Tell your friends that this album is half covers of songs made famous by Ray Charles, Luther Ingram, and Brenda Lee and half new compositions by the obviously talented singer. Then have them guess which are which. A few will be easy (“[If Loving You Is Wrong] I Don’t Want to Be Right,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “You Don’t Know Me”). Carrack’s originals, however, will stump at least some of the people some of the time, so faithfully do they (and Carrack) honor the pop-soul verities.
The themes of sin and salvation are as tightly intertwined as the male-female vocals and set to Southern-gothic folk melodies and instrumentation lest anyone miss the drama. In less capable hands, the mixture might feel overwrought or at least over-obvious, and “Devil’s Backbone” and “I Had Me a Girl” come close. What reins them in are the surprises—the subtle joy of “From This Valley,” for instance, or the French lyrics of “Sacred Heart.” Or the Smashing Pumpkins cover. “Disarm” it’s called. And it does.
Although there has always been more to Fulks than misanthropic comedy, he isn’t known as the Loudon Wainwright III of alt-country for nothing. So fans of his scabrous side may find the seriousness of most of his latest dozen songs off-putting. Still, they’ll have to admit that he’s pretty good at playing things straight. He’s particularly sharp singing about growing up country (“That’s Where I’m From”) and resignation vs. acceptance (“Where I Fell”). He’s funniest singing about his own career (“Sometimes the Grass Is Really Greener”).
More than one magazine’s best-of-2013 list included this ambitious, 68-minute exploration of the past, present, and future of black music. Wikipedia calls it “psychedelic soul,” and, to the extent that it sounds like what Prince might’ve gotten from the Pointer Sisters had he Svengalied them during their 1980s peak, the label fits. Not that Monáe would’ve brooked such male interference—there’s an unmistakably feminist chip on her shoulder. But she’s seldom arch about it. And “Dance Apocalyptic” is the catchiest single of the year.
Beginning in 1952, Ray Price placed over 40 singles on the country top 10. His last hit, however, came in 1981. So by the time Price succumbed to pancreatic cancer last December at the age of 87, nearly two generations had grown up without knowing what it felt like to turn on the radio and experience him as a nearly ubiquitous presence. Should the extent of their cultural impoverishment ever hit them full on, they might very well experience a sadness for which Price’s tearjerking, honky-tonk classics would turn out to be a most cathartic tonic.
Price got his start thanks to Hank Williams and in turn helped launch Willie Nelson, but both his tenor voice and the heartbreak with which it became synonymous were his own. Given his vast catalogue, 2007’s 40-track The Essential Ray Price (Columbia/Legacy) is the place for the uninitiated to start. It’s also the mere tip of a most remarkable iceberg.