being said, on some of the songs it almost feels like Jones and the Dap-Kings outperform the material that they are working with. At points it seems like the songs are too weak to support the full strength of Jones and her large band.

This is especially apparent on ‘Without a Heart” and ‘Money” where the passion that goes into the performances still does make the songs interesting to listen to. The title track is also shy of being on the same level of the overall musicianship.

Instead of sounding like a really great album, ‘I Learned the Hard Way” sounds like a series of great songs that never completely come together.

This is not to say that this isn’t a good album. In fact, many of the songs are truly excellent. ‘She Ain’t a Child No More” is an especially strong track, with evocative lyrics and nearly unstoppable momentum. ‘Give it Back,” with its fully retro sound, feels like an instant classic in the genre.

Also, ‘I’ll Still Be True” and ‘If You Call” are prime examples of what Jones ‘ The Dap-Kings are capable of when at their best.

It is the album’s concluding track, ‘Mama Don’t Like My Man” that seems most remarkable, however. Musically it harkens back to the early 1950s records of musicians such as Ruth Brown, who laid the groundwork for R’B. Its sparse arrangement gives Jones plenty of space to execute a performance that is all the better for its restraint and subtleties.

If Sharon Jones ‘ The Dap-Kings maintain this level of quality in future releases, no one needs to worry that the new generation of R’B will lose its soul.

Berris is a member of the class of 2013.



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