You may not have noticed, but we’re in the midst of a global soul revival. Sure, it’s no surprise finding fab neo and retro-soul sounds in the UK and on the continent, there’s also a spate of great records coming from places like Spain, Germany, Japan…even Switzerland. Probably the least likely spot for a major scene to take hold is Australia, but that’s exactly what’s happening. We’ve seen Ozzie scenes break out before, but it was always some variant of rock music, with the occasional mainstream pop star pulling an Olivia on us. The neo-soul records and bands coming out of [mainly] Melbourne along with a growing archivist Northern Soul scene are all new. This little list is anything but complete, but if it doesn’t whet your appetite for a deep dish of Aussie Soul Stew, nothing will….
Stella Angelico – Prey [single]: While Soul is definitely the jumping off point in the Melbourne scene, it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. Australia has always had a rep for rocking hard and Stella Angelico is isn’t afraid to toss smoothness out the window and kick up the dust. On “Prey” she mixes grit and glamour into a new set of colours to paint a portrait of defiance and survival. Angelico is a Queen-in-residence of the Aussie Soul revival, so it’s just a matter of time before she sets her sights on conquering the rest of the world. You’ve been warned.
Kylie Auldist – Still Life [Tru Thoughts]: She may share a first name with that other Aussie vocalist, but any similarities stop there. The half-Samoan Auldist may be the most traditional singer in the Melbourne scene, but all that means is that she’s got soul to spare and a knack for making the most of a melody. Think Patti Labelle’s power crossed with Roberta Flack’s cool with a dash of Chaka Kahn’s smoke and you’re close…except Auldist has a certain something of her own that keeps it all real. Still Life is her most sophisticated album yet, with a warm, retro feel that’s never dusty or dull. Auldist seems to be everywhere at once; working on her own career while sitting in with every cool band around. Check her out ASP.
Clairy Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes – Love Cliques EP [Vanguard]: Full disclosure: This would have made our 2014 “best of” listing, but got edged off because it wasn’t a full album. Make no mistake though: Love Cliques is all aces. Browne and her crew practice a brand of new wave flavoured camp-soul that would be little more than punchline material if they didn’t have the skills to pay it off. Everything you hear on Cliques is earthy, sensual; the sound of wet earth, humid skin, tall grass and unchecked passions. From the pagan rites of “Jenny,” to the languid, TCH groove of “No Fear,” the erotic stomp of “Heart’s Desire” and the morning-after satori of “Paper Thin”…Browne and the Rackettes pack so much into four songs that Love Cliques starts to feel like a full album, which is probably why they couldn’t wait to put it out. Hopefully this is just the start of the journey they’re taking us on. Oh, and they can totally do it live too.
Emma Donovan & The Putbacks – Dawn [Hope Street]: You can tell from her stare on the album jacket; Emma Donovan is a Woman to be Reckoned With. An indigenous Aussie from a known musical family, Donovan doesn’t approach soul singing as a lifestyle or even an art form. For Donovan, soul is life itself, and watching her breathe flames into every note of every song is one of those humbling experiences we should all be lucky enough to have. Dawn is practically a concept album about the trials and occasional triumphs of a Woman of Color searching for Love and Honesty in a world growing colder by the day, a world that rewards guile and artifice and trickeration more and more, especially if Honesty and Love and Desire are their victims. Donovan isn’t going down without a fight though, and she doesn’t seem to mind the odds much. Her Love comes without condition, but not without respect. The Putbacks are up to the task here, forging a dark, earthy groove out of base elements that smolders and growls, but never tries to upstage Donovan. We’d call this a masterpiece, but why resort to faint praise?
Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon [Sony Masterworks]: While most of the Melbourne acts mine their treasure from the late 60s sounds of Stax, Motown and Vee Jay, Hiatus Kaiyote are on a more modern trip, starting from Stevie’s more experimental phases and stretching into the neo-soul that boomed here in the US just as the century turned. A big part of their success is down to their modernist approach to building a global fan base through social media, even going as far as crowd sourcing a visit to the States for a SXSW performance a couple of year ago, from which they’ve never looked back. Their sophomore effort is only winning them more fans, with it’s trippy, hippy, riff-centric meltdown of soul grooves, funk breaks, spacey twists and turns, and the siren call of vocalist Nai Palm, who is set up to be the breakout star of 2015 [if she isn’t already]. You might not be the first kid on your block to dig this outfit, but don’t let that stop you.
