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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Candi Staton: I'm Just A Prisoner


1) Someone You Use; 2) I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart; 3) You Don't Love Me No More; 4) Evidence; 5) Sweet Feeling; 6) Do Your Duty; 7) That's How Strong My Love Is; 8) I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin'); 9) Another Man's Woman, Another Woman's Man; 10) Get It When I Want It.

The «First Lady of Southern Soul» (for about a few days in the early 1970s) was first discovered by the notorious soulster Clarence Carter, for whom she was first his backing vocalist, and then his wife, for about three years. In personal terms, that was improvement over her first husband, who beat her up — the second one merely cheated, which meant that the marriage also did not last long. But at least in professional terms Carter did good for her: recognizing that she had what it takes to step out as a solo artist, he set her up as such, getting her to Fame Studios at Muscle Shoals and even writing some songs for her.

Although there is nothing particularly original or unusual about this debut record (not to mention how small it is — ten short songs that are over in a jiffy), Clarence's instincts did not fail him: I'm Just A Prisoner is required listening for any serious fan of old school soul music. The songs have mostly been written specially for the artist (Carter is joined by other established songwriters such as George Jackson and Ronnie Shannon, and Staton herself gets at least one co-credit); the arrangements, given that we find ourselves in Muscle Shoals, are sonically impeccable; the backing band is tough and knows how to set itself on fire at all the right moments. But most im­portantly, right from the get-go Ms. Staton establishes an awesome presence and keeps it up right until the end.

Her earliest experience was gospel singing, which explains why it looks like she's taking Aretha Franklin as her role model — the power, the passion, the self-assertion, the fight for your right. She cannot scale the same heights as Aretha, yet, on the other hand, there is a gritty "bad bitch" vibe to her singing that you cannot find in Aretha's singing, either, and the whole slant of the album is on aggressive resistance — just look at these song titles: there are, at best, one or two songs with sentimental values, and even these are delivered with a flaming sword (ʽSweet Feelingʼ is a song of rescue and loyalty rather than one of tender love). Much more often it's about infidelity and treachery, though: the very first song states that "I'm just someone you run to, I'm just someone you use", even if it is set to an R&B-pop hybrid melody that one usually asso­ciates with chivalrous serenades from the likes of Sam Cooke.

The best effect is reached, how­ever, when gritty words rub against gritty music — ʽEvidenceʼ sets up a cool mid-tempo funky groove as a foundation for two and a half minutes of fervent rants and verbal slapping in such a pissed-off way as you'd rarely, if ever, get a chance to hear on an Aretha album. Where Franklin fights for the right to earn "respect when I come home", Staton makes accusations instead of demands, with little in the way of reconciliation. It's a hot, infuria­ting, involving performance, and the only problem is that the song fades out just as it begins to hit its stride — which, by the way, is a common problem with most of the material on here (each of the songs could have benefited from a little extra jam power). The most extreme case is probably ʽI'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheartʼ, rolling on a bit faster and explaining how stability in life is more important than getting it on with young men who'd all rather "do the camel walk", so, Romeo, take a hike. In theory, this point is debatable on several levels, but Candi's delivery is so tense, fast, fluent, and powerful that you barely have the opportunity to retort — she emerges here as a true master of «artistic flooding».

Accordingly, there's this real powerful gospel take here on ʽThat's How Strong My Love Isʼ, for some reason featuring a completely new set of lyrics (compared to the classic Otis Redding ver­sion) and a completely new attitude — one of iron-willed loyalty rather than insane devotion, all the more ironic seeing as how the song is surrounded on all sides with tunes complaining about mistreatment and deception. But the irony does not really matter as long as everything is delive­red with credibility — and it is, enough for the lady to have placed three singles from here in the lower ranges of the US pop charts and in the higher ranges of the R&B ones. (The biggest R&B chart success was ʽSweet Feelingʼ, a song melodically reminiscent of Aretha's ʽI Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)ʼ, but more rhythmically conventional). Were this released on the Atlantic label, we'd probably be hearing much more about it than we usually do — but a techni­cal inconvenience like that should never stand in the way of a well-earned thumbs up.

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