The previous PARK PLACE project The
Invisible Man (originally from 2002, re-released as Paul Tillman-Smith
& Park Place: The Invisible Man in 2004) was a real all-stars
soul team featuring such luminaries as Norman Connors (producer together
with Paul Tillman-Smith - in the pic right), Freddie Hughes, Pharoah Sanders, Denise
Stewart, Nelson & Wayne Braxton, Scott Mayo, Rosie Gaines and Lenny
Williams. The new Park Place project Just Like Magic (US
Chump Change, 2007) features equally appetizing list of soul celebrities as guest
musicians and vocalists. Paul Tillman-Smith is the main producer, and Norman
Connors & Nelson Braxton are the co-producers this time, while the lead
vocals are mainly handled by Donnie Williams, who sounds a lot like
Joe (recording on Jive label). Donnie was an American Idol top 32 finalist
in 2004. Guest vocalists on the album include La Toya London (who was the fourth-place finalist on the same American Idol season and
released her debut solo album in 2005), Terrell Williams (Donnie’s
18-year-old younger sister), Avis Nixon (who has worked with Norman
Connors), Bonnie Boyer and Rosie Gaines. The list of guest
musicians is also impressive: Rodney Franklin, Sundra Manning, Juewett
Bostick, Donald Tavie, Herman Jackson, Scott Mayo, Tommy Oregon etc.
Most of the tracks are new versions of
songs already featured on the previous Park Place albums. These include a new
version of Invisible Man, which was originally sung by T. Marvin
(who is one of the background singers here) in 2002, and then later Lenny Williams
in the 2004 version of the Invisible Man album. Now also Donnie Williams
gets a chance to sink his teeth into this soulful Paul Tillman-Smith written
tune, and he does a good job with his flexible tenor voice over the Nelson
Braxton arranged modern backdrop.
I was also highly impressed by Terrell
Williams’ soulful delivery on the spirited soul ballad What Is Love.
Terrell’s bright soprano reminds me of Nikita Germaine (who also has a
new album out, reviewd later in this column!). The title track Just
Like Magic was originally sung by Bonnie Boyer on the 2002 album,
and by La Toya London on the 2004 release, and now it’s a duet between the American Idol
Donnie and La Toya. Donnie also delivers impressive new readings of the
sax-laced ballad Higher Power (originally sung by soul veteran Freddie
Hughes) and the highly melodic Remember the Day. The brand new tunes like Feels
So Right and Running, sung by Donnie and arranged by Braxton
Brothers, remind me of the modern sound on the latest Ledisi album.
has released her latest set This Is Love on Shanachie (US Shanachie
5769, 2007), and can you believe it’s not an all-cover album like all
the other soul CDs on the same label last year. Instead all the songs are new
tunes co-written by Ann herself; even the song titled I Apologize is not
an Anita Baker cover but a strong new composition, actually one of the
top tracks here.
On the back cover of the CD Ann is cited
as the "Queen of Inspirational Soul", but actually most of the songs represent
modern soul with usual love lyrics, and only one song titled Thank God is
a customary gospel-inclined ballad with religious lyrics. Also Never Forget
You Remembered reminds me of the serene inspirational style a la The Winans etc.
There is one house-y uptempo tune which
is not my cup of tea, but all the other tracks are the real thing: Aretha–type
of rootsy real soul music. Also the mid-tempo tunes with programmed beats are quite
soulful, like the punchy opening I Can’t Explain It, the powerful Step
or the more mellow and melodious This Could Be Love. Maybe the album
lacks a real killer cut, but the overall level is certainly above the average.
Definitely worth checking!
TONY LINDSAY is best known as the vocalist for Santana, but his self-titled
debut solo effort Tony Lindsay (US Gruve Records, released December 2005)
is an amazingly soulful – and at places also a very funky album. Well, after fourteen
years with Santana and eleven Grammys, he definitely is no newcomer to the
music world, and his great confidence as a vocalist shows on the debut solