Sam & Dave seem out to prove that one can succeed in soul without occupying one of the genre’s two vocal strains. Because while they touch on both fiery arousal and anguished crooning, their singing style (especially Sam’s) seems more fundamentally moderate than Aretha’s or Otis’. And while their apparent fondness for doo-wop matches a swaying ballad perfectly (“I Got Everything I Need”), it presents problems on the funkier numbers (“I Take What I Want”). It never comes close to wrecking a song, but Sam’s occasionally grating tenor and stilted enunciation definitely hampers the connection between the groove and the listener’s foot.
Still, this is a Stax effort. Even when the frontmen don’t fulfill their end, The Mar-Keys and Booker T. and the MGs are there to provide immaculate accompaniment. And when Cropper’s prickly strut is matched by some dramatic vocal chops, it adds up to one hell of a title track.
The pair is equally effective on the chilly “Just Me”. Typical ballad anguish is filtered through icy organ and a wrenching vocal performance, all framed by a distant upright piano. No instrument embodies nostalgic loneliness quite as well.
Hold On, I’m Comin’ isn’t exactly a revelation in southern soul, but it’s more than competent; even the weakest tracks are vibrant and spirited enough to be worthwhile. Sam & Dave have an undeniable chemistry, and once they hone their vocal approach to be more distinctive, they’ll be primed for something great.
Gotta say, I was expecting more. Sam & Dave’s vocals are less anonymous and hokey than before, but the rickety enunciation and tongue-rolling only accentuates the stilted rhythms that crop up. The ballads fair much better, benefitting from their intertwining croons, and they even manage to crank out a solid Sam Cooke cover.
Maybe they hadn’t hit their studio stride yet; I’m really not seeing the reasoning behind their titular moniker. All that’s here is acceptable, unexciting soul with an irritating tendency towards the sing-songy.
Honestly, I struggle to express just how much of an improvement this is over Double Dynamite. The Stax band plays with their usual brilliance (more upright piano!), but the real revelation comes from the men with the mics—vocal craft perfected to an almost absurd degree. Sam’s earnest croon is central to “May I Baby”‘s blushing charm, while Dave rips into “I’m With You”‘s blues beat with untold grittiness. And when they intersect, especially on the ballads, memories of their stiff past vanish in an instant.
The songs are better than before, too. Even beyond the smashing title hit, “Broke Down Piece of Man” and “Hold It Baby” show how effectively they can put a funky groove to good use. The approach might not be as relentless as, say, Wilson Pickett’s, but it’s just as devastating—and far more durable. Plus, it frees them up for the tender, fraternal harmonizing of “Let It Be Be Me” and “I’ve Seen What Loneliness Can Do”.
Half of what makes Soul Men so essential lies in what it doesn’t do; namely, there isn’t a single drop of filler in its bite-sized runtime. Every single track has something urgent and vital to offer, adding up to one of the most outstanding albums I’ve ever heard—soul or otherwise.
I’m rather stunned that the proto-Philly tracks come off as well as they do. The presence of strings and a smoother guitar rhythm could have drowned these two giants out, but it only seems to have emboldened their vocal chutzpah (“Talk to the Man”, “Everybody Got to Believe in Somebody”).
Elsewhere, the title track shows a drier, more aggressive sound that gives Dave in particular an even nastier edge. He carries that through most of the other songs, leading to the duo’s most balanced release in terms of vocal presence. And speaking of edge, it’s entertaining to hear them play catch-up to James Brown on “Don’t Turn Your Heater On”; that slashing guitar and horn pattern put the two in an entirely brand new bag.
Less thrilling, though, are the echoes of “Hold On, I’m Comin'” that crop up in a few spots (“Wrap It Up”, “Ain’t That a Lot of Love”). Soul men shouldn’t go repeating themselves like that.
The bizarre reggae touch is the LP’s most noticeable weakness, but it’s not the most severe. Because while the duo mostly stays in their Southern comfort zone (with a few Philly updates), Sam & Dave no longer drive the action of these songs; rather, they react to the impulses of the horns and groove, never conjuring up the pools of sweat they thrive on.
The 16th-note rhythms of “When My Love Hand Comes Down” seem to invigorate them, though. Even Dave, who is otherwise as listless as his cover shot, whips himself into a raging fever. And who would’ve thought a 60s pop standard would make a swell jam vehicle?