On Anderson East’s ‘Encore,’ An Aspiring Soul Singer Steps Into His Own

01.16.18 9 months ago

Joshua Black Wilkins

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The genre known as blue-eyed soul — in which white singers put their spin on R&B templates now decades old — is evergreen. In the opening months of 2017 alone, you can find the James Hunter Six’s new album Whatever It Takes, due out February 2nd on the New York label Daptone, Rhye’s new LP Blood, out the same day on Loma Vista, and Anderson East’s sophomore album Encore, out last Friday on Low Country Sound/Elektra Records.

East, Alabama-born and Nashville-based, has created a brassy, raspy love-letter to the soul of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. During that period, the sounds of genres had not yet been codified, and white singers in the south routinely recorded soul albums — this was the era of Bobbie Gentry’s “He Made a Woman Out Pf Me,” Tony Joe White’s “They Caught The Devil And Put Him In Jail In Eudora, Arkansa” and Charlie Rich’s “Midnight Blues.” Intra-genre cross-pollination went both ways: Al Green turned Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” into soul ballads; Glen Campbell had a country hit with Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights.”

After the disco revolution, the distance between the mainstreams in country and R&B grew. But there have been various acolytes of classic soul in country in the years since — think of Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5,” Dwight Yoakam’s “If There Was a Way,” Shelby Lynne’s “Thought It Would Be Easier.” And now comes East, polishing his retro soul until it glows in the dark.

Encore is impressively faithful: The timbre of the brass suggests the Stax trio known as the Memphis Horns, and the backup vocals, layered by Kristen Rogers, evoke the backing groups used during one of producer Billy Sherrill’s sessions with Charlie Rich. The organ plays long, shivering lines, and in the tradition of Stax’s Steve Cropper, guitarist/producer Dave Cobb lays out a bright, cyclical riff that intertwines with a ticking beat in 6/8 time (“If You Keep Leaving Me”) or switches into percussive mode, clenching down on the second and fourth beat along with the drums (“All On My Mind,” co-written by another blue-eyed soul devotee, Ed Sheeran).

East has the gravelly authority to grapple with these southern soul backdrops, and like many singers with textured voices, he gravitates to ballads. With the exception of a few barn-burners, Encore stays stately. On ballads, East can emote and combust at his own pace, working towards predictable, highly agreeable, ad-lib-filled climaxes. He applies himself to these duties with enthusiasm and diligence, scraping and wailing through a series of romantic tales. When his backing vocalists chime in, the effect is like sandpaper meeting silk. East gargles and corrodes his words and the women sweep in to pave over his jagged surfaces.

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