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Don Bryant's You Make Me Feel is an Instant Classic


In recent years, the appeal of classic sounds from the the ’60s and ’70s has grown and grown, leaving many wondering if such retro stylistic moves are mere trend-hopping, simply another attempt to create a flavor of the month. And yet, there's a certain rightness to the sound, an undeniable frisson when you listen to a contemporary act capture the sound and feel of that era, as if synth-pop and Pro Tools had never happened. As it turns out, this may all be because the records of that era were simply, objectively better. In an interview with Tape Op, Gabriel Roth, co-owner of the retro soul label Daptone Records, puts it like this:

I started making records because I was listening to old records and they sounded great. It's not really an agenda or an angle as much as it is just kind of being honest with ourselves. In articles, people say, "Aren't you just doing something that's been done before?" or "Isn't this some kind of retro fad?" First, we're not making enough money for it to be called a fad, that's for sure. We're just trying to be tasteful and try to make the kind of records that sound good and feel good. If they sound old, that's great — I dig old records … the truth is we dig old records, so we're going to try to make old records.

Daptone is based in Brooklyn, but it turns out that the same philosophy holds true in another epicenter for classic soul and funk sounds: Memphis. It shouldn't come as a great surprise, given the longevity of many legendary studios here. Some of them, like Royal Studios, still have the same gear used to make those classic sounds in the first place. Others, like Scott Bomar's Electraphonic Recording, take pages out of the Royal playbook and stick to the same methods. 

Beyond that, one needs players who are sensitive to the classic sounds and textures and, most of all, an artist capable of delivering performances with all the soul, integrity, warmth and outright heat that was more typical in the days before sequencing and cut-and-paste production.

And all those elements come together seamlessly in Don Bryant's latest album, You Make Me Feel (Fat Possum). It's not surprising, given that Bryant, after a brief foray as a solo artist, was a house songwriter for Willie Mitchell's Hi Records, eventually marrying Ann Peebles, who made his "I Can't Stand the Rain" famous. He carried on behind the scenes for decades, until his second solo album, Don't Give Up On Love, was released in 2017. That album, like the latest, was produced by Bomar, pairing Bryant with Bomar's crack soul band, the Bo-Keys. It was such a powerful return to form, with all of the classic ingredients, that one might consider it Bryant's 21st century comeback. Now, with the same team in place for a second album, we see that Bryant, now nearing his 80th year, is not slacking his pace or his taste in the least.

The album kicks off with a classic horn-driven intro conveying the majesty of a blues-based riff in a soul context, before laying down a very ’70s groove that can't be denied. Then, track two reveals Bryant's take on a song (that he wrote) made popular by his wife back in the day, "99 Pounds." Also sporting some powerful horn riffs, this one captures the classic Royal sound, with the same driving Howard "Bulldog" Grimes beat that made Hi a beacon of soul back in the day.

From there, we hear plenty of mood swings, all delivered with an aching, heartfelt panache  that few singers can pull of these days. For Bryant, it seems it's second nature. And, as tracks evoking various emotions go by, we are reminded of how eclectic Bryant's career was even before the mid ’70s. Some tracks here, like "Your Love is Too Late" or "Cracked Up Over You," evoke more of a ’60s soul sound, with the latter sporting echoes of the old Satellite Records (pre-Stax) track by Prince Conley, "I'm Going Home." It's an earlier take on R&B than the classic Ann Peebles-type, funk-infused grooves, but Bryant, who was singing and recording from the 1950s onward, can carry both with equal aplomb.

Interspersed along the way are some moving ballads, which, given the homespun strength of Bryant's voice, may be his strong suit. (Though, to be fair, he can howl on the uptempo tracks with a unique urgency). The standout here may be "Don't Turn Your Back on Me," which begins with only solo guitar and Bryant's vocals. From there, it adds layers of sound and emotion as the band falls in.

Both the ballads and the groovy numbers have one crucial element: air. The sound of a band playing mostly live in a room just may be the key to that "old record" sound. And it only makes it better when it's a room in Memphis, where one of soul's great architects is pouring his soul into every note. 

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