The Harpoons – Falling For You [Two Bright Lakes]: Apparently the Harpoons began as a typical-to-average- indie guitar combo before adding secret treasure weapon Bec Rigby on vocals and morphing into the pastel cocktail soul outfit before us. Scientifically speaking, none of this should work: Not the sugar-frosted beats, not the rudimentary mash-note-by-numbers lyrics, not the irony-centric synth bleeps and fizzes, not the compressed, bas-relief production by Henry Madin and Mark King, certainly not the group’s geeky, open-mic take on R&B values…None of it. This record should be the total bollocks that it looks like on paper. But then Rigby tumbles into that aching chorus of the title track and all you can think of is getting close enough for a better whiff of the scent she’s wearing in the crook of her neck. Just a little closer…Pretty please?
Paul Kelly – The Merri Soul Sessions [Gawdaddie/Universal]: There’s nothing cooler than an artist with nothing to prove…proving it anyway. Paul Kelly’s been making music longer than most of us have been alive, his discography is bigger than some people’s entire music collection and almost every single note of it is brilliant. If you don’t know Paul Kelly, stop reading right now and go find [at least] one of his records. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Kelly’s original idea for The Merri Soul Sessions was to write and record a spate of 45s in the tradition of an old-school “soul revue” with a variety of vocalists taking on his songs. Realizing no record label would be creative enough to finance the project, Kelly turned to the Pledgemusic crowdfunding platform for support. Over a two-week period in February 2014, Kelly, his band and his crowd cut 14 tracks – one a day, rehearsing the band in the morning and recording live with the singers in the afternoon. Kelly eventually released four double-A side 45s on his own label before adding a few more tracks to make it a proper album. The “bash it out” feel of The Merri Soul Sessions gives the record a cohesive feel no matter who sings lead – Clairy Browne’s storming, stomping take of “Keep Coming Back For More,” Linda Bull’s smouldering “Smells Like Rain,” Kira Puru’s bruised but unbowed “Don’t Know What I’d Do,” Vika Bull’s harrowing-yet-affectionate “Sweet Guy” or Kelly himself on “Righteous Woman” – no matter who’s handling Kelly’s peerless songs, it’s a win for we listeners. If anybody else made this record, we’d call it a career milestone. With Paul Kelly, we just shake our heads in awe and wonder if he’ll ever stop being brilliant.
Kira Puru – Dulled Out [single]: Puru is the definition of “wild card” – the sort of natural artist at home anywhere creating anything. Above all else, she’s consummate blues singer who wears her bruises and scars like badges. Her newest single is no exception, as she weaves a punishing, addictive spell from loss and longing and rage and desire over gelled electronica that feels hazy and half-remembered even as we hear it. Knowing her power to shout and shatter, it’s even more striking to watch her whisper and caress her anguished desire in the semi darkness. With another singer, we’d call this a “breakthrough,” but Puru has been “through” for a while now.
The Putbacks Featuring Nai Palm – Spanish Harlem bw/ The Worm & In The Dirt [Hope Street]: In addition to being a backing-band-in-demand, the Putbacks have their own thing going and it’s pretty flipping hot. For their second single, they team up with Hiatus Kaiyote vocalist Nai Palm for a whirling, blistering, update of Aretha’s “Spanish Harlem.” While this has every right to sound dated and/or hammy, it just doesn’t. Nai flies out of the box at top speed and the band soars with her. Maybe it’s just that these aussies don’t know this soul stuff is supposed to be polite and old-hat, but this song roars like a beast. The Putbacks go it alone and back up the A-side with a pair of funky-tough instrumentals in the Meters/MGs vein, which only leaves you wishing this wasn’t just an ep. Come on you guys…where’s the album?