Gospel and rhythm & blues have long been close siblings even if they don't always acknowledge each other in public -- many early R&B hits were essentially secularized versions of classic sacred numbers, and dozens of soul stars got their start singing with gospel groups -- so it certainly makes sense that the soul revivalists at Daptone Recordings would open their arms to the talents of Naomi Shelton, who has sung both Saturday night and Sunday morning music over the course of her career that's spanned six decades. Shelton's second album for Daptone, Cold World, mixes elements of traditional gospel with '60s-influenced soul, and while there's less of a churchy feel to this album than 2009's What Have You Done, My Brother?, it certainly fits in with the mindset of acts like Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers, who weren't afraid to add some Christian-leaning commentary to their music. "Sinner," "Heaven Is Mine," "Humble Me," and the title track all have the slinky feel of vintage soul (Shelton's longtime musical director Cliff Driver and Daptone chief Gabriel Roth, the latter of whom wrote six of the album's 12 numbers, have helped give this music a groove that's authentic yet unforced), while Shelton's voice -- compassionate and muscular, with just a hint of sass -- has both the power and the emotional heft to bring these tunes to life, not so much preaching as offering her audience advice about life lessons she learned the hard way. Shelton's style makes a virtue of her maturity while showing off an energy and passion one would expect from a much younger woman; Cold World is an example of what Daptone and the retro-soul crowd are doing right, and it's an authoritative and affecting piece of work.
Shelton, Naomi & the Gospel Queens - Cold World - New LP
Review by Mark Deming
aomi Shelton has been singing the Lord’s praises longer than most of us have been alive. Born in the early 1940s, she began performing with her sisters at their small church in Midway, Alabama. After graduating high school and discovering soul music, she moved first to Florida and then to New York City, where she continued singing in church but also held court in Brooklyn nightclubs under the name Naomi Davis. Like many African American singers at the time, her repertoire balanced the secular and the spiritual, the worldly and the heavenly. Even though her singing career spans half a century, her recording career has been much shorter. In 1999, she and an old friend/collaborator named Cliff Driver formed a gospel group that attracted the ear of Gabriel Roth. At the time he was running a label called Desco, for which Shelton recorded two sides; when it folded, she signed with his new venture, Daptone Records.
She’s been a major presence on that label’s roster, touring the world with the Daptone Super-Soul Revue and singing with the Sugarman 3. Never quite as popular or as prolific as Sharon Jones (who is Daptone’s flagship act), Shelton has proved a powerful vocalist and performer even into her 70s. In 2009, she finally released her debut full-length for the label, What Have You Done, My Brother?, which closed with a soul-stirring cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Five years later, she’s finally following it up with Cold World. As the title suggests, Shelton is concerned not just with the individual sinner but with the sad state of the world. Faith is never a private matter; because it informs how we treat ourselves and others, it is a social concern.
Consequently, Shelton is drawn to songs that address social issues and paint the world bleakly. “It’s a Cold, Cold World” describes the back-stabbings and betrayals among humans (“They’ll step on you every every day!”) and points to a certain carpenter as the truest friend possible. With Shelton and the Gospel Queens (Bobbie Jean Gant and Edna Johnson, plus newcomer Angel McKenzie) delivering a lively call and response, the song itself sounds steeped in ‘70s R&B, as though making a conscious nod to the heyday of the Staple Singers. Yet, the conviction in their voices rescues the song from any sense of nostalgia, lending it some persuasive topicality beyond its musical reference points.
Roth, producing under his alias Bosco Mann, has put together a band of R&B veterans to back Shelton and the Gospel Queens on Cold World. If they weren’t such fine players, sensitive to the cadence of Shelton’s vocals and the sentiments of these songs, you might think they were hired for their historical connections to artists who likewise blended the secular and the spiritual. Driver himself has played with Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke; bass player Fred Thomas was a JB in the 1970s. Somehow, the music occasionally sounds too Daptone, as though these backing tracks could have been created for Jones or anyone else on the roster. That shouldn’t reflect on Shelton, but should suggest either the label’s somewhat limited sound or Roth’s too-familiar production style.
But the band cover a lot of ground on Cold World, toggling between the reggae-tinged rhythms of “Sinner” and the breezy groove of “Everybody Knows (River Song)”, a cover of the 1965 O.V. Wright tune. Still, it’s Shelton who confidently ties everything together and insinuates a larger story arc in the sequencing: a journey that begins in doubt (“Sinner”) and ends with salvation and gratitude (“Thank You Lord”). If her label defines itself by the past tense, Shelton understands that gospel is rooted in the present (the tribulations we face today) and the future (the promise of eternity in heaven). It may seem like a minor distinction, but on Cold World, it’s the difference between revival and revivalist.