Ryan Shaw has his own special brand of so
ul. It’s not the blue-eyed vocal acrobatics e.g. Joss Stone and Adele. It’s not the lively southern soul of Ray Charles and James Brown. It’s not the sultry Memphis soul of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Al Green. At least, he is not any of these things exclusively. In fact, somewhere on the landscape of soul music taxonomy, Ryan Shaw is a bit of an omnipresent wanderer.
It Gets Better is a duality of the sacred and the profane – alleles that make up the soul music phenotypes. Ryan Shaw grew up in a deeply religious environment, developing his sound in a Pentecostal church, and these roots are evident in every recording. Indeed, while not explicitly Christian, the album is nothing if it is not utterly praiseful.
It’s difficult to select which elements of the disc are the most roof-rainsin’, as almost every audio statement from play to eject is full of sublime soul. At the center of the mix, Ryan Shaw’s tenor voice is sweet and fervent. I’m reminded of John Legend and David Ryan Harris, but compared to those other neo-soul artists, Ryan Shaw’s voice seems to have a stronger foot in the past – Shaw is willing and able to let his voice run rampart without the risk of losing control.
In a sentence, Shaw really shows a lot of concern for the predicate, not allowing the conduit between two thoughts to get dissolved in the mix. This is subtle, but very defining of his style. Every lyric is sung with power, attack and resolve – while many other soul artists throttle up and back within one statement, Shaw attacks every note as a target. (This is very much an element of Lenny William’s and Al Green’s style too.)
But the creamy voice wouldn’t have a foundation to stand on if it wasn’t for the instrumentation at the roots of the album. Shaw is a bit of a bricoleur, and instrumentation from the entire blues spectrum is presented in a fashion that is hymnal and rejoiceful – but utterly fun at the same time. We Don’t Give Up Now is saturated with Stevie Wonder-esque Clavinova and Billy Preston-esque organ, while Knock On Wood features a salty brass section and soul-surrounding back-up chorus that reeks of Motown. Meanwhile, It Gets Better, the title track, presents a fluttering funk guitar, a lo-fi-mic’ed piano and an utterly grainy drum kit that almost appears as a Tower of Power homage. In these three songs, and certainly all of the other tracks on the disc, we hear a conglomeration of every quintessential soul
element ever invented – all presented expertly.
It Gets Better is a synopsis of soul music. It’s fun, its rejoiceful, it’s loud, it’s proud, it’s black and salty and sweet and sour. It’s a menagerie, if not a Ménage à trois of every thing I love about Motown, funk, jazz, soul, Memphis, Nashville, Delta, Chicago, Detroit and New York soul. It’s a hodge-podge without clutter, each song is distinct and bold, featuring a different theme from the past with a refreshing take.
The Good: Ryan Shaw is a sexy vocalist, and It Gets Better is instrumentally sublime, full of passion and praise.
The Bad: If you don’t ‘get’ soul, you don’t ‘get’ soul. The listener has to be receptive to this music.
Verdict: Purchase it. Ryan Shaw is one of the best soul artists of our generation, and It Gets Better is a great conduit to the past.