For much of the 20th century, popular music was largely defined by European culture. Then, in the middle of the century, the influence of the African American heritage, through jazz, gospel and blues, took a large - even dominant - role in shaping what would become rock, rhythm & blues and their countless subgenres. Two of the important developments in the first half decade of the 21st century are the greater influence of other cultures in the popular mix and the new generation of independent artists who possess the creativitiy and freedom to incorporate those sounds in unique, attractive ways. One of the leaders in this progression of popular music is Martha Redbone (many thanks to Bert Caldwell of ISpySoul.com for introducing me to her music).
Like the rest of us, Martha Redbone is, in part, defined by her heritage. In her case, it is a heritage shaped by Shawnee, Choctaw, Lumbee and African American forebearers. Raised in Brooklyn and in rural Kentucky, she was reared on pop and soul/funk music of the 70s, but also on the very different sounds of her mother's Choctaw family, resulting in a unique sensibility as she began her career as a songwriter.
Along with her partner Aaron Whitby, Redbone signed with Warner/Chappell as a staff writer in the mid 90s and remained there for over a half decade. She then broke out with her own publishing company in 2001 and began work on her debut album Home of the Brave. Around that time Redbone and Whitby hooked up with veteran musicians Toby Williams (drums) Fred Cash, Jr. (bass), Alan Burroughs and Mike Campbell (guitars) to form the nucleus of a tight funk/rock band that continues to this day. Both the debut and the subsequent touring of Redbone's band created a critical buzz and set the stage for her follow-up album, 2004's Skintalk.
Skintalk is an extremely accomplished amalgamation of rock and R&B influences, but also with a strong undercurrent of Redbone's Native American heritage, especially on "Medicine Man" and the very interesting "Children of Love." Unlike the standard major label modern soul album, which is based on an electronic keyboard underpinning, Skintalk is powered by Burroughs' and Campbell's strong guitar work, creating a feeling more like Sly or Prince than Usher. This is especially true on "Mama," a powerful song about the travails of a strong single mother who uses aloofness as a defense mechanism, and on the absolutely infectious title cut, one of the best rock cuts I've heard this year. However, these hard cuts are contrasted quite dramatically on other tracks such as the smooth, Rufus-like 70s groove of "Future Street" and the equally strong "Just Because," "God Created Woman," and the beautiful ballad "Ubu." Throughout these cuts, the band sounds wonderful and Redbone's vocal performance is consistently strong. Best of all are Redbone and Whitby's compositions, which are both extremely melodic and deceptively sophisticated.
Skintalk is the kind of album that really defines what is great about independent soul in the 21st century. It's true to the artist and avoids simple classifications in delivering very engaging music. I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more from Martha Redbone.
By Chris Rizik (2004)