The soul-revivalist game can be tricky — in its '60s heyday, soul music was a matter of songs as much as it was a function of musicianship. Attempting to modernize soul usually means laboring to duplicate the style with songs that often sound like pastiches. This tendency has everything to do with the revivalist mentality, but Nashville's Charles Walker and the Dynamites avoid it on their new full-length, Love Is Only Everything. The band cooks, while the originals contrast with a cover of Jerry Williams Jr. and Larry Harrison's "Please Open Up the Door," a tune Walker first cut in 1968 as singer with Little Charles and the Sidewinders. Love Is Only Everything blurs the distinction between soul and post-James Brown funk, but that's revivalism for you.
Love Is Only builds upon the sound Dynamites bandleader and arranger Bill Elder developed on the group's previous records, Kaboom! and Burn It Down. A savvy songwriter and subtle guitarist — with The Dynamites, Elder plays under the pseudonym Leo Black — he combines elements of late-'60s soul-pop with acid guitar riffs in the manner of James Brown's Jimmy Nolen. With Walker's passionate vocals on top, the new record features ballads along with acerbic up-tempo numbers.
"That first record was kind of a James Brown, funk-explosion kind of thing," Elder says. "The next one moved more into the social-consciousness part of soul. Having worked with Charles for the last six or seven years, and being on the road and playing together, we have found Charles' greatest strengths as a vocalist. I tried to focus a lot more on the song structure and subject matter."
With drummer Pete Abbott driving the band, Love Is Only may be the first soul-funk record to feature a song titled "Serendipity." Beginning with an elaborate introduction that goes from an organ-fueled flourish to a relentlessly swinging groove, "Serendipity" is exemplary, minimalist funk.
The blithe "Still Can't Get You out of My Heart" is the record's lightest moment — the horn arrangement complements a track that also features vibraphone. Meanwhile, "So Much More To Do" hangs on one chord, while drums and tambourine provide a stomping beat. The song also provides a credo for the record: "So throw away that rear-view mirror," Walker sings. "It's no more use to me."
"Yours and Mine" pairs Walker with singer Bettye LaVette, who gained fame in the '60s and '70s before making a comeback with her 2003 full-length, A Woman Like Me. A canny vocalist who has avoided the soul-revivalist tag by recording material from such tunesmiths as Lucinda Williams and John Hiatt, she proves a superb partner for Walker. Walker and LaVette have known each other since the '60s, when both singers performed at a Harlem venue, Small's Paradise.
"I've been knowin' Bettye for quite a long time," says the Nashville-born Walker. "It was good to see her out on the road — I hadn't seen her in years. She's not the easiest person to get to."
Written by Elder ("It started out one way, and then I realized I was talking about Charles and Bettye themselves," Elder says), "Yours and Mine" is a soul ballad in 6/8 time. A highlight of Love Is Only, it's far more than a pastiche. Still, "Please Open up the Door" may be the most satisfying song on the record. As do many songs by Jerry Williams Jr., who is perhaps better known as Swamp Dogg, it straddles the line between soul and country.
The Dynamites play "Please Open up the Door" more slowly than Walker and the Sidewinders did in 1968. It's a full-bodied performance that sounds both contemporary and respectful of the rich tradition it draws upon. Walker adds a few Otis Redding-style asides to the performance — like Redding, he seems equally comfortable conveying sentiment and bravado.
As Walker says, "The sound hasn't changed so much, but I think the writing of the material has changed. When we did the first album, we did it kind of old-school — what you might call the deep-funk kind of thing, you know. It grew into more of a soul thing. That's my bag, anyhow."