She said she wanted to scream, and I took it as truth. She said she was leaving to chase her own sweet life, and I pictured her bags packed at the front door. She said all of these things, and I recognized it as testimony. She was singing and I was only a witness. But that’s what good Soul is: a frank one-sided discussion of beautiful outrage.
When I listen to this album, I picture a musty bar with red velvet booths and dust motes swirling in the yellow beam of light shining down on a man standing alone in the middle of the dance floor. He doesn’t know why he’s there, but I do. He did something to piss Hannah off, and he’s going to stand there and listen until she’s done telling him what-for.
So fine, I digress. For better or for worse though, it is impossible for me to appreciate soul music without wondering about the personal experiences that contributed to the pain and love in the voices. Some call this the cult of the author, and most postmodernists would agree this is very bad. I can’t help it. There’s something about its bourbon fueled delivery that makes me believe that the stories aren’t fiction; that everything really happened. This is Chicago soaked truth, I tell myself, ‘Testify!’ Good Soul singers make you believe that they’re singing only to the person who the song is about. They have the capacity to establish a connection with their perpetrators in absentia. How? Magic. Sweet, black vinyl magic.
In no other musical wheelhouse can you get such a strong sense of the singer’s individuality, while feeling a strong sense of recollection when it comes to the melodies. It is the great paradox of soul music that each song is at once the most singular of experiences, yet at the same time, we recognize the rhythms and themes as recycled. We’ve heard those chords before, but never like this. Broken hearts have cried more than once, yet as listeners we believe these songs arrived from nothing less than the unique personal experiences of the vocalist, or in this case, Hannah ‘Soul’ Williams. She lives up to her handle. A Hill of Feathers offers familiar riffs that will conjure musical memories long lost to your body and vocals that range from deep soothing waves to guttural shrieks a la James Brown. The album is packed with tricky changes, layered rhythms and backbeats, but above all, it delivers on the greatest promise of Soul: a voice so visceral it is inescapable.
We rely on soul singers for good reason. They are the captains ‘o’ our ships, the messiahs leading us into the smoky bars while spreading the gospel of truth. We may find it jarring at times, though we’d never turn away from its silky venom once it’s offered to us. Honey will burn your tongue when it’s too hot, but you want to taste it all the same. Case and point, The Kitchen Strut, a song about a woman who’s leaving behind a stale domestic life is so empowered by the idea of it that her bags are already packed and her gun is loaded, presumably. I’ve been doing all this for free/ maybe I should bill you/ I’m getting out of your kitchen/ I’m getting out of your bed/ You best not try to stop me, or I’ll try to kill ya!/ I’m gonna chase my own sweet life now. Now, pair that with a funky bass line and a brass menagerie. Brilliant.
The first single, Work it Out, leans more towards the bluesy end of the R&B spectrum, rather than the neo-Funk that is threaded throughout the rest of the album. I struggled with the idea of just posting the lyrics of this song as the review and letting the words speak for themselves. Aligning itself with the aforementioned paradox, it is a song deeply rooted in tradition yet still manages to transcend any predetermined expectation you might have. Now, I know me a little bit about the Delta Blues, and I can say this with absolute certainty: if Skip James heard this chick singing Work it Out on a dilapidated porch, he would pull up a busted wooden box, break out his harmonica, and together they would sing until the sky filled with purple.
Tracks to Check Out:
Work it Out
Don’t tell Me
The Kitchen Strut
Final thought: “Soul may not be the glitter pool that you choose to swim in on a day-to-day basis, but every music affectionado needs soul-soaked memories. Go forth, and groove.”