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Solomon Burke
Don't Give Up on Me
He's been called the greatest soul singer of them all. Given that there's some pretty stiff competition for that crown, let's narrow it a bit: Solomon Burke is our greatest living soul singer. Don't Give Up on Me bears testimony. Proves it. We've reached 2002's midpoint, and Don't Give Up on Me is this critic's unequivocal choice for best album of the year. Don't bet on it being any different come December.

Yet still some of you ask: Who is Solomon Burke? He's a 62-year-old ordained minister based in Los Angeles whose profile has been a bit low in recent years. His heyday was during the '60s, when he notched 23 R&B hits for Atlantic, none of which cracked the Top 20 on the pop charts. Which is to say he never crossed over.

Don't Give Up on Me has all the qualities of a vintage R&B record, but with an unmistakably now feel. First, the songs: All but two are new compositions by such stellar writers as Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Brian Wilson and Joe Henry, the album's producer. The title track was written by veteran R&B tunesmith Dan Penn. Bob Dylan chips in his 1978 number Stepchild. The songs were penned, or recast, in a distinctly rhythm & blues style, shaped and contoured to suit Burke's extraordinary singing.

Henry, who's also a genre-busting solo artist, did not accomplish now-ness via that latest technology; rather, he cut the album live in four days at a storied L.A. studio. Instead of sleek digital sounds we get something much better: immediacy. Like the songs, the arrangements were tailored to the vocalist. Built around a bare-bones rhythm section, everything is understated. The main filigree is an organ that coyly slithers around, courtesy of Brother Rudy Copeland of Burke's home church. Henry made some intriguing choices. Most of the songs feature acoustic rather than electric guitar, which tends to massage the music rather than goose it. Certain tracks include female background vocals, but they come in wisps rather than wails.

Although largely restrained, Don't Give Up on Me revels in a variety of moods: the aching plaint of the title track; the despairing smolder of Henry's Flesh and Blood; the lilting '50s spring of Soul Searching by Wilson and Andy Paley; the sleazy shuffle of Stepchild; the limber gospel-funk of None of Us Are Free (with earthy backing vocals courtesy of The Blind Boys of Alabama).

None of these virtues would matter much if the songs weren't wrapped around the vocal cords of a master. Burke is not a whiskey-soaked croaker getting by on the character of his pipes; his voice is remarkably clear and powerful, ranging from a rumble to a yelp, with well-placed rasps. He's got so many gears and textures — one second he's an urbane seducer, the next he's down on his knees, pleading; then he's weary, then he's buoyant or defiant. He modulates his voice to a whisper, drawing you in, which gives the ensuing soul note all the more impact.

Burke never seems as if he's strutting his prodigious range, control and interpretive abilities. He's simply burrowing deeply into the song. He's giving them meaning, emotional heft.

Don't Give Up on Me is as good a soul album as you're apt to hear these days — not in terms of genre, but as if the music is pouring from the artist's very soul. (Fat Possum/Anti-, www.fatpossum.com)
—Eric Snider


Pixies
Pixies
It's been well over a decade since the Pixies began changing the face of fringe-rock. Hell, it's been almost 10 years since Kim Deal's Breeders exploded with Last Splash. Frank Black long ago swapped his slinky, fractured aggro-pop for retro-rock cultdom. Yet these nine tracks, culled from the sessions that produced their debut Come on Pilgrim (and fan-traded endlessly as The Purple Tape), still sound as fresh and ahead of their time as Surfer Rosa did in '88. All of the quartet's trademark qualities are in full effect — the surfy shuffle; the blaring, stop-and-go headlong blasts; the unlikely harmonies; the impenetrable lyrics. Broken Face and Build High kick things off in top gear, while Subbacultcha evinces their inimitable swaggering mix of arrogance and cruel sexuality. Additional perks include the previously unheard (according to the press material) jagged one-two of Rock A My Soul and the rawer original version of Here Comes Your Man. Though these exposed-nerve leftovers lack a bit of the latter-day Pixies' maturity, cohesiveness and experimentation, the snarling ambition and sheer moxie of the tracks more than compensate. The production is exactly what one would expect of no-budget indie rock circa '87 — bare-bones, live and comparatively low-volume. The band's innate talent and iconoclasm are blatantly obvious on every track. (SpinArt, http://spinartrecords.com/)
—Scott Harrell


Gene Ammons & Sonny Stitt
Boss Tenors in Orbit!
Nineteen and sixty-two. Jazz iconoclasts like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor tap-danced on the forehead of the jazz world. They generated the buzz. They got the press. Meanwhile, another kind of jazz was keepin' on, firing up Saturday nights in African-American nightclubs and selling a few records in the process. A staple of the soulful, swinging jazz of the time was known as the tenor battle, a good-natured back-and-forth between two estimable saxophonists — few more estimable in this realm than Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. Backed by organ, guitar, bass and drums, the two boss tenors dig into a nuthin-fancy program of riffy tunes — Walkin', Bye-Bye, Blackbird, John Brown's Body and the like. They play the melodies straight, with plenty of gospel-tinged fervor, then trade solos. Ammons, possessing a brawny tone, eschews finesse and goes straight for the gut. The nimble-fingered Stitt, a Charlie Parker acolyte, makes the notes dance. The result is a guileless, effervescent exercise in blues-soaked blowing. Not hip at the time, but extremely groovy, then and now. (Verve, http://www.vervemusicgroup.com/)
—Eric Snider

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