This album of soul covers, containing material originally associated with the classic Stax label, represents the first new recorded works by Huey Lewis and The News since 2001’s ‘Plan B’ album. Interestingly, its UK release came during the same month as the re-release of ‘Back To The Future’ at the cinema – part of me thinks this may not have been a coincidence.
If you take a closer look at Huey Lewis and The News’s back catalogue, amongst the good-time pop-rock belters, you’ll find plenty classic soul music influences – not least of all on tracks like ‘Doing It All For My Baby’, ‘Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do’ and the monster hit ‘Stuck With You’ – so the idea of a soul covers album from these guys feels very natural. With Lewis’s voice as great as it ever was (the dictionary definition of professional performer) there was no doubt as to whether they could pull this off. There aren’t any moments during ‘Soulville’s fourteen cuts where you’d question their choice of song, but naturally, some covers are better suited to The News than others.
The journey through the band’s soul influences begins with a run through of the Wilson Pickett classic ‘Don’t Fight It (Feel It)’. The sound is slightly smoother than that of Pickett’s 1965 single, but the horn section is spot on and Sean Hopper’s organ parts have the necessary amount of retro cool to make them have a classic feel. Lewis takes the song and delivers a very natural performance, resisting temptation to change the vocal in any way. Naturally, it doesn’t match Pickett’s spiky delivery, but it’s a more than worthy cover. During Solomon Burke’s ‘Got To Get You Off My Mind’, Lewis’s vocal is an easy one – a match for the deliveries on his self-written soulful material – but it’s the tight horn section and the laid back drums which recreate most of the old soul sound. The band sounds fantastic on their version of ‘Don’t The Green Grass Fool You’ (originally recorded by Wilson Pickett in 1970) with Stef Burns capturing the smooth jazz influences in the lead guitar parts perfectly and the horns provide a great accompaniment to Bill Gibson’s upfront drums. The sax break is superb and Lewis’s vocals are effortless. John Pierce is the real hero of this number though: listen carefully – amongst all those more obvious attention grabbing elements, his bass runs are incredibly busy.
The much covered ‘Respect Yourself’ appears here with plenty of confidence and a sharp line on the electric piano. While Huey’s delivery is perfect and the backing vocal harmonies add the necessary amount of depth, it feels a little slow. It’s certainly lacking the sassy qualities of The Staple Singers’ classic 1971 version, but thankfully, is it isn’t as heavy handed as Joe Cocker’s slightly shouty take on this classic from 2002. Against the odds, the title cut (originally recorded by Isaac Hayes on the ‘Shaft’ soundtrack) rather suits Huey’s slightly husky tones. The News replicate the laid back musical arrangement of the original the best they’re able, but understandably due to 21st Century recording techniques, the end result sounds shinier than Hayes’s Stax recording. Of particular note here is Bill Gibson’s understated drum work, which does very little until the pre-chorus, at which point, it has a great live sound.
The treatment of Eddie Floyd’s ‘Never Found a Girl’ is a stand out. The smoothness of Floyd’s original cut – heavy on the harmonies and strings – has been given a little extra punch by the News. While still very respectful to the original, the piano part here is presented far higher in the mix; Sean Hopper contributes brilliant stabbing keys here, very complimentary to Huey’s vocal delivery. While the band is in good shape and the arrangement is pretty much note-for-note, a take on Rufus Thomas’s ‘Little Sally Walker’ falls short of the mark. While it could be argued the band sound like they’re having fun (and Lewis himself is relishing every line), that’s part of the problem – this version of ‘Little Sally Walker’ sounds like something Lewis would have delivered as part of his starring role in ‘Duets’, karaoke style. It’s not bad by any means, but it could’ve turned out better, even though it stood little to no chance of being as energetic as Thomas’s original. A version of Joe Tex’s ‘I Want To Do Everything For You’ highlights exactly why a soul covers record is a great vehicle for Huey Lewis and The News. The lead vocal is spot on, made even better by a decent harmony vocal (which although not quite a complete reproduction of the the original, is still a really good stab) and the band are equally on form. Stef Burns gets a brief chance to step away from rhythm guitar work and turn in a couple of quick leads. Even Lewis himself grabs the opportunity to whip out his harmonica for a solo.
Lewis steps down at the album’s close, allowing The News chance to really shine on a rendition of the Mar-Keys number ‘Grab This Thing’. Obviously, being a Mar-Keys track, it’s up to the horns to take front and centre stage – and the guys here are more than up to the task. The sax leads are attention grabbing without becoming aggressive and the accompanying rhythms are hard hitting, befitting of the classic Stax approach. There are a couple of great opportunities missed here though, since Sean Hopper doesn’t get to recreate the organ solo and Stef Burns, likewise, is restricted to rhythm work, choosing not to re-interpret Steve Cropper’s guitar solo. It’s over a minute shorter than the Mar-Key’s version and a tiny bit slower, but these are very minor complaints.
After nearly a decade without new material from Lewis and his News, it would have been so good for them to deliver a disc brimming with new compositions, maybe with a couple of these covers thrown in. But since that wasn’t to be, looking at ‘Soulsville’ for what it offers, it’s a decent record – and one which makes a good companion piece to their 1994 rock ‘n’ roll covers album, ‘Four Chords and Several Years Ago’. Do yourselves a big favour though: if you enjoyed this record, check out the original artists’ recordings of these songs if you haven’t already done so.