Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Anyone who has spent time listening to producer and multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee’s many thematic recordings knows that at the heart of all them lies a deep obsession with the sounds of soul music in all its forms. Soul in the Hole is his unabashed tribute to that inspiration. While Lee wrote or co-wrote all but one track here, his feel for many regional sounds is nigh on perfect. One need go no further than the title track that opens the set. The dirty Fortune Records drum sound, a B-3, a glorious horn chart, and his own excellent — if somewhat unrefined — vocals, capture the Northern soul vibe perfectly. (He sings on two other tracks as well, including a duet with his wife Kiren on album-closer “The Stuff.”) Lee also enlists guests in this tribute. Nicole Willis appears in a startlingly subtle performance on the shimmering midtempo ballad “Jigsaw,” with an unforgettable chorus. Mysterious soul legend Darondo appears on two of the set’s grittier and funkier tunes, adding his grainy, high-pitched vocals to the "on-the-one" toughness of “Stay Away from Me” and the more atmospheric, Memphis-influenced ballad “Playboy Bunny.” The lone cover on the set is “S.Something,” written by Al Green and Willie Mitchell, with a stellar vocal performance by Karime Kendra — who also guests on the tougher, nastier, garage funk of “Time to Say Goodbye.” Listeners are also treated to the gorgeous vocals of the criminally under-recognized Fanny Franklin (who fronts the band Orgone). Her performances on the Stax-styled ballad “Too Tired to Sleep” and the strutting “Cruel Woman” are real high points here. Paul Butler appears on the laid-back West Coast-meets-East-Coast soul sounds in “Whatever Side You're On.” The only criticism here is also the element that keeps Soul in the Hole from being merely a retro-soul album — the sometimes wispy and even cheesy retro drum machines are prominent in the intros of some tunes but also add space and ambience to these crisp mixes. But it’s a small complaint. This is one of Lee’s more emotionally upfront recordings, and an obvious labor of love. It’s sophisticated, fun, and yes, soulful in spades.

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