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Something Isn't Right: White Funk, Blue-Eyed Soul

March 2007 IMP Mix

1. "Sitting on The Dock Of The Bay" (Re-Edit) – Peggy Lee
2. "Multiply" – Jamie Lidell
3. "If I Ever Feel Better" – Phoenix
4. "Mama Don't You Think I Know" – His Name Is Alive
5. "Fistfull of Love" – Antony and the Johnsons
6. "That's Us/Wild Combination" – Arthur Russell
7. "Everybody Here Wants You" – Jeff Buckley
8. "Neglekted" – The Afghan Whigs
9. "Mirrorball" – Everything But The Girl
10. "Are You That Somebody?" – The Gossip
11. "Something Isn't Right" – Herbert
12. "In The Morning" – Junior Boys (ft. Andi Tomi)
13. "Poison Arrow" – ABC
14. "Something Got Me Started" – Simply Red
15. "The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)" – The Jam
16. "Tyrone" – My Morning Jacket
17. "Suspicious Minds" (Live in Las Vegas) – Elvis Presley
18. "Beast of Burden" – The Rolling Stones

This mix is in some ways a companion piece to my July 2005 mix, Afro-Punk. Inspired by and borrowing its name from the film by James Spooner, Afro-Punk was an attempt to draw out the spirit and ethos of punk in African American music. In the film, one musician says that being black and being a punk-rocker are basically the same thing. The idea was that although the Please Kill Me model of punk rock purported to separate rock 'n' roll from its roots in blues and R&B music, punk is and always has been an extension of the black musical tradition. After all, everyone knows that Bad Brains were the greatest punk band of all time and they're, well, you know… In the end, the relationship between punk and blackness has little to do with instrumentation and song structure, but relies heavily on spirit, intention, and message. Just ask Miles Davis, or Nina Simone, or Junior Kimbrough. Oh, wait, they’re all dead. How punk is that?

Much better documented and more widely honored and accepted is the white re-appropriation of black music, beginning with Elvis Presley and continuing today. My Something Isn't Right: White Funk, Blue-Eyed Soul mix found its origins in the Muzak version of “Something Got Me Started” playing over a maternity clothing store's stereo about a year ago. Having recently had my appetite whet by the release of Jamie Lidell's Multiply, I was never hungrier for white chocolate in my entire life than at that moment. The Simply Red tune immediately made me exclaim, “That is one smooth, white motherfucker," and I was hooked.

The important thing for me was to not present the resulting mix as a joke: "Those white people try to be funky, but they're just lame because they're white. Man, are whiteys uncool!" Quite the contrary. Few of the songs on the mix can be interpreted as attempts to imitate or exploit black music. Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs probably fits that bill best, but the earnestness of his need to find renewal and redemption through so-called blackness is undeniable, even if his conception of the black experience has not advanced beyond Norman Mailer’s conception of the “White Negro.” Dulli seems perfectly aware of the implications of this prostitution/slavery paradigm, and the listener can hear and feel his anguish in perpetuating it, just as we can feel his need.

Mostly, though, these tracks are all unique and personalized takes on the idea of soul music—certainly in the vocals and the structure (e.g., lots of emoting, call and response, syncopation, horn sections), but also in the texture, timbre, density, and flow. By 1970, The Rolling Stones were the biggest band in the world and nothing if not singular artists with no remaining need to continue aping the blues and soul music they so loved as young boys in England. So, “Beast of Burden,” a more or less wholesale rip of the Stax/Volt Memphis sound, is a bracing side trip rather than a dead end. The Jam shoulder a dual legacy in the history of white, British counterculture's reverence and emulation of black music: the Mods and the Skinheads. However, “The Bitterest Pill" also comes to terms with ostensibly white pop and music hall traditions, even as it overtly takes on Motown tropes, tambourines and all. Similarly, Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl shows no interest in masking the whiteness or regional Britishisms in her delivery. His Name Is Alive is and always has been essentially one white man, Warren Defever. His previous LP, Someday My Blues Will Cover The Earth, was a blatant and mostly unsuccessful push into the contemporary R&B world of Aaliyah and Alicia Keys. The songs from Detrola, from which “Mama Don't You Think I Know” is taken, are much more heterogeneous with more believable soul elements because they're allowed to reveal themselves organically rather than according to a template of proving authenticity.

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