Review: Paul Stanley’s Soul Station

I wasn’t sure if I was going to review Paul Stanley’s Soul Station. Frankly, the music he’s been covering really isn’t in my wheelhouse. I’ve heard some of the original tracks over the years, hell, it’s hard not to have. But Paul Stanley? The ringmaster of the psycho circus, the officiant at electric communion… Paul Stanley in a lounge jacket?!?! When he announced Soul Station in 2015, I was a bit confused. Why? WHY?! (Insert Japanese 1997 commercial here). I also wasn’t sure if Paul Stanley was the right person to be giving a tour of soul. I mean, “lemme year ya peeeple!” It is so absurdly out of left field in some ways, it’s almost perfect for the COVID-CANCEL era. Maybe there’s hope for Sade’s grindcore cover project after all, heck Pat Boone did go metal and I did listen to “LuLu!” Once.

Joking aside, I gave the project a chance. Paul has been a central part of the soundtrack of my life for over 35 years, he’s always been there for me, just a press-play away. So, when he does something, I pay attention whether it’s cooking (for which I need no help), painting (not interested, other than Dendy Sadler), or pontificating on Twitter (which generally causes me to have to bring out the banhammer). I found Soul Station middling when I watched videos from early performances. New shows, new videos, new songs to check out, that I was grateful for. Any personal feelings didn’t stop me from planning to attend a show. Perhaps I needed to be there, enveloped in the moment, to “get” it. That run of shows was cancelled, and since then he’s only performed in Japan. I’ll also admit that doing many KISS-related things over the past two decades has been overcompensation for all that I missed during the two decades prior to that.

To a certain extent, I’ve been a bit dubious of the seeming narrative being constructed around Paul’s “love of soul” when any hints of such have not penetrated my brain over the decades. But at the end of the day, I really don’t care. If the narrative is honest, great, if it’s a stretch used to justify the project, whatever. After all, Paul Stanley is the artist, and regardless of stature or longevity, putting oneself out on a proverbial chopping block of public critical evaluation requires a massive ego, ambivalence, or perhaps even obliviousness. Then again, he’s a lead singer and does wear masks.

The album kicks off with the Spinner’s “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” and I’m really not sure how well it works as an opening track for the album. Maybe I’m stuck in a neanderthal rock paradigm, expecting a bombastic declaratory opener to throw down the proverbial gauntlet, and perhaps it is, and I’m simply not tuned into the right channel. It seems solid enough, from a musical perspective. It’ll be a recurrent theme that the musicians involved in this project are top notch, and that a great deal of thought has been put into the presentations. But this song simply doesn’t have any sort of fireworks, ebbs and flows, just decaffeinated. It’s not that it’s a bad performance either.

“I Do,” the first of Paul’s originals follows. The fact that there are five originals on the album is, for me at least, its main selling point. New music. Anything! New songs written by Paul Stanley, and it is these that I was most curious about. Fans had been teased parts of this song when Paul released his “In-Studio Documentary,” the sort of thing that we’ve begged from KISS throughout their history. It provided a fascinating insight into the shared creative process making it clear that Soul Station isn’t a journey travelled alone. It takes a big ol’ brass pair to include originals in the style of the covers, particularly crossing over genres. But it feels like this one is “Paul Stanley being Smokey Robinson,” and I am really not a fan of this style of falsetto. While not to my taste, there is no denying that the song is absolutely beautifully written, arranged, and recorded. But it almost seems *too* thought out in parts. I’d like to hear this one done live for a more organic presentation, but I still probably wouldn’t like the vocal.

Another original, “I, Oh I,” follows. This one was simply stunning from the very first listen. My first thoughts were: “Paul Stanley wrote this? PAUL STANLEY WROTE THIS!!!” 50 years into a career, and Paul Stanley can still leave my jaw agape, throwing a knock-out punch that leaves me hitting the floor from a literal sonic boom. It’s musical Muhammad Ali, “Dance like a butterfly sting like a bee!” Bewm! It illustrates that Paul’s songwriting skills are getting finer with age, yet should we be surprised? He once set himself a task to write a song in a different style and came up with “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” He’s surprised so many times, I’m surprised I’m surprised! But 50 years into his career his creativity and songwriting skills are not diminished. A band video was released for this one, and I can’t now NOT see the expressions of joy on the faces of the vocalists while singing this one. That said, there are echoes of other things I’ve heard before, even if I can’t immediately pinpoint them. Or perhaps that is the point, and it encompasses and communicates Paul’s universal inspirations that are now part of the cosmic musical continuum. Or we simply overthink things too much!

