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V/A - Soul Gospel

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Artist: V/A

Album: Soul Gospel

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: May. 9, 2005

If God created pop gospel, he had to channel it through Thomas Dorsey. ‘Twas Dorsey who had the bright idea to cannibalize swaggering hits of the ‘20s and add Jesus-y lyrics, rocking Southern pews so loud the whole world heard it. In so doing, he aided the music’s… ahem… evolution. By the ‘60s, the streets wanted it back, but they got something new, something changed from its dalliance with the metaphysical, something seeping a new, fearless grandiosity by turns silly and sublime. This new music eschewed “Rocket 88” machine metaphors and rendered the sex act akin to touching the sky. At its best, it seemed to blend together every human emotion at once.

This treasure chest, from the always reliable Soul Jazz reissue label, collects some forgotten flashpoints from gospel’s second go-round. The title is revealing but redundant. “Secular Hymns” would’ve served better. But one gets the idea.

Clarence Smith’s funkdafied “Motherless Child” sets the tone. Here’s a worksong remade to be heard above and beneath urban cacophony. Aretha Franklin, perhaps the best known practitioner of reclaimed gospel, appears with “Lee Cross,” which gives a teenaged rake the sort of reverent treatment Moses used to get. Other narrators are more self-consciously naïve. More than one takes comfort in an older relative’s wisdom when the mutated, spiritualized power of sexuality backfires.

For those addicted to unique covers, Soul Gospel shall provide. Marion Williams scrapes the rusty irony off Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and Kim Weston’s propulsive “Eleanor Rigby” makes the song as scary as it wants to be.

After the church torqued soul’s philosophical gusto, some didacticism was bound to survive. So we get “I Don’t Know Where We’re Headed,” a Sons of Truth barn-burner and a preachy flipside to the Chambers Brothers’ optimistic “Time Has Come Today.” Some more of Christianity’s darker quirks surface here as well. The Sweet Inspirations’ “Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday” applies the church’s bitter stoicism to a fragmented relationship, while the Staple Singers’ “Tripping On Your Love” indulges its glorification of submission. It’s as if to remind us that you don’t need a baptism to take comfort in that overwhelmed malaise some call the human condition. Bad kids do it, too.

By Emerson Dameron

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