It is worth listening to the new Candi Staton CD, 'His Hands' and the new(ish) Cat Power CD, 'The Greatest' back-to-back. Cat Power (like contemporaries Neko Case and even Jenny Lewis), in an attempt to develop her sound, gathered herself a crack band, headed South, and sought to create a purer, more classic album.
Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) is probably the most successful of her peers in this endeavour. Her CD carries a sharpness, and also a depth, the others lack. She captures a restrained soulful feel without losing her own sound. The mood of the album, while draped in the trappings of 70s soul, is never anything other than that of Cat Power. She may have Booker T's drummer, and Al Green's partner on board; the sound may be polished and the rough edges removed, but there is an ongoing down-beatness, that is integral to the whole. It is a great album and it has resulted in my backtracking into her older material, but as an example of soul, it remains somewhat outside the territory.
Candi Staton, on the other hand, is a real soul singer. She has also gathered a crack band, and has returned (South?) to the studio. I am not sure how much Staton has sought to develop her sound, but we can suggest that by hiring Lambchop's producer, Mark Nevers, someone has sought to do the job. Nevers, who has contributed strongly the 'soul'fulness of Kurt Wagner's songs, clearly knows his way around, since this never sounds anything other than authentic.
Most of this can probably be put down to Candi Staton herself. Her voice continues to carry a broken determination, a certainty in her own will to survive and celebrate that is at the heart of all great soul singers. I have the feeling that she could sing the phone book, and it would suddenly take on a sense of drama and pathos.
Sonically, I am not sure that there is a million miles between Cat Power's and Candi Staton's. They both carry much of the same textures and sounds, and both have tales of sadness, woe and desparation. But the key difference is the difference between someone who wants to make a soul album and a soul singer. Cat Power's album is brilliant and cannot recommend it enough, but it is simply not a soul album. Candi Staton manages to take the same sounds and the same stories and bring hope to them. I probably prefer Cat Power's minor chords and melancholia - 'His Hands', while being excellent and a fine come-back, is still just a little too confined to the soul arena to win hands down.
But in the soul stakes... Candi has it everytime.