If you’ve been lamenting the demise of real R and B and wondering what happened to soul music, an end to your suffering is in sight. Salvation – as the Good Book says - often comes in the strangest of forms and from the unlikeliest of places, but who would have thought that a young white woman from Canada would release the most rocking, heart felt and down right soulful record I’ve heard in years?
Muscle Shoals and Memphis are a helluva long way from East Vancouver, and though the city has become something of a roots music mecca in the last decade or so, it’s never been known for Stax and Motown inspired sounds. But, Mary Kastle sounds like she’s about to change all of that. Simply put, her debut ‘Beneath the Folds’ sounds like a record that many artists from Shelby Lynne to Diana Krall would have given their eye teeth to have recorded. In an era where Beyonce is considered the pinnacle of the R and B genre, Kastle’s slinky, muscular playing underpinned by the smoldering erotic tension in her voice come as a balm to troubled music lovers.
From the first phrase of ‘This Train’ with its Bobby Gentry inspired melody and its ‘Aretha sings soul’ vibe, I was hooked. Mary Kastle is a singer who isn’t afraid to cut loose, but who – more importantly – knows when to hold back, when to cajole and tease the ears with what she doesn’t sing. The control, phrasing, and the emotional intelligence she employs in each song are never short of staggering. Supported by her own considerable piano, Hammond, and Rhodes playing, Kastle is obviously a musician with some serious chops and insight into how to craft a song. At times she sketches out the melodies lovely and light; at other times she literally pounds the keys to unleash a tsunami of fat soul riffs that had my whole body shaking. In every instance, she delivers just the right emphasis needed to serve the emotional undercurrent of the song.
Like most records on the Black Hen label, ‘Beneath the Folds’ was produced by Steve Dawson. Often called ‘Canada’s T Bone Burnett’, he sounds more like a northern Jerry Wexler on this one. The spirit of his groundbreaking Muscle Shoals production style is never far away as Dawson lovingly layers instruments to give the songs a feeling and setting reminiscent of Dylan’s majestic ‘Slow Train Coming’ or Dusty Springfield’s ‘Dusty in Memphis’ albums. While that may sound like hyperbole, even a perfunctory listen through the album should be enough to convince the skeptical that Dawson and Kastle have risen to the challenge of producing a modern soul, jazz and R and B record that honours those who have come before by recreating the classic Stax sound while still maintaining a contemporary edge. The emphatic horns, deep soulful bass and drums, punctuated by Dawson’s Steve Cropper meets Dick Dale guitar style make this an album that - like all good soul records - leaves the listener feeling uplifted no matter how hurting and deep the lyrics to Kastle’s songs may be.
But, Mary Kastle’s music isn’t all style and no substance. Unlike many R and B albums that have one or two strong cuts offset by ten tracks of filler, there really isn’t a toss off or dud amongst this disc’s eleven original songs. Intelligent lyrics, interesting observations and witty turns of phrase abound as Kastle explores the ups and downs of romance in the modern world. Songs like ‘Little Bird’, ‘Beggin’, and ‘For All We Know’ are all gems that stand head and shoulders above most songs I’ve heard anywhere this year.
‘Beneath the Folds’ could very well become a template for making a contemporary R and B album. Blessed with great songs, a singer with a voice to die for, and musical performances that elevate each track, Kastle’s debut could well turn into one of the year’s greatest surprises. Hopefully, it won’t stay under the radar for long, and that people who long ago gave up on Aretha, wish Cassandra Wilson would break a sweat once in a while, and have grown disappointed with Shelby Lynne’s lack of direction will find solace in the music of Mary Kastle. This one’s for the ages. ‘Beneath the Folds’ is built to last.