Despite her being the second most-charted female vocalist of all time I, confessedly, had never heard of Dionne Warwick. She seems to belong to a particular region of the historic musical landscape that, for me personally, remains foreign and unconquered: a region shallowly yet wholly represented by the few monuments of Aretha Franklin or Burt Bacharach; by black and white photographs of suave pianists in coattails and modest songstresses in sequin.
Remember soul music? I mean real soul music. Yeah, neither do we. Luckily, we’ve got Julia Holter to teach us.
I guess you’d call it soul music, or what was originally meant by rhythm and blues. Of course, both genres have undergone modern reinterpretations: there’s the contemporary R&B of Mariah Carey and Beyonce; the neo-soul of Frank Ocean or Erykah Badu. But the more traditional form of the genre—the sound of Warwick’s Walk On By or Don’t Make Me Over—seems to have been left to the annals of time.
This may well be the reason I feel so unacquainted with it. I’m a child of the 90s. Like many children of the 90s, my voyages into the sounds of yesteryear have almost always been anchored to the modern artists that channel them. 60s psychedelia (Tame Impala), 70s disco (Blood Orange) and 80s pop (Goldfrapp) have all come back around by way of the ‘retro revival’. And yet, for the most part, the modern resurrection of Warwick’s old school R&B/soul aesthetic has thus far consisted in little more than a handful of Otis Redding and Billie Holiday vocal loops (I’m looking at you, Yeezy).
Enter Julia Holter. It should be pointed out here that, strictly speaking, this isn’t Holter’s area. She usually adheres more to the dreamy, ethereal soundscapes frequented by artists like Kate Bush or Imogen Heap. Her cover of Don’t Make Me Over falls somewhere between there and the gospel-y, last-girl-in-the-bar vibe of Warwick’s recording. But this is sparser than the original: less keys, less backup vocals; more melancholia, more singular desolation. And the effect is soon realised. What the minimalistic, uncluttered opener does is set the stage for that excellent, uplifting release at 1:47—when Holter implores “accept me for what I am; accept me for the things that I do”. Less is more, and all that.
Aside from having stripped back a few layers, though, Holter for the most part remains faithful to Warwick’s original vision. This is indisputably a cover, rather than a rework or a mere sampling job: a modern artist breathing new life into an olden classic. Not ‘contemporary R&B’, just rhythm and blues; ‘neo-soul’ without the ‘neo’. And that idea—of celebrating the past, rather than reinventing it—is musically manifest: “don’t make me over… accept me for what I am”. Word.
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