Staton once again enters the secular realm with Unstoppable.
Taking advantage of 21st century pop culture’s peak saturation for nostalgia, Candi Staton is the latest former ‘70s R&B/soul singer to try her luck at a revival. Best known for the 1975 disco hit “Young Hearts Run Free,” Staton experienced something of a cultural resurgence among crate diggers in 2004 when Honest Jon’s released the stellar Candi Staton compilation, which helped show there was far more to Staton’s oeuvre, much of it Southern soul that was and is far superior to her best-known hit. After focusing her career on her gospel roots for the past few decades, Staton once again enters the secular realm with Unstoppable.
Somewhat surprisingly, the album is neither an amalgamation of her two pop personae nor a continuation of her modern gospel recordings dragged out of the church and into the club. Instead, there’s far more of an ‘80s funk/soul groove running throughout the album. Opening track “Confidence” plays like Sister Sledge backed by Zapp, Staton using it as a statement of intent: “I won’t let you drag me down/ Got things to do, don’t have time to hang around/ If you don’t set a goal, trust me, your story will never be told.” It’s a classic, sassy bit of inspirational girl power that falls just this side of clichéd, saved only by the wickedly funky groove underscoring Staton’s sermonizing.
Fortunately, it’s a part she played to the hilt during her pre-disco years (see “Evidence” or “I’m Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin’)”) and generally succeeds with Unstoppable. “I Fooled You, Didn’t I?” finds Staton again adopting the swagger of her younger years to great effect, putting forth in song the look she gives on the album’s cover image. It’s a fine bit of funky R&B, but like much of the album, the tracks tend to run a little longer than they need to, eventually fading into the background. Mark Nevers, formerly of Lambchop, assumes the role of indie celeb producer for Unstoppable, lending a clean and clear quality to the mix. But the record is often too pristine, too respectful to have any sort of visceral impact—something for which Staton’s voice is ideally suited when allowed to run free.
With her sons Marcus and Marcel Williams on drums and bass, respectively, a tight familial groove is present throughout, the pair offering a solid rhythmic base upon which their mother can do her thing. And the assembled musicians certainly hit all the right stylistic cues and attitude, it just nevertheless feels lacking, due largely to Nevers’ modernist production work. A track like “It Ain’t Over,” if given the Muscle Shoals/FAME treatment, could’ve been a killer bit of Southern soul. As it stands, it’s a pleasant enough, cleanly-produced bit of funky R&B with its edges smoothed to a glossy sheen.
Her read of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” remains largely true to the most well-known arrangement as recorded by Elvis Costello. It feels oddly incongruous, however Staton brings her gospel chops to the melody, allowing it to wander ever so slightly, yet always in service of the song. Unfortunately, like the rest of the album, the track only hints at moments of transcendence, reining in everything and playing nice at the last minute. She takes a similar approach with longtime mentor and creative partner Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind,” remaining true to the original but within a more modernist setting.
Unlike her peers who have attempted the same feat, Staton’s return to pop music lacks much of what made her original recordings so appealing, forgoing what made her so well-loved in favor of the new and modern. This, of course, comes from a position of pro-nostalgia. In fairness, Staton is in fine voice throughout, showing her pipes are undiminished in the half-century since her career began, even if Unstoppable, as a whole, pales in comparison to much of her earlier work.