Memphis Sounds, "new" and "old."
I don't know that this debut disc from talented local up-and-comer Ryan Peel represents the new Memphis sound, but it's definitely something of a new-for-Memphis sound.
Peel's sleek, modern blend of pop, soul, and hip-hop is somewhat akin to fellow Memphians FreeSol, but smoother, sexier, and with prettier singing where FreeSol is harder-edged and more rap-focused. Stylistically, at least, it's hard not to compare Peel to FreeSol mentor Justin Timberlake.
This six-song, 20-minute EP is a follow-up to a two-song seven-inch single released last month on Scott Bomar's Electraphonic label. A drummer by trade, Peel keeps his own beat. On both the single and this EP, his core band is rounded out by bassist David Parks (of the TV competition series Making the Band), guitarist Alex Kramer, and keyboardist Claude Hinds. Together, Peel and his band command a thoroughly modern soul/pop sound still rooted in classic sources like Prince, Stevie Wonder, and the old Memphis sound. "What Am I Missing," co-written with the North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson, draws on Hi Records soul, from the hints of Al Green-style falsetto Peel tries out to the swirling "Tired of Being Alone" rhythmic foundation, while "Don't Test Me" has a high-stepping reggae undercurrent that gives way to rapped vocals.
Peel's music needs more personality and more memorable songwriting before the Timberlake comparisons can be more than stylistic, but I don't know of any other Memphis music in this vein that sounds as easeful and convincingly contemporary.
Ryan Peel celebrates the release of The New Memphis Sound with a show at the Blue Monkey Midtown on Friday, September 23rd. Showtime is 10 p.m. Admission is $3 (21 and up).
If Ryan Peel is proffering a "new" Memphis sound, longtime session- and back-up singer extraordinaire Jackie Johnson offers a testament to the value of the old Memphis sound with her first solo album in more than a decade, the uneven but rewarding Memphis Jewel.
Or, I should say, traditional soul/blues music in general, because, despite the eminently defensible title claim, Johnson's album has a more geographically expansive sensibility.
Johnson has worked with Shirley Brown and Rufus Thomas, among many others, and most recently backed up Huey Lewis & the News for their Memphis-recorded and –themed Soulsville album and its subsequent tour.
For Memphis Jewel, released on the El Paso-based Catfood Records label, Johnson recorded mostly in Texas, with Memphis producer Jim Gaines and Mississippi-based Blues Music Award-winner Johnny Rawls' back-up band, the Rays.
Stylistically, Memphis Jewel is varied. Rawls duets with Johnson on his own deep-soul "Love You Still," an album highlight that puts a particularly bluesy spin on the Stax male/female duet dynamic — perhaps more William Bell & Judy Clay than Otis Redding & Carla Thomas. Johnson also stays close to home for an unsurprising but effective reading of Brown's hit "Clean Up Woman."
Elsewhere, Johnson taps different traditional styles. The sax work on the fine opener, the Gladys Knight speak-now lament "It Should Have Been Me," sounds more like boardwalk soul or Clarence Clemmons than the punchier horn sound of Stax or Hi. Johnson dips into the Motown well again with less success with a slowed-down, deliberate cover of the Smokey Robinson & the Miracles classic "Tears of a Clown."
"Brightside" brings New Orleans R&B to the mix, while the closing "Keep the Faith" draws on Johnson's gospel roots. Slower, more contemporary material hits (the original "Do Ya") and misses ("Rain").
The Heartsong Jam 2011, at Cordova's Heartsong Church on Saturday, September 24th, will serve as a benefit for Jackie Johnson, who suffered a stroke earlier this year. Catfood Records labelmate Sandy Carroll and frequent Johnson collaborators Reba Russell and Susan Marshall will perform, along with other local musicians, including Nancy Apple and JoJo Jefferies. Start time is 6 p.m. and admission is $10. See heartsongchurch.net for ticketing and other information.