Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What I’ve been listening to lately by Adrian G

I have just begun listening to albums from the record label Stax/Volt. Stax
and the subsidiary label Volt were one of the main proponents of Southern Soul in
the 1960s. Founded by two white conservative country musicians, but supported
by primarily black artists, the label helped solidify the notion that black and white
people can work together. It was one of the first independent labels to challenge the
predominate labels like Columbia. It also brought upon the world the force that is
Soul music, a powerful mix of gospel, blues and rock and roll.

The recordings have a distinctive sound that is due to the Stax house band,
the artists that recorded with the label and the recording studio itself. In contrast
to the more pop-oriented records of the Detroit based Motown label, Stax records
sound earthy and raw. The acoustic anomalies of the recording studio, which was
a converted movie theater, give the recordings a strange and deep sound, distinct
from the mid-to high frequency range dominated Motown sound or any other label
at that point. One of the things that I like about pop music is that the recording
process is not centered on high fidelity, but any new and interesting sounds are
celebrated. Stax singers play with their words, adding “yeah’s “no’s” “ooohs”
and “ahhhs”. The delivery of the lyrics takes on a meaning beyond the words. The
stellar Stax house-band is Booker T. and the MG’s. The horns remind me of civil war
marching bands. The singing reminds me of gospel shouting. All this makes Stax
records a fascinating listening experience.

One of my favorite albums is Otis Redding’s Otis Blue. The songs sound
ancient. “Ole Man Trouble stay away from me” is such an old, mysterious sentiment.
The Stax house band sounds fantastic behind Redding’s soulful testifying. Redding’s
original songs show growing musical maturity, but his cover of the Rolling Stone’s
song “Satisfaction” is also a highlight. Otis turned this British Invasion hit into a
high-strung rant over up-tempo horns furiously playing Keith Richard’s famous
guitar riff.

The Stax catalogue provides rich listening. Beyond the major singles and
LP’s, there are many rarities and unreleased records. I believe the Stax was ideal
business model for record labels. Open ears and artistic integrity defined the Stax/
Volt business, and these are the qualities that make these records last.

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