Various Artists

Steppin' Stone: The XL and Sounds of Memphis Story, Vol. 3

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The Sounds of Memphis and XL labels didn't achieve a great amount of commercial success -- in fact, they achieved very little -- but they did record a lot of material. Indeed, there was so much in the vaults that just four of the 22 tracks on the third volume of Kent's series of CDs taken from the labels' catalog were previously released. While there's no doubting the sincerity of the enthusiasts who unearthed these recordings (and the audience for such discoveries), it's pretty rare that the unissued tapes of a small label are special to, well, non-specialists. Such is the case with this collection, which has on the whole likable, but on the whole slight, performances covering the spectrum of early-'70s Southern soul. (The precise dates of all the recordings are not known, but from their sound, it seems a pretty sure bet that most or all of them date from around the 1971-1973 period in which the four officially issued cuts were first released.) A few of the acts, such as the Ovations and the Minits, have modest reputations and CD reissues of their own, but largely these are acts that never broke out in any way. It tends toward the poppier side of romantic soul of the period, without production that's as lush as the norm for that genre. The Minits stand out a bit as an all-woman group with a tougher, funkier backing than much of their surroundings on "Hook Line & Sinker," though their more conventional 1972 harmony soul single "Lover Boy" is a step above everything else here in terms of a radio-ready full sound. Otis Wheat leans just a little in the MOR country-soul direction on "I'm Your Slave"; Jimi Hill's slick "Guessing Game" remains one of the more obscure obvious Michael Jackson imitations; and Dan Greer's vocals slightly resemble those of Swamp Dogg, though his delivery and material aren't nearly as strong or distinctive. Some of the cuts sound a bit spare or even unfinished, which might add to or detract from their appeal, depending on what you like. Like most comps where the pleasures are modest and require a bit of a strain to dig out, it's something to spring for only if you go in knowing that even the most open-minded, voracious soul collector is unlikely to get excited about all of it.

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