Composer Alex Shapiro once said to a group of students, “Music is a lot like making love.” She was greeted with silence. After all, she’d made these students stand, stretch and otherwise act in ways foreign to them, super-serious as they were in their musical studies, obsessed with theories and the physics of music rather than the feelings behind it. Shapiro continued, “It’s just like lovemaking. We’re trying to please ourselves. We’re hoping to please at least one other person. And, we are in fact, communicating. Passionately.”
Passionate communication is the driving force behind Steal Your Soul and Dare Your Spirit to Move, the second studio release from Detroit’s damaged blues trio the Soledad Brothers. Taking their cues from legendary blues artists such as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as British blues-rockers the Rolling Stones and Cream, Soledad guitarist/vocalist Johnnie Walker, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Oliver Henry and drummer Ben Swank create a raw, soul-drenched album with one foot in the past and more than a nod to the current grassroots recording philosophy.
In other words, a fusion of physics and feelings.
A lot of folks had a hand in producing Steal Your Soul, including Jack White (of fellow Detroit band the White Stripes), Jim Diamond (the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs and the Go) and Ruben Glazer. Love songs exist alongside blatant Stones’ ripoffs, horns exist with recording techniques designed to make the record sound like an old acetate platter from the ’30s, and funky organ flourishes accompany otherwise Spartan honky-tonk blues. At times sleazy, at times preachy, Steal Your Soul sears with an intensity born from a reckless disregard for hipster trends, lack of time constraints and a descent into sonic indulgence.
Steal Your Soul is a leap forward artistically from the group’s first full-length, a self-titled CD featuring liner notes written by legendary MC5 manager/activist poet John Sinclair, a longtime supporter of the group. As Sinclair noted, the Soledad Brothers (who take their name from a group of 1970s revolutionary black-militant inmates from Soledad Prison in California) might be of the “Caucasian Persuasion,” but they are no strangers to the loneliness, consciousness and struggle that fuels the artistic fires of the blues.
“We had less latitude for experimentation on the first album because we were limited by the equipment we were using,” Walker explains. “With Steal Your Soul, we were more focused and more deliberate with what we were trying to do.”
It was also during the recording of the second album that Henry became a full-fledged permanent member of the group, adding his skills on horns and keys to songs such as “Ray of Love,” a piano-bar blues love song that features Walker crooning something that sounds straight out of Mickey Rourke’s performance in Barfly. Other songs, such as “Nation’s Bell,” roll with the train-track rhythm of harmonica, handclaps and Memphis-style guitar licks.
“We were trying to make songs sound different, to give each song its own character by changing around instrumentation, mike placement, or using different amplifiers,” Walker says. “This guy here (he points to Oliver), played what — six instruments — on the record. You just get to thinking, ‘Well, gosh, can we put a clarinet on that?’
“And a lot of times, you can’t,” Henry says with a laugh.
While national attention has been focused on the Brothers’ homebase of Detroit as the nexus of the “blues-rock revival,” Henry claims too many musicians (“Not those from Detroit, per se,” he’s quick to point out.) never go beyond a limited range of influences.
“If you listen to the bands those people say influence them, they do all kinds of crazy shit on their records,” he says, citing There’s a Riot Going On by Sly and the Family Stone as his current muse. “Instead of taking what those artists give you and creating something that belongs to yourself, it just seems to me these bands are taking bits and pieces and putting them together like a puzzle, saying, ‘This is an original work.’ ”
Walker adds that he draws inspiration from the willingness of artists such as Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra and John Coltrane to push boundaries, unafraid of the result, while freely admitting, “We don’t claim our shit is original at all.” Emotion, he concludes, is at the root of whether something is worthwhile musically.
Someone once said that with the blues, you never know if it’s the truth or just a good story, and Steal Your Soul reaffirms that statement. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if Walker was born on the tracks (as he claims in “Miracle Birth”) or in a suburb. It only matters that he convincingly pulls off the persona, and makes us, if only even for a little bit, feel something real.
“It’s a matter of faith,” Henry says. “I don’t even know if there’s a word for it, and when I listen to a record, I think, Does it have it, or does it not have it? And there’s no doubt; there’s something in it. I don’t think you can ever fully explain to another human being what I’m talking about. It has nothing to do with the moral character of the people recording it, either.”