The Ace Records family has reissued numerous collector-oriented compilations from the Stax vaults over the years, and this 2012 anthology was intended as the first of a planned series on its Kent subsidiary focusing on Stax tracks from the late '60s and early '70s. The 21 tracks all focus on Stax recordings that fall into the Southern deep soul category -- not a problem as such soul abounded on the label, though these might be more deep soul-oriented than the typical Stax reissue. It's also oriented toward songs that aren't too familiar -- none of them were hits, and three of them were previously unreleased, though most of them did come out as singles between 1968 and 1975. And while some of the artists (Johnnie Taylor, Jimmy Hughes, William Bell, Inez Foxx, Eddie Floyd, Mable John, Little Milton) at various points had substantial hits (though not always for Stax), they're outweighed by acts that will largely be recognized only by those that study the fine print of Stax discographies.
None of these songs were hooky or innovative enough to be as memorable as the many hits the label had during these half-dozen or so years. Hits aren't everything, though, unless you're as rabid a capitalist as you are a collector. If some of these songs are on the average or generic side, more often they're pretty fair efforts that usually boast excellent singing and fine (if occasionally slick) production, as well as subtly testifying to the versatility of tracks released under the Stax umbrella. Particularly pleasing are some cuts that use more group harmonies than the norm for Stax productions from this era, as well as some that exhibit a bluesier bent than soul as a whole did during this period, like Little Milton's fine "Woman Across the River," Jimmy Hughes' "Let 'Em Down Baby," and Mable John's "Shouldn't I Love Him." The menu's varied enough that favorites will vary according to individual tastes, but other tracks worthy of citation include Johnny Daye's opening pleader "Stay Baby Stay" and Bettye Crutcher's previously unissued sweet soul outing "Make a Joyful Noise" (which unlike many outtakes really should have been released at the time). Sometimes it's apparent that Stax was keeping an ear open to the sounds of Hi elsewhere in Memphis -- Freddie Waters' "Groovin' on My Baby's Love" has an Al Green feel, for instance -- though no doubt some of that influence was traveling in the other direction as well. Stax obsessives will already have much of this, particularly on volumes two and three of the box sets of Stax singles. But this is a good pickup for those who don't want to make such a huge investment, yet are still interested in seeking out some of the label's deep catalog.