Naomi Shelton and The Gospel Queens What Have You Done?

[Daptone; 2009]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: gospel, soul, funk, rhythm and blues
Others: Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, The Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin

For some 50 years now, Naomi Davis Shelton has been singing in churches and clubs in New York and Florida, and most of us have been unaware. Now that she’s finally found a home on the ultra-fab funk-soul label Daptone (after recording a few tracks for the now-defunct Desco label in the late ’90s), there’s no reason for any of us to miss out. This is Christian music, sure, but it sweeps you up if you’ve got a soulful bone in your body and makes you reel in its strength and sincerity.

As with everything on Daptone, the musicianship is as smooth, rich, and buttery as it gets. Though it’s a fair assessment, I tend to chafe against the notion that the Daptone sound is 'retro'; the word conjures a pretension and mimicry that has nothing to do with the label's essential goodness. ‘Old-fashioned’ might be better, but I don’t like that either. This just sounds right — and no amount of time passing is gonna change that. I don’t buy and listen to records as a throwback, and I resent the notion that record players are outdated. I’m not so egocentric as to assume that the generation I belong to is significant enough to dissolve everything that came before it. The toe-tapping, lightly skipping bass and drum kit interplay and smoky organ sounds are replenishing and innate. There’s nothing old-fashioned about these sounds, no matter how pop culture has historically framed them. ‘Classic’ is the word — and ‘enduring,’ ‘joyous,’ and ‘timeless’ aren’t far behind. This is the sound that overtakes you just when you thought nothing could move you anymore.

The perfection of this sound is nothing short of ideal for soul veteran Shelton and her Queens, as her rich, raspy tones are as sweet and authentic as the biggest legends in her field. She’s got a deep, confident timbre that is more bona fide than any contemporary Christian rock outfit could muster. Perhaps I’m so blinded by my love for this record that I’m imagining this, but What Have You Done? seems to embody the more universal qualities of Christianity. I’m getting perseverance, the joy of affirmation, and the longing for reassurance. There’s a contextual difference when Nick Cave or Tom Waits sings about Jesus, but there also seems to be a lessening in the power of the singing. It’s not just that Naomi has a technically better voice, but her real belief seems to give the lyrics a pure, unadulterated transcendence that is vastly more affecting.

This is a record made up entirely of highlights, so it’s hard to single out tracks worth sampling. If you’re not ready to jump right in, I'd recommend “What More Can I Do?” (which contains the best example of the lively bass/drum interplay I was referring to earlier), the classic gospel stomper “Trouble In My Way,” and the reverent, sumptuous cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which closes out the album.

There truly isn't a single misstep on What Have You Done? If you love soul music or feel you could use some soul in your life, then this is a no-brainer of a listen, and one that doesn’t come around often — sometimes it takes half a century. Thanks and praises to Ms. Shelton and Daptone for toeing the line of ‘timelessness’ and ‘timeliness,’ one of those elusive things not worth going after anyway.

1. What Is This?
2. What More Can I Do?
3. I’ll Take The Long Road
4. What Have You Done?
5. I Need You To Hold My Hand
6. Trouble In My Way
7. Jordan River
8. He Knows My Heart
9. Am I Asking Too Much?
10. By Your Side
11. Lift My Burdens
12. A Change Is Gonna Come

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