Not since Dusty Springfield invaded Memphis has a white female singer dished up so flavorful a bucket of soul. Robin McKelle’s passion for classic American R&B—not the pasteurized pop produced by Motown, but the raw stuff that poured forth from Stax and Atlantic—was first exercised two years ago when she swung away from big band swing to deliver the down ’n’ dirty Mess Around. Now she amps the grit to 11 alongside the hard-partying Flytones. Led by bassist and co-producer Derek Nievergelt (who seems far too young for such deep appreciation of the source material), the sextet scales Spector-dense arrangements that dazzlingly recall everyone from Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave to Booker T. Jones and Archie Bell.
Remarkably, McKelle and the boys—including her personal Tower of Power: trumpeter Scott Aruda, saxophonist Mike Turner and trombonist Clayton DeWalt—fully capture the groove while remaining nostalgia-free. The dozen tracks include mostly original tunes, all but one written or co-written by McKelle, each distinctly evocative of the era without ever sounding ersatz. From the keep-on-keeping-on earnestness of “So It Goes” and sweet harmony of “Love’s Work” (which finds McKelle swapping lines with Gregory Porter) to the 90-proof yearn of “Miss You Madly” and thundering wail of “Tell You One Thing,” these are genuinely great tunes. As for the covers, they’re an eclectic and unexpected trio—Bacharach and David’s “Walk on By,” the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” (featuring deep-funk legend Lee Fields) and the Sinatra signature “I’m a Fool to Want You”—brilliantly reimagined.