As any soul music fan knows, its subgenres are often shaped by a location – with the pooled talents of the producers and musicians in a particular region often giving the records they produce a distinct local “flavor.” Detroit and Philadelphia are two such cities that spawned their own styles of soul music, with Detroit favoring a disciplined, radio-friendly pop style while Philadelphia approaches the same impulse from a jazzier, more sonically lavish point of view.
Two volumes in the last wave of Backbeats releases are devoted to these twin poles of soul music treasures: Motor City Soul dedicates itself to material from the Invictus/Hot Wax library, the labels that Holland-Dozier-Holland started after they split from Motown, while Philly Freedom mixes material from the Philadelphia International and Philly Groove labels. Both discs offer a bevy of proven classics, placing them amongst the most hit-studded entries in the 2010 Backbeats lineup, and they also work in some hidden treasures that will make the soul-music buff smile.
Motor City Soul is subtitled “70’s Soul From Detroit” and it delivers what it promises. If you’re familiar with the hits from the Invictus and Hot Wax labels, you’ll recognize a lot of R&B chart hits here. However, the compilers keep things fresh by choosing hits that aren’t the usual oldies station staples: Chairmen Of The Board’s “Everything’s Tuesday” is a nice example of post-Temptations harmony soul built around a groovy, syncopated clavinet hook and “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” from Honey Cone weaves in some exotic percussion to give its end-of-the-romance narrative a Latin flair. Another great, oft-forgotten hit is Freda Payne’s “You Brought The Joy,” a love song with an intensely percussive arrangement where the string section duels with tribal drum beats.
The value of Motor City Soul is bolstered by an equal number of songs that weren’t big hits but remain strong material deserving of a soul fan’s notice. For instance, New York Port Authority’s “I Guess I’m Gonna Cry” gives Philly Soul a run for the money with its glossy blend of creamy vocal harmonies and soaring strings while Scherrie Payne’s “V.I.P.” swings with a light, jazzy elegance as it updates Holland-Dozier-Holland’s orchestrated pop-soul formula for the 1970’s. Another choice rarity here is Holland & Dozier’s “Why Can’t We Be Lovers,” a major cult favorite that allows the label’s auteurs to showcase their personal mastery of the pop-soul idiom via a glorious slice of balladry.
Philly Freedom also has some choice hits up its sleeve. In the crossover hit department, it offers Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” a slow-burning ballad with a beat that exemplifies the Philly Soul ‘message song’ formula, and Lou Rawls’ elegant “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” provides an excellent setting for his jazz vocal style with its blend of lavish strings and a gentle but insistent disco beat. A few hits from Philly Groove are represented as well, most notably First Choice’s “Armed And Extremely Dangerous,” a song whose errant-lover-as-criminal narrative is brought to life with a vivid arrangement that approximates the style of a blaxploitation film theme song.
Thankfully, the lesser-known tracks on Philly Freedom are just as impressively produced and satisfying as the hits. Good examples include Billy Paul’s “I Trust You,” a sweet, understated ballad that effectively pairs his plaintive vocal style with a gentle arrangement highlighted by some ear-catching Spanish guitar stylings, and Archie Bell and The Drells’ “Where Will You Go When The Party’s Over,” which offsets its ballad-style lyrical and melodic content with a driving arrangement that brings things up to a disco-friendly pace.
And speaking of disco, Philly Freedom fully acknowledges the pure disco songs that Philadelphia International released near the end of the 1970’s. The two big winners in this department are the Jones Girls’ “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else,” which offsets its traditionally lush Philly vocal harmonies with a start, minimalist electronic arrangment, and Frantique’s “Strut Your Funky Stuff,” a punchy funk/disco hybrid that boasts an arrestingly percussive chorus.
In short, Motor City Soul and Philly Freedom offer guaranteed good times for the soul music buff. The song choices are spot-on, everything is handsomely mastered and each set is a steal at their budget-line prices. Anyone interested in Detroit or Philly based R&B sounds can pick up these albums with confidence.