Multi-award winner Melissa Etheridge has released a collection of Stax Records covers.
The new crowd-funded album, “MEmphis Rock and Soul” — made at the Royal Studios in Memphis with a bunch of include a number of top musicians, including the Hodges Brothers — is the first studio output since “This Is M.E.” — though it sounds like a live-recording. It’s so lively and buoyant!
The songs make the most of Etheridge’s raw and pained vocal-style — although you’ll notice she never comes across weak or vulnerable.
Over the years, Etheridge has been an explicit and, some would say— headline grabbing — protester. So it seems fitting that her choice of numbers might include Stax songs of dissent and liberation. There’s no doubt that Stax played an historic role in the Civil Rights Movement. Though it seems, to our modern ears, that the Stax artists were “classier” and less objectionable in their protestations.
Also, let’s not forget that there was plenty of abusive conduct, bullying and other domineering attitude within the studio itself … But on the whole life in the house of Stax-o-Wax was a picture of harmony and tolerance compared to that found in Greater Memphis.
The album chugs-off with “Memphis Train” — the big sexy number from Stax Records funk & blues-meister Rufus Thomas.
This song has a cluster of over-weight, steaming horns and expressive beats to go with that infectious groove. Fat-back drums and fallin’ guitars all add to the splendour, although Melissa’s voice seems scraggy and underweight compared to the original belters.
The classic Staple Singers’ 1971 soul song “Respect Yourself” comes next [written by Luther Ingram and house songwriter Mack Rice.]
This has a slow funky move. Lusty and louche. Yet the lyrics are so significant that it is no surprise the number went on to become an all-embracing anthem. It sneaks up and grabs you and won’t let go.
The version by Etheridge seems weaker than the original, less verbose. Thinner, almost. Yet the fragility of that time-frayed voice is perfect in its emotional resolution.
“Who’s Making Love” was written by Stax staffers and sung by Arkansas doo-wopper Johnnie Taylor back in 1968.
The original showcased Booker T. & the M.G.’s with Isaac Hayes (on keyboards) so this was always gonna be a hard act to follow.
The interesting thing about the reworking is the bed bouncing rhythms. The number tickles your behind as it massages your head. And the voice is dirty, like burning hot gravel … It lies somewhere between funk and blues.
For all we know, B.B. King’s blues standard “Rock Me Baby” [originally Melvin Jackson ] was a Chess record. But let’s not split hairs. It originates in the South, let’s go with that…
The track gives John Mayer (guitar) a chance to twang translucently [there’s not early enough guitar-work on this album, by the way ] but its Etheridge’s Tina Turnerish vocals that will make you sit up and clap your hands in praise.
Her abrasive ‘n’ chapped vocals seem even more extraordinary when pasted onto the smooth elegance of this shiny material. If you like your sounds big and horny, delivered with plenty of groove… and you enjoy parched, emotive vocals, give this a try. You won’t be disappointed.