Shawn Lee - Soul in the Hole (2009)

Shawn Lee
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Where does multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee find the time? In the last 18 months, Shawn Lee's has released three full albums, each completely different in feel, tone, and genre-all accomplished in their own right. Known in different music circles for different types of music, the Wichita native took London by storm nine years ago with his Monkey Boy debut and later again with Soul Visa, which sported music ranging in everything from loungy electronica to spaghetti western. His songs and scores have since appeared in a number of television shows like Desperate Housewives and films like Bully. He's also recently released three albums, including Clutch of the Tiger and Miles of Style, to critical acclaim, none of which are particularly like the lamenting Soul In the Hole.

Where does multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee find the time? In the last 18 months, Shawn Lee's has released three full albums, each completely different in feel, tone, and genre-all accomplished in their own right. Known in different music circles for different types of music, the Wichita native took London by storm nine years ago with his Monkey Boy debut and later again with Soul Visa, which sported music ranging in everything from loungy electronica to spaghetti western. His songs and scores have since appeared in a number of television shows like Desperate Housewives and films like Bully. He's also recently released three albums, including Clutch of the Tiger and Miles of Style, to critical acclaim, none of which are particularly like the lamenting Soul In the Hole.

As much as I appreciate the laid back Clutch of the Tiger with Clutchy Hopkins and the diverse international sounds of Miles of Style, a project where Hill captured the music of several countries and melded each culture's sound into his own flavor, I'm prejudiced as a soul head. In its contradictions and complexities, Soul in the Hole is a more satisfying exploration than any of Hill's previous rock, latin rhythm or electronica efforts. With its spacious production, dense instrumentations, and creamy blues, Soul in the Hole is a hip, yet understated project that is consistently interesting from start to finish.

Lee's first complete submersion into soul (he's flirted plenty on Soul Visa and a lil' bit on Monkey Boy) has the distinction of having created an atmosphere completely it's own. With the exception of the title track and Nicole Willis's "Jigsaw," no Motown, Stax or Atlantic Records comparisons can be made on this producer's project. Though hints of 70s Northern Soul, and glimmers of Roy Ayers do pop up from time to time, none of these elements come to define, much less overwhelm, Lee's distinct, unpretentious production sound. The casualness of Lee's mixes and the band's breezy, yet calculated performances on cuts like Darondo's "Playboy Bunny" feels like a recorded jam session, with just a hint of polish. The overall effect is a project that is old and new, and shimmering and somber all at once.

The singers chosen to express Lee's mostly original material are themselves unique. This soul chest of underground artists interprets Lee's retro-material with a muted melancholia different from anything you've heard released so far this year. The sage Darondo gives the low-fi R&B of "Stay Away From Me" a grainy authenticity and a healthy dollop of blues to lie on top of Lee's bumping rhythms. Though her "Time To Say Goodbye" is a bit Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Karime Kendra acerbic alto on Al Green's "Something" is second to none in its steely-eyed approach. Fanny Franklin and Lee infuse the brass and bass heavy "Too Tired To Sleep" with just enough sultry accents to make it's sadness seductive. In imperfect harmonies Paul Butler layers the resigned "Whatever Side You're On," with enough quiet funk and well-arranged intricacies that you're left wanting more when the song abruptly ends. While each of these vocal stylists can sing, none are particularly great. Yet, what each talent brings to Lee's music is a synergistic understanding of how to tell these stories and a voice of such an inimitable personality that you cannot imagine anyone else fitting into these rare compositions.

There are a couple of soundly executed, if derivative moments on Soul In The Hole that are almost disappointing when compared to Lee's more complex, original material. Ms. Lee, another guest vocalist, has the most obvious radio groove with the acid jazz of "The Stuff." The previously mentioned, Nicole Willis of Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators rounds out the featured artists on this project with a cool, though familiar clap and stomp affair. Lee's own P-funk vocals on the title cut is another solid 60s go-go jam that you'll feel you've heard before. These edible affronts aside, Shawn Lee's Soul In The Hole is a deliriously high quality project with a funky, but plaintive character all its own. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

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