Considering what this new Huey Lewis and the News record is, I imagine my job as a critic for this particular endeavor would be to write an over-inflated, drawn-out review with all the mindless indulgence of a true narcissist. That is to say, a music critic. I guess I’d have to include the opening paragraph (or three) about Stax, this set, appropriately called Soulsville, being a collection of covers from that under-appreciated label. Speaking of which, one of those opening paragraphs would probably be devoted to comparing the lesser-known label to Motown, ultimately siding with Stax and the meaningless elitism that accompanies it. I would finally have to compare Huey’s voice – and, really, the band’s overall sound – to soul and Stax itself, regarding this covers album as a natural extension of the band’s persona and influences. It might be worth writing. Hell, it might even be worth reading.
But I’m not gonna do that. I’m simply gonna state that Soulsville is a tributealbum by Huey Lewis and the News to Stax Records and that’s it’s actually worth hearing. Yes, Huey Lewis’ voice, to put it bluntly, has always been Blacker than he. It was this soulful frontman juxtaposed with ’80s New Wave that made the News what they were as a band. Don’t believe me? Go listen to ‘If This Is It.’
Anyway, this albums works for to many reasons. Perhaps most importantly, Soulsville finds The News reuniting with its co-producer for Sports and Fore!, Jim Gaines. The result has a “clear, crisp sound and a new sheen of consummate professionalism” that was painted all over their classic songs. Lewis sounds like he’s having a blast making this record, as well. He never sounds bored and, for a man who’s 60, he’s never lost a step from his heyday. This, of course, shouldn’t come as a surprise given Lewis’ love of ’60s and ’70s soul and R&B. Soulsville, then, is a work from the heart of sorts.
Which also explains the track listing. The fourteen tracks here aren’t the most obvious choices, pointing to not only a deep knowledge of the label’s gems but also the band’s personal reflection of how great this label really was. The News could’ve easily thrown together a version of Issac Hayes’ ‘Theme from Shaft’ and probably gotten some serious airplay, but instead opted for lesser-known classics like Solomon Burke’s ‘Cry To Me’ and Wilson Pickett’s’ ‘Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.’ Combining all of these little details, the album is a damn near perfect tribute record.
Unfortunately, the one drawback here can be encapsulated in one song, the Staple Singers’ ‘Respect Yourself.’ The News’ version is great, to be sure, but I can’t help find his delivery slightly disingenuous considering the message of the song is a plea for Black Community to act with dignity. Seriously, I have no reason to suspect any member of the News to be racist in any way, but hearing Lewis belt out that entreaty comes off as a tad ridiculous, despite his best efforts. The same goes for the title track. Sure, the point isn’t to play songs the message of which you truly believe in. After all, this is a tribute album – the songs were already written and recorded. But it’s a tribute album from a band fronted by a guy as white as they come.
On paper it may sound ridiculous that Huey Lewis and the News are still recording music. Remember ‘Pineapple Express,’ anyone? Even more so that they’d make a Stax covers album. But it works so well. Nitpicking aside, Soulsville is a fantastic tribute album to a fantastic record label. Even if it isn’t meant to be taken seriously, the real point of the album is probably to introduce fans – fans of the News, fans of music, whatever – to Stax if they haven’t been before. And, really, what is a nobler purpose than that?