Memphis, as everyone knows, has a long and varied music history, but local label Inside Sounds makes an admirable attempt to unearth and recontextualize yet more of the city's back catalog with the handsomely packaged compilation The Memphis Belles: Past, Present & Future (Inside Sounds; Grade: B). This 20-track collection ranges from the early '70s to the present and is not meant to be definitive (the notable artists who have been left out include Memphis Minnie and Hattie Hart in the early days to Stax-era singers Mable John and Ruby Johnson to current faves such as Di Anne Price, Barbara Blue, Reba Russell, and Alicja Trout), but it stands as an impressive survey nonetheless.
The city's two greatest female soul singers, Stax's Carla Thomas and Hi's Ann Peebles, offer highlights. Thomas' 1971 cut "Love Means You Never Have to Say You're Sorry" is vintage Stax, driven by Al Jackson's sure drumming and the funky interplay of guitarist Michael Toles and bass player James Alexander. The track was produced by brother Marvell Thomas and written by the Thomases and current Soulsville director Deanie Parker. Peebles' contribution is a stripped-down version of her classic "I Can't Stand the Rain," taken from a 1991 recording session.
The scene's blues and rockabilly roots are represented by a pair of '80s-era cuts from hill-country matriarch Jessie Mae Hemphill (the slow, grinding "Go Back to Your Used to Be") and "Rock 'n' Roll Granny" Cordell Jackson (the instrumental "The Blues Chaser"), while the most recent generation of Beale Street divas is represented by Ruby Wilson ("I'm Catching Hell") and Joyce Cobb (a fine, jazzy version of the Jimmy Hughes soul standard "Steal Away"). The best representations of the present come from roots gal Nancy Apple's "Fooled by the Heart," the finest cut from her most recent album, Outside the Lines, and "Yesterday & Days Before," a bit of bluesy rock informed by electro-pop and techno from former Memphian and current Angelino Gwin Spencer. Memphis Belles even makes room for classical music in the form of Kallen Esperian's "Long Time Ago."
As to be expected with a lengthy, multi-artist compilation, however, the quality isn't always consistent. Lowlights include a torch song from wannabe-singer Cybill Shepherd ("More Than You Know"), Susanne Jerome Taylor's probably just-fine-in-its-own-time but severely dated '80s radio-rock cut "Out of the Blue," and the inexplicable album closer "Bless Your Soul," Celine Dion-esque overemoting from just-passing-through Canadian songstress Amanda Rae Cross.
An added delight to this solid collection is the informative liner notes written by label owner Eddie Dattel, where you can discover seemingly little-known facts such as that jazz-identified Reni Simon once recorded with Steve Cropper and toured with the Elvin Bishop Band and that Brenda Patterson sang backup on Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."
Another area "belle," not included on The Memphis Belles, is chitlin'-circuit soulstress Barbara Carr. Jackson, Mississippi's Malaco may be the king of that circuit, but Memphis' Ecko Records is definitely in the game, and their product doesn't get much better than Carr, who probably falls below the likes of Bobby Rush among the second tier of artists in this enduring, mostly regional form. Carr can best be heard on the new The Best of Barbara Carr (Ecko Records; Grade: B+), where she's saucy without ever being silly, country but never camp.
On this hourlong opus, Carr taunts ("If You Can't Cut the Mustard"), pleads ("Bone Me Like You Own Me"), brags ("Let a Real Woman Try"), slinks around contentedly ("Make Me Feel It Like You Feel It Too"), and generally paints a portrait of adult sexuality so dirty it'd likely make XXXtina Aguilera feel like the intimidated party crasher of Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me Not to Come."
But it isn't all sex talk: Carr vividly outlines a lifestyle on "I've Been Partying at the Hole in the Wall" and puts a twist on a staple topic with "As Long As You Were Cheating." (She had time to cheat as well, but now that he's staying home her fun is over.) And she shows her range on more straight-up soul cuts like "Right Kind of Love" and the triumphant "The Best Woman Won." What to make of the fact that all 14 tracks collected here, including the title "Bone Me Like You Own Me," are written by men I'll leave for you to decide.
Though there are exceptions (Jimi Hendrix and not much else), I'm not much of a fan of improvisational rock music or live albums, for that matter. That confession out of the way, Live From Memphis (Swirldisc; Grade: B-), the sprawling 13-track, 79-minute platter from local jam stalwarts FreeWorld, does a pretty solid job accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. Recorded last July over three nights at the band's familiar Beale haunt, Blues City Café, the five-piece band is joined by their mentor, local sax legend Herman Green, and a handful of helping hands, running through mostly originals that meld elements of rock, jazz, soul, funk, hip hop, and maybe even country (or at least Southern rock). How well all these elements cohere is in the ear of the beholder, I suppose. Me? My fave cut is the cover of the Band's "Ophelia," which puts FreeWorld's incontestable chops at the service of a good, tight song. Even the overlong solos seem locked into the song rather than departing from it.