Soul Explosion [Stax]

When Stax released Soul Explosion in 1969, the label was on the verge of going under. Their biggest star, Otis Redding, died at the end of 1967 and their distribution deal with Atlantic ended in 1968, leaving the label without a flagship artist or a way to get into record stores. Al Bell, Stax's former A&R man who was then the imprint's lone owner, decided to restructure as an indie label targeted at black audiences, launching a marketing campaign under the umbrella of Soul Explosion. Bell flooded stores with as much material as Stax's artists could produce, releasing this double-LP set as something of a sampler of the label's wares. His gambit was so successful that the accompanying double-LP was forgotten over the years, finally getting a reissue in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of Stax's great rebranding. Listening to Soul Explosion decades later, what's striking about the set is how it isn't heavy on big hits -- there's just Johnnie Taylor's "Who's Making Love," which became a standard -- yet it captures the kinetic excitement of the late-soul era. As the '60s gave way to the '70s, soul didn't aim for the pop charts, so the grooves got deeper and funkier, with some of the productions getting sleeker in the process. The latter development can be heard in Carla Thomas' version of Hair's "Where Do I Go" and especially in the many instrumentals from Booker T. & the M.G.'s, the Mad Lads, and the Bar-Kays, who all flirt with AM crossover. Elsewhere, the Staple Singers register a song of protest ("Long Walk to D.C.") and the Texan psych-R&B outfit Southwest F.O.B. seem madly out of place, leaving the rest of the record for the kind of sweaty soul-blues hybrids that became Stax's stock in trade during the '70s. In retrospect, this can be seen as the beginning of the label's second act. The neat thing about beginnings is that when they're preserved on wax, they still possess a kick, and that's the case with Soul Explosion. This showcase of what Stax could do if given a second chance still teems with vitality and possibility, which makes it a valuable historical document in addition to being a hell of a good time. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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