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The Other Soulsville 

Lewis Taylor & Hobex dip into the white chocolate well

This is my love letter to Lewis Taylor, yes -- a necessary parting shot on the eve of Black History Month. It's also a prime opportunity to give his Stateside counterpart -- N. Cack's own great soul brer Greg Humphreys -- some dap, too.

Per Nas: Hip-Hop is dead. And with the passing of Soul Brother #1, James Brown, funk, soul and rock & roll mos def had the final nails put in their respective acetate coffins. Perhaps it's just as well, then, that the music world can no longer conserve Lewis Taylor -- but Soulsville will always pine for him, his exquisite melodies and guitar freakouts.

No one had more comebacks than JB, but the equally misunderstood Taylor, the greatest British singer-songwriter to emerge in the past 15 years, actually retired last summer (sans cape). Mercifully, Hacktone has seen fit to now re-release his sonic Grail, The Lost Album. Transatlantic music culture also lost UK Blak singer Lynden David Hall not long ago; and Taylor's remaining great, underrated rival Seal seems more content to drown in the milk of domestic bliss than exercise his Afrofuturistic vision. Thus Taylor once looked like we rare groovers' Great White Chocolate Hope. Before his retirement, Taylor, a North London Jew, sho' put a hella lot of black in the Union Jack.

And, believe it or not (especially down here in de land o' cotton and Soulsville), bluenote history and post-soul culture are much the richer for it. Taylor's contributions may be proven legion in time; certainly, a close listen to the sublime Lewis II, the album which replaced TLA at market, makes the unassailable case for Taylor's grace. Yet his legend is now permanently cemented with the reissue of The Lost Album.

Although Taylor always seemed to proceed with Marvin Gaye and Brian Wilson perched cheekily on his shoulders, The Lost Album hews closer to the peculiarly Californian high lonesome of the latter. Of course, the dizzying, deep introspection that characterized Gaye's work in the wake of Motown's LA move also shadows this recording -- as does the starry "wooden music" of erstwhile Laurel Canyon denizens like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. From the chrome and fading sunset of its album art, it's clear that TLA conjures 1960s psych, early '70s "easy rock" and prog, yet compared to Lewis II's raw, massed soul and 2005's Stoned -- " ... sounds like a Curtis Mayfield record run through a rainbow," according to Rolling Stone -- Taylor's masterpiece and parting gift is an airier, more aloof recording. While centered on interiors, tracks like "Hide Your Heart Away" have their heartache and sorrow offset by the sunny ebullience of the arrangements and Strip aesthetic. TLA is definitely meant for cruising the Pacific Coast Highway, high on good herb and the good life conjured by the privileged at the end point of Manifest Destiny (that is, unless you're the last of your race, like Taylor ... and I).

That's not to say that these meticulously-crafted, twangy acoustic suites are devoid of soul, just filtered through a gloomy haze. The Lost Album is rather the sonic equivalent of an Annie Leibovitz photo that haunts me: Sly Stone riding down the PCH circa '75 in his rag-top white Cadillac. Ole Sly could've easily been blasting Taylor's "The Leader of the Band" or "See My Way," a cut suffused with enough angsty sexuality and pathos to fit his sonic frame of mind during that era.

If you ever dreamt of California as site of escape -- despite its' present dystopian realities, immigration wars and refashioning of workaday fascism, then The Lost Album's a boon for you. Fittingly, in this time of constructing walls to police brown bodies, it also sketches the psychology of borderlands and worships at the altar of the Golden Negress the state was named for. Whilst praising America's resurrection this season, don't forget a lil' Lewis love, too. I won't, although California broke my heart.

Hobex, meanwhile, has returned with Enlightened Soul (Phrex) -- just what Taylor's long struggled in vain to hip his audiences to. Hobex' bandleader and chief architect Greg Humphreys locates his utopia closer to home than Taylor did from rainy London, but he also bravely looks inward. Although more enigmatic than past releases, this is a great, mature album from the South's finest quartet, a triumph of rock & soul illumination that soars by turns playful and poignant. Like Taylor's work, it's merciful that Hobex releases indie for on a major Enlightened Soul would be lost, too, labeled "difficult" -- especially since it lacks the "organic techno" Taylor perfected late in his career and they cannot be contained by genre.

Hobex recordings also elicit muso and crit reverence, but the band's version of Dirty South has not been vetted by the lowrider elite. The organ-buoyed music's unvarnished, vernacular elements can be deceptive, and yet misleading to the masses. One reckons Humphreys ought to ring Danger Mouse or Timbaland, but Phrex and the boys are merely besotted with classic southern rock & soul roots, not residents of Lud-in-the-Mist. Truly, Englightened Soul does not suffer lack: in the Joni Mitchell vein, Humphreys' vocals are adult, complex, learned, whisky-soaked -- and never better than on the magnificent swing opus "I'm Not Ashamed." His best song-reverie since "So Far Away," "Ashamed" is amazing psychedelic soul, striving toward buried treasure, fearlessly delving into the darkest, most covert place.

Generally less priapic than Taylor's, all of the songs are composed of flesh, bone and heart matter, but nevertheless rotate a spotlight between love (the euphoric "You Set Me Free") and lust (hot buttered "Man and a Woman"). Hobex' patented swirling funk triggers booty-shakes, but in a languid, looser way. Humphreys also finds time to scold the rockbiz on "Behind the Door" and via the message of uplift that is "Free the Music." The disc's sole demerit is the roadhouse blues rocker "Natural Child;" the closer is abler than most iterations of same but doesn't mesh well with the previous romantic suite nor the homespun wisdom of the old timey title track. It's as if the singer were trying to reassert a dose of cleansing muscle, after an superb 9-song cycle exploring the vulnerabilities of the male psyche.

Still, the arrangements are mostly intense -- simultaneously lazy afternoon gossamer and shimmering night sky, making Enlightened Soul a journey through inchoate halls of the spirit. This pervasive night fever is the site where Humphreys and his brers gather at the river with Lewis Taylor for a stoned soul picnic (they also share a yen for Mayfield and Sam Cooke).

With Taylor's fluid, keening tenor gone from the scene, one can only hope Humphreys' warm, Dixie-fried rasp will perservere. The Industry will never be hospitable to erudite lone rangers, but Hobex' caressing reconstuction of sonic castles-in-air is always vital.

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