Now I get the full Smokey… “Ooo Baby Baby.” Don’t like it, and never liked the song. Period. Too syrupy for my tastes. Moving on quickly… “O-O-O Child” was the first single from the album, and I’d guess it has served as most people’s introduction to the album versions of the songs. I’d heard this one from one of the live shows, and it has been an introduction to a song with which I wasn’t initially familiar. I do think that this would have been a better lead-off track for the album proper, but that might be old-fashioned thinking. It’s a good up-beat mid-tempo song that allows Paul’s voice to take center stage. That’s very brave, noting some of the challenges he’s had over the past decade. But again, the video performance is now imprinted on me, and the smiling happy faces expressing the same feelings this song presents. I hear autotune, more so on another vocal, but the crafting of this is very well done. It was a perfect choice for the first single.

“Save Me (From You)” is another original and is simply one of the finest songs Paul has written during his 50-year career. I never thought I’d say that in 2021 about a song from a soul song cover album. I was speechless following my first listen; I am still simply aghast and floored each time I hear this song. It’s a hybrid, it’s an inexplicable cross-genre mongrel, combining a 70s disco backbeat with 60s girl-group harmonies and a lounge vocal with flair chock full of Stanley panache with an essence of soul. The backing vocals season perfectly and a glorious guitar motif surfaces throughout, even if there are plenty of echoes where one could hear the Pet Shop Boys slaying this. It alone is worth the price of admission for the album, even if I wish his vocal had a touch more fire.

I’m not saying a word against the Temptations and “Just My Imagination,” but the highlight of this one is Eric Singer. I don’t know what his future holds, but I hope we get to hear more of his vocals on projects. It’s followed by “Whenever You’re Ready (I’m Here),” another original. This time Paul duets with the amazing Crystal Starr. The arrangement is spectacular, and (rightfully or wrongly) I had visions of the dynamics of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s “Swallow” performance at the 2020 Oscars. There could easily be a similar power here. And Paul Stanley wrote it!

With “The Tracks of My Tears,” I have nothing to add about Smokey. It’s a great song regardless and Paul certainly does it justice. But as is the case of many a cover, there’s no beating the original even if the intent is to honor or remind us of the song. Equally, I’m not sure of any point covering “Let’s Stay Together.” The original is massive. As much as I love Paul Stanley, I’m not sure this one should have been touched. I guess I’m into a dark part of the album, with “La-La Means I Love You” simply being annoying to me. Hadn’t heard that one before, don’t like, and don’t feel it added to my musical education on this journey. Falsetto, autotune, annoying backgrounds… But I guess if Paul likes it, that’s really nice…

Fortunately, “Lorelei” comes along and saves me (from the others). From the first notes, you can tell it’s going to be special. It’s Paul Stanley on his white stallion, wearing purple headband, ready to ride with flaming sword held aloft. Sorry, phased out there… But the song provides another moment of amazement, in that I’m listening to another incredible new Paul Stanley song in 2021. It’s spectacular, and I feel I can’t find the right superlative to use. The backing vocals are great in the beginning, but get a bit grating towards the end, though Eric’s prominence is nice. There’s nice guitar work too.

I’ve been polluted by hearing the Judas Priest-Stock Aitken Waterman version of “You Are Everything,” and the world has not been quite right since. I don’t much care for the song, again it’s syrup, but does have a nicely stated guitar solo. It seems a bit of a stretch vocally, particularly in relation to the style and phrasing. Then we reach the conclusion, the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Lovin.” That’s pretty much holy ground for the genre IMO. It’s a good closing track and should provide a good sing-along section when performed in concert for a massive gang chorus. It also seems to be more from the gut singing than the style on most of the album, so perhaps it’s for this reason it’s more comforting at the end of the adventure.

Sadly, I think many will have made up their minds about this album before hearing a note of it. I’ve taken my time to digest, re-listen, and didn’t want to give it short shrift. Paul Stanley meant too much to me for that. I will never be a fan of soul, and this album doesn’t convert me. But it did introduce me to some new songs that I hadn’t heard. It also made me spend two weeks writing and researching the “song stories” for the website, which was a nice break delving into something new and different, and finding some Paul interviews of which I wasn’t previously aware. I split the material on the album into two obvious categories, the originals, and the covers. Therefore, I find little point in the covers. Honestly, the original artists are monsters in the genre, and rightfully so. Just like I don’t have any KISS tribute albums in regular rotation, I give them a listen and quickly go back to the originals for the same reason. That said, I’ve given “Soul Station” far more listens than I’ve given most KISS tribute albums, and that’s probably because of the original songs, and the near flawless track sequencing (opener excluded). The covers I’d rate 5/10, neither spectacular nor horrible and Paul is highly respectful of the material.

The originals, on the other hand, are 10/10. While Paul Stanley may not have a hit with any of these songs with his name attached, I don’t doubt their potential for a minute. They are spectacular. Go listen to them again, NOW! As for you, I’m not trying to persuade you of anything. Listen, not listen, I care. I’m glad I did.

Buy the album here:

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