Review Summary: A soul classic.
William Bell is a soul legend, yet you'd never know it - search for his name right now on google.co.uk, and William Bell Tractors Ltd. appears ahead of his Wikipedia entry. It's an astonishing oversight, considering that the man wrote songs as notorious as "Born Under a Bad Sign" by Albert King and Cream, found himself sampled heavily in a hit as big as Dilated Peoples' "Worst Comes to Worst", was directly referenced by Van Morrison on one of his biggest hits, and was instrumental in establishing the sound of Stax, one of the most loved record labels in existence.
It's pretty clear from listening to Soul of a Bell
that, given just a little bit of luck, William Bell would have been a lot more famous, and been considered one of the all-time soul greats by an awful lot of people. It's as harsh as hell that he was given two great original songs for his 1961 debut single - "You Don't Miss Your Water" and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" - only for both of them to be later be sung by much bigger names. How many people know those songs through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, and have no idea Bell was the first to perform them? Me, for one, until hearing this. It's not even just a matter of those two stealing his thunder - the multitude of people who've covered "Water" in particular (The Byrds, Peter Tosh, Brian Eno, The Triffids....) makes these songs sound like standards rather than Bell originals.
In truth, that's what defines the first half of this record. Alongside "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)" (another song he shares with Redding) and the smooth and muted likes of "Everybody Loves a Winner", these tracks make it seem like The Soul of a Bell
is just doing the basics - it's bread and butter stuff. Good job that he does bread and butter so well, then - "Everybody Love A Winner" is a great track despite lacking a little bit of variation and kick in the chorus, and his versions of the songs you already know are very, very good ones. Still, you almost expect the record to peter out, because everything is just too nice
- there's a lack of grit and complexity, and by "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye", you're starting to feel it.
And then "Eloise (Hang On in There)" and "Any Other Way" happen. Everything the album is missing up until the 7th track - groove, snarl, sex appeal - these two songs deliver. "Eloise" has got such a tight groove it could have been a James Brown song, while "Any Other Way" could define classic soul - the snappy guitars on the downbeat, the uplifting horns, the call-and-response with the piano and vocal, the fluid melody, even the guitar solo, it's the kind of song so perfectly formed that could have been made in a laboratory. The rest of the album continues in the vein of those two songs, making this second side an essential counter-point to the first.
I've heard better soul albums than this, but I haven't heard many that deliver such a great demonstration of the full range of things this genre can offer. Excellent stuff.