Friday, March 30, 2012

Review: Edsel Records' 'Sam & Dave' Reissues

Sam Moore and Dave Prater were without peer the greatest male duo in the history of soul. With Otis Redding, they were the voices and faces of Stax Records, cutting such exuberant, iconic singles as “Hold On, I’m Comin”, “Soul Man”, and “I Thank You” for the label from 1965 through 1969. Laughing in the face of the much-repeated jive that soul was exclusively a singles medium in the ‘60s, Sam & Dave also released a string of phenomenal long players for Stax. That label has been defunct for nearly four decades, leaving the U.K.’s Edsel Records to sweep up these unheralded classics for a much needed refurbishing. Souped up with a fresh remastering job and decked out with a glut of bonus tracks, some of the most vital soul sides of the ‘60s now sound cleaner, meaner, bigger, and funkier than ever. As soon as “Hold On, I’m Comin’” kicks the guys’ first Stax L.P. into action, you’ll think Al Jackson is whipping his drum kit in your living room. Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass thrums your eardrum on “Don’t Help Me Out”. Best of all, Sam’s sweet tenor and Dave’s gritty baritone are as present and punchy as the sound of your feet when you inevitably start stomping along to the beat.

That first Stax platter, Hold On, I’m Comin’ (1966), presents Sam and Dave boiled down to their essence. It’s the hardest, rawest record in their repertoire. Over the salty bedrock of Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Sam & Dave explore all the possibilities of duo-singing: harmonizing, trading lines, contrasting each other with distinctly different approaches and ranges, dropping encouraging asides off mic, and at their most transcendent, bouncing off each other in fleet counterpoint, as they do on the magnificent “Ease Me”.

Also released in ’66, Double Dynamite builds on Hold On by introducing some unexpected rhythms into the mix with the herky-jerk funk of “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody”, the stately bounce of “Sweet Pains”, the breezy stroll of “I Don’t Need Nobody (To Tell Me ‘Bout My Baby)”, and the slow-burn blues pulse of “Home at Last”. As is the case with each of these albums, the lead-off track is a big hit single, and hearing “You Got Me Hummin’” with such clarity, its amazing to think that radio censors took issue with the remotely suggestive title of “Hold On, I’m Comin’” but apparently didn’t have a problem with this track’s unmistakably erotic moaning.

Sexy stuff like “You Got Me Hummin’” was a long way from Sam & Dave’s roots as gospel crooners. So was the guys’ next and biggest smash, “Soul Man”, but that single’s accompanying album was a retreat from the raucous raunch of Hold On, I’m Comin’ and Double Dynamite. A version of the standard “Let It Be Me” and “Just Keep Holdin’ On” indicate how Sam & Dave might have sounded had they stuck with sacred music in ‘67. While Soul Men is a smokier, mellower record than the ones it followed, the down-tempo vibe allows the guys a freer playing field to cajole and improvise. For sheer singing, Soul Men might be Sam & Dave’s most impressive showcase, even if it isn’t their most electrifying.

The wildness of Sam & Dave’s first two albums and the elegant polish of their third mesh gloriously on their final Stax L.P. Annotator Tony Rouse hypothesizes that I Thank You is actually a hodgepodge of new cuts and older outtakes, though the entire album sports a modern sheen. For the first time, the essential backing of bass, drums, guitar, and horns swells with strings, vibraphone, and a variety of keyboards and percussion. The tracks are the duo’s most eclectic, with the unpredictable “You Don’t Know What You Mean to Me” sitting alongside the symphonic “Everybody’s Got to Believe in Somebody” and the tougher-than-tough “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” (which Taj Mahal would soon immortalize in “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus”). The album also features one of soul’s greatest double-sided singles: “I Thank You”/“Wrap It Up”.

While Rouse’s superb and extensive liner notes suggest changing tastes for the psychedelic soul of The Temptations and the increasingly personal approach of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye left Sam & Dave sounding a bit out of step with the late ‘60s, the growth the duo displayed on their four Stax albums implies they may have caught up with their more progressive peers had they kept working. Of course, with Stax beginning to stumble and their own working relationship always troubled, Sam & Dave called it quits in 1970. They reunited before long but never again produced work as powerful as these four Stax L.P.s.

Edsel’s reissues pair Hold On, I’m Comin’ on a single disc with Double Dynamite and Soul Men on a double-set with I Thank You. Stellar, non-L.P. singles, such as “A Place Nobody Can Find”, “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”, and “Can’t You Find Another Way (Of Doing It)”, fill out these essential collections. Order them from with the links below:
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