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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Candi Staton: Life Happens


1) I Ain't Easy To Love; 2) Close To You; 3) Commitment; 4) For Eternity; 5) Even The Bad Times Are Good; 6) Beware, She's After Your Man; 7) Treat Me Like A Secret; 8) Where Were You When You Knew; 9) Three Minutes To A Relapse; 10) Never Even Had A Chance; 11) Go Baby Go; 12) My Heart's On Empty; 13) Have You Seen The Children; 14) A Better World Coming.

This is an even more ambitious comeback statement than Who's Hurting Now: with 14 tracks running over an hour, many of them self-penned, and featuring an even tighter and musically sharper band than last time, Life Happens is far more than anybody could expect in 2014 from a former B-grade R&B star that spent three decades in a restricted gospel niche. I have no idea how a «masterpiece» of traditional R&B could sound these days, even in theory, but when you are on nostalgic trips like these, what matters above everything else is devotion — and all these tracks are as fanatically devoted to bringing back the old soul vibe as Candi's albums from those past three decades were fanatically devoted to praising the name of the Lord.

I really don't know much about these musicians (except for Candi's son Marcus, who still helps her out with the drums on about half of the tracks), but they do a damn fine job with the grooves, although in terms of memorability it is the repetitive vocal hooks that will always come first. The best sound is on the tough funky numbers — ʽBewareʼ, ʽMy Heart's On Emptyʼ — but even the slowest ballads that come closest to feeble adult contemporary, like ʽWhere Were Youʼ, are never spoiled by excessive production, with acoustic guitars, electric slide, bass, and organ always taking priority over any synthesizer backup (if it's there at all). And, most importantly, Staton sounds like she really means it — whether it is a nostalgic love song she sings, or an angry social statement she makes, there is no doubt that it all comes straight from the heart this time.

Sure enough, the social statements may seem to be a bit of a joke: Desperate Anthems like ʽHave You Seen The Childrenʼ, lamenting the terrible fate of the younger generation, are lyrically shallow (yes, she does put all the blame on "video games and movies", if you can believe it), and even if the pain, anguish, and fear behind the performance are sincere, it is a little hard to empa­thize unless you happen to be an ex-PMRC member or something. This fear of the modern age even occasionally makes its way into the more personal Man/Woman tunes: on ʽBeware, She's After Your Manʼ, Candi reminds us that "we're living in the digital age" — somehow, that is sup­posed to make your man easily fall for the first camwhore he encounters — but do not judge the lady too harshly: she just has a fairly tight moral code, and if it helps her to make a damn fine record, so be it. Besides, no matter how bad things seem to be in The World According to Candi Staton, there is ʽA Better World Comingʼ anyway: the last track is written in the classic tradition of "everything sucks, but things are going to be better somehow even if there's not a single shred of evidence for this at the moment", even if we all have to die and go to Heaven to witness this (actually, I do believe that is the precise message of the song).

The majority of the songs, however, are about him and her (me and you), reflecting a certain degree of turbulence in the life of the singer — not too surprising, considering that she had just divorced her sixth husband (baseball player Otis Nixon Jr., 19 years her younger, if you want some yellow press details), so songs like ʽCommitmentʼ, a tight, Eighties-style pop-rocker along the lines of ʽEvery Breath You Takeʼ, have a very genuine ring to them — "what I'm searching for is a man who'll stand by me", she sings after six unsuccessful attempts, but the fun thing is, she is clearly not losing hope, though, as she admits herself on the very first track, "I ain't easy to love". Without making any judgements of character whatsoever, I must say that Candi's turbulent love life at least made for an interesting musical reflection — with the exception of some of those thoroughly faceless disco albums, there's a little bit of her personal story in every record she makes, and now that she's way past 70, that story has not ceased to be interesting.

Not to mention that for a 72-year old singer, she sounds awesome: I've always held the opinion that singers with «unexceptional» voices truly reap the benefits as they manage to outlast singers with «exceptional» ones, and this case confirms the rule — these days, having to choose between Candi and Aretha, I'd go for Candi without blinking: where 21st century Aretha sounds like a sorry shadow of her former self, Candi Staton goes on sounding... just like Candi Staton. Of course, that voice did sink about one octave lower, but that just added gravity and maturity, and she never tries to sing outside of her new range (unlike Aretha, who still likes to demonstrate how she can hit these high notes if she reaches up all the way on the very tips of her toes).

I do believe the record deserves a thumbs up, after all. Most likely, if she keeps on going like this, she is bound to lose it sooner or later, but as of 2014, there's taste, style, genuine feeling, power, an occasional catchy chorus — solid counterevidence to the statement that an old man (woman) ain't got nothing in the world these days.

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