JOY DENALANE / “Start Over”
Soul is universal—everybody got some—it’s just that some of us got more soul, got more ways to express soul than Bush got bullets and bombs. (And you know that fool been shooting and bombing since 9/11 and don’t look like he about to slow down no time soon.)
Soul music is an African-American invention/extension of the African root filtered through the American experience. Black music of the Seventies in particular is considered the measuring rod for Soul music. Here it is over forty years after Aretha went to Atlantic records and ushered in the golden age of Soul and though there continues to be young Black American women reaching for Aretha's crown, some of the most interesting Soul music is actually coming from cross the water. Recent albums from the UK’s Beverley Knight and Germany’s Joy Denalane are perfect illustrations.
Beverly Knight went to Nashville, holed up for five days in Beech House studios and dredged up two gutbuckets full of Southern Soul. The whole Music City Soul album sounds like Bev was born in Memphis, raised in Detroit and moved back south to Macon, Georgia where she married a six-foot-six-inch farmer’s son who was named Otis. It’s uncanny how much this sounds like real Southern Soul music, like something maybe Tina Turner’s grandchild would produce, or Ann Peebles’ second cousin’s youngest child.
If all of the songs had been top drawer compositions, this would have been a classic album. Nevertheless even though it’s a whisper short of greatness, it’s still very, very good.
I’m particularly appreciative of how Beverley Knight leans into the lyrics, singing like this may be her last go round on account she got an upcoming date with the electric chair. There’s a going for broke feeling permeating each song.
Knight fondly recalls the recording session: “This was recorded utterly live as opposed to having live elements which made all the difference. I had musicians and background singers in the room with me at the same time and what we did in the studio is what you hear with no corrections or programmed beats. It was entirely different to how I had recorded before and because of that the sound of the record is very different to what you would have heard before.”
This is Beverly Knight’s fifth album in a decade-long career. This is also her most consistent outing in terms of flat-out singing with feeling. Born Beverley Anne Smith, March 22, 1973 in Wolverhampton, West Midlands, England of Jamaican parents, Knight was indelibly influenced by Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. She is a true Soul singer from a culture that’s rather thin on Soul singers even though every three or four years or so some fresh face is marketed as such. None of them stay the course, and in that regard, perhaps what we are hearing from Beverley Knight is a maturing of British Soul music.
Beverly's Music City Soul is far, far removed from the fabled British reserve and, for that matter, far removed from fawning emulation or by-the-numbers imitation. Go to a Beverley Knight fansite and check out two videos of Beverly performing live versions of songs from Music City Soul.
I have Beverly's other albums but for the first time I find myself interested not only in what she is doing now, but really, really interested in where she goes from here. If Music City Soul is any indication, Ms. Knight is head in the right direction. Stay tuned.
* * *
Even though they both are mining a retro-soul Europe-comes-to-America-to-get-funky concept, Joy Denalane’s Born & Raised
, which was recorded in Philadelphia, is markedly different from Knight’s Music City Soul
. Joy Maureen Denalane was born in 1973 in Berlin, Germany to a German mother and a South African father. Trivia note: not only were Beverley Knight and Joy Denalane both born in 1973, but 1973 was also a high point of Seventies Soul, the same Seventies Soul that both of these singers use as a foundation for their music. Still, their similaries notwithstanding, the two are very, very different.
First off, Denalane’s sound is 21st century and features guest shots from rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Raekwon. This is contemporary R&B, influenced as much by Hip Hop as Seventies Soul.
Second, whereas the themes of Knight’s album revolve around romantic love, Denalane is working out of a Curtis Mayfield bag in that she directly discusses major issues of the day. This is probably the most politically forward Soul-oriented album in a long time. Clearly Joy not only has a mind of her own, she has also peeped that Seventies Soul music was a very politically engaged music. Denalane’s lyrics from “For The Love”
make her commitment clear.
Finally, whereas Beverley belts out her songs with unfettered gusto (though admittedly not without control or artistry), Joy Denalane is much more laid back but no less emotionally engaged.
Without any reservation whatsoever, I straight up love what Joy does with songs like “Start Over,”
which details the situations facing young adults today and “Soweto ‘76 – ‘06,”
which updates the struggles of everyday people in South Africa. I’ve yet to read reviewers who comment on and acknowledge how deeply social these songs are. It’s as if we are afraid to speak up.
Big ups to Joy for forwarding consciousness in this here time of mindless music that is great for booty-shaking but ain’t nothing shaking when it comes to confronting our current social conditions. The lyrical content is particularly impressive when you consider that English is not her first language and that this album is designed to appeal to Americans. Joy could have easily pushed the sexy Afro-German image but instead her first single was “Let Go,”
a feminist stance advising the ladies to let go of men who leech off of rather than support the sisters. The second single was “Change,”
a clear call for social revolution. Her American cousins have a lot they can learn from this Afro-German sister.
Of course, all the socially conscious lyrics in the world won’t be effective if the messenger can’t artfully deliver the message. Joy Denalane’s is an effective messenger. She’s got a message. She has the beauty to make you look, the voice to make you listen. And she has the skills to soulfully deliver her insightful, socially conscious lyrics. Joy Denalane is my favorite Soul singer in the 21st century.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Show don't tell
I've liked Joy since the first time I heard her music. She has a spectacular voice and a beautiful spirit. I'm just not with the preaching. I'm from the school of "show, don't tell." I like hearing music with social consciousness, but I generally don't go for songs that literally announce their own positive intentions. I mean, at one point, Joy even says, "I'm not trying to be holier than thou." Um, OK. Quit preaching then. Now, that said, I actually like most of the Born & Raised
album. "Start Over," "Soweto '76 - '06"
and "Sometimes In Love"
are all bangers. Next time, I'm just hoping for more songs that are actually
about the struggle and less songs that just talk about being about the struggle.
I've never heard any of Beverly Knight's other records, but out of these songs, I only like the originals. (Or at least, I'm assuming they're originals.) I really don't think there's anything to be gained by copying Aretha's "Rock Steady"
right down to the arrangement and vocal inflections. And coincidentally, I was listening to Irma Thomas throw down on "Time Is On My Side"
earlier today. Again, no reason for that. Beverly should either pick easier targets or, if she insists on messing with the classics, she should actually mess
with them. Do something. Change it up. Slow it down, speed it up. Something. Again though, like with Joy, I like the rest of the songs, especially "The Queen Of Starting Over."
All that one needs is a little tape hiss and some crackling vinyl and you'd swear it was the glory days all over again.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Literally. If there is one thing I can count on it's you avoiding straight up political statements. Of course, as far as I'm concerned, the so-called non-political songs are political also... anyway, I hear you. I understand what you're saying. And the fact that you still dig what Joy is doing is a testament to how deep and how skilled the sister is.
Now, what I'm really laughing about are your comments about Beverley Knight. A couple of quick factoids. You and I think of Irma Thomas when we hear "Time Is On My Side"
but over in Britain it's thought of as a Rolling Stones song. The significance of that is Ron Wood is a guest guitarist on three of the cuts. The Aretha Franklin thing is more than just a homage to one of Beverley's all time favorite Soul singers, it's also a Jamaican thing—"rock steady," the same rock steady you wrote about in the cover section. Oh, the interconnections. Beverley identifies as being of Jamaican heritage.
Finally, Mtume, picking up on your breakdown of the differences between Sixties and Seventies Soul music, I think Beverley Knight produced a Sixties Soul record with Music City Soul
and Joy Denalane produced a Seventies Soul record with Born & Raised
. I like both but I love Joy. Straight up politics appeals to me. ;->)
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