Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Good God! is Good

A few Gonerfests ago, my boyfriend really wanted to check out Al Green's church while we were in Memphis. Green is now a preacher and also sings during services. I realize passing on the chance to experience such a thing marks me as a poor excuse for a music fan, but listen, church is church and I wasn't going. Plus, our guidebook-for-lowlifes cautioned that one of the things Green likes to preach against is being gay, so maybe that helps explain why I was content to just go to the Stax Museum or eat some food.

I'm not sorry. I'm especially not sorry ever since Good God! Born Again Funk, this new Numero Group collection of funky gospel goodies fell into my clutches. Gospel funk might not be a special self-conscious genre all on its own but it is a thread in gospel, as gospel is a thread in everything else, and the folks at Numero Group are the professionals at teasing out bits of gossamer like that. With Good God! Born Again Funk on my iPod I can now get up late on Sunday, enjoy a heathen's brunch, and then sit down to ponder the voluminous and tangled fibrous roots of American music at length with out having to put any actual churchgoers to any trouble. 

The folks who put this compilation together listened really hard to these songs and so did I. When sounds seem to sit at a such musical crossroads, you get the feeling that, if you listen hard enough, you can divine the origins of R&B and gospel,and therefore rocknroll and everything that has ever mattered. Which is as close to a religious experience as I am likely to get.

The compilation is beautiful and strange from start to finish. The songs collected here lean away from the sunny, rejoicing side of gospel and incline toward the questing, aching side of faith. The minor key is as much a common thread on Good God! as a funky bass line. My secular touchstones for this sound are songs like The Four Tops' anguished "Standing in the Shadows of Love." T.L. Barret's reflective "Like a Ship" reminds me of the gentle melancholy of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me".

There is a really striking variety of styles on the album too. Not all the songs sound like they would be more at home in a nightclub than a church, but many do. Nearly all are surprising (and very moving) departures from the popular image of gospel music, which is what really makes the compilation worth picking up on. And a few tracks do deliberately toy with the line between the sacred and profane. Ada Richards' "I'm Drunk and Real High (In the Spirit of God)" is an obvious example. Others do it melodically rather than lyrically, but usually with an emotive quality that is identifiably more spiritual than erotic. Oh, but then, a lot of great secular funk does that too. This is what I mean about the tangles.

Still, there doesn't seem to be anything too out of the ordinary about the selections as gospel songs until you are actually doing the bump to Lucy Rogers' "Pray a Little Longer." It might be okay to dance in church, but not like that.

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