Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Retrosoul is an umbrella term used to describe R&B music of the present that's made to sound like it comes straight out of the past. It's a style pioneered by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and the late Amy Winehouse. This year, two new albums, by London's The James Hunter Six and New York's Charles Bradley, continue the trend.

Reviewer Oliver Wang looks at how these artists walk a fine line between inspiration and replication.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: It's tempting to describe the voices of Charles Bradley and James Hunter as timeless but that's not quite right. When we hear the jagged tear in their singing, we know exactly what era they're honoring.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRICTLY RESERVED FOR YOU")

CHARLES BRADLEY: (Singing) I'm tired of the same lies. I'm tired of the same people trying to get to my business...

WANG: That's Charles Bradley off his latest album, "Victim of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRICTLY RESERVED FOR YOU")

BRADLEY: (Singing) Victim of love, something is up with you and me...

WANG: Bradley, who is now in his mid 60's, was signed by Daptone Records, partly because of a James Brown act he used to perform. The comparisons are obvious enough but Bradley's come into his own voice through two albums so far, emoting with such a powerful sense of anguish that, at times, it cuts you to the core.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRICTLY RESERVED FOR YOU")

BRADLEY: (Singing) I'm a victim of loving you. I'm a victim of wanting you...

WANG: Meanwhile, London's 50-year-old James Hunter also taps into R&B's legacies but from an earlier era than the more popular Motown or Memphis songbooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MINUTE BY MINUTE")

JAMES HUNTER: (Singing) Minute by minute, I'm making my way to you. Every minute it's you I'm closer to...

WANG: The new James Hunter Six album, "Minute by Minute," also has a Daptone connection. It was produced by the label's co-founder, Gabriel Roth, and he nails the sound of R&B in its formative years when it was part rock 'n' roll, part jump blues, all swing and swagger. It's a marvelous fit with Hunter's own swoons, croons, screams, and rips, as he and the group time warp back to the early days of AM rock radio, minus the static.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICKEN SWITCH")

HUNTER: (Singing) You don't have to win every time. You can stay this side of the finish line. Sometimes you know when it's time to let go. When the going gets rough and you've had enough, hit the chicken switch...

WANG: Hunter and Bradley so perfectly recapture R&B's yesteryear that critics sometimes describe their music as being trapped in amber. But almost all pop music riffs on past styles, whether from last month or last century. Besides, a musical equivalent to amber doesn't sound so bad. People find value in amber. We value it precisely for its ability to preserve the past. We value it for providing a window into histories that may otherwise go lost or forgotten. We value Amber because it glows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE WAY LOVE")

HUNTER: (Singing) I found out for a natural fact what you hand out you don't always get back. Well, now...

CORNISH: Our reviewer Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and writes the audio blog, Soul Sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE WAY LOVE")

HUNTER: (Singing) One way love, I got gypped for sure but it was fun 'cause one way love is better than none. She fixed the hand while I was playing for real. Oh, I never, never, never, never, never should have let her deal. Oh-oh, I finally turned my back on that single line of track...

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.