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Music Reviews

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Sub Pop
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Otis Redding
Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul (Collector's Edition)

Rating: 10/10 ?

April 24, 2008
Calculating the impact a recording will ultimately have on the music world is a difficult task at the time of its conception. When the sun beat down on the city of Memphis on the morning of July 5th, 1965, the crew at Stax Studios probably considered it another day in the lab and, finishing up the recording of Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, likely had no real idea of what they were getting themselves into. Otis Redding and the corporate staff at Volt Records, however, had different ideas.

With music's current soul revival - spearheaded in the mainstream by folks like Amy Winehouse and Adele, and in the underground by the rich sound bellowing up from the entire Daptone catalog (which is home to the Dap-Kings, a house similar to those used by Muscle Shoals, Stax, and Motown in their hey-days) - Otis Redding is just as relevant in 2008 as he was in 1965, if not more so. As strong a case as some may make for Winehouse and company, there remains something different about Redding that no single artist today can replicate - namely that his sound was real. Four decades ago no one was building a studio out of vintage analog equipment, nor was anyone studying bygone albums backwards and forwards in an effort to pinpoint certain sonic characteristics. Far from a throwback, in 1965 Redding's sound was fresh and immediate, down to every breath and groan from his passionate soul.

Compared to today's retro-seeking revivalism, Otis Blue was put to tape at a time when recording techniques were evolving and growing by leaps and bounds. Redding was in fact the beneficiary of cutting-edge technology, thanks to one Tom Dowd at Atlantic Records, who just happened to install a two-track at Stax Studios right before the Otis Blue sessions were to take place. A good deal of the advancing sounds in America in the 1960s can be attributed to Dowd - a fact that often falls below the radar with many historical perspectives on the records he has been involved with (including everything from the massive sound behind Cream's Wheels on Fire to Bobby Darin's smash hit "Mack the Knife") - and, not least of which in the case of Otis Blue, he could very easily be considered one of the world's first recording masters.

There is an old adage that questions the usefulness of a good recording engineer without a good song to record, and in Dowd's case there was obviously no shortage of quality material thanks to Redding. The Dowd/Redding combination was a symbiotic one, and Otis Blue's beautiful wide-spectrum live presence may not have materialized had Dowd not installed the multi-track beforehand. That fact is best illustrated by the singles distributed as 45s at the time, which were still recorded in mono and lacked the earthshaking vocal presence that came alive in Redding's stereo recordings. Rhino's deluxe Collector's Edition of Otis Blue covers both, with the mono version on the first disc, and the stereo following suit on the second.

Listening to the two versions of the album back-to-back provides two completely different listening experiences. With the mono mix, you get the classic touch of the AM radio sound - a sound that Redding and the Stax Band perfected to a degree that stood above the rest of their soulful counterparts. But it was the stereo mix that for the first time brought the sound of a live soul band in the studio (not to mention one of the best bands in history of bands, period) to life. And what a band it was, with a lineup that included Booker T. & the MG's, Issac Hayes, and the Mar-Key Horns. To take it a few steps further, this Rhino reissue includes never-before-heard mono mixdowns of the original stereo album tracks, including "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Respect," and "Ole Man Trouble." Also included within the Bonus cuts are the 1967 sped-up version of "Respect," single B-sides "Any Ole Way" and "I'm Depending on You," - as well as remastered cuts from Live at the Whiskey A Go Go and Live in Europe.

Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul not only set the bar extremely high for full-length soul music LPs in what was still a singles marketplace, but it also created a landmark recording in American Popular Music. While reissues can often be a bore (the recent Moon Safari anniversary package being a prime example), this Collectors Edition is a truly necessary release for newcomers to Otis Redding and veteran fans alike. Rhino's reissue not only delivers a benchmark album in its true form, but also creates a historical perspective on the LP format of the time, bringing you both mono and stereo formats that highlight the advancing recording technology of the era.

Reviewed by John Bohannon
An LAS contributing writer based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, John Bohannon is also a regular contributor to the pages of Prefixmag.com, Daytrotter.com, and Impose Magazine.

See other reviews by John Bohannon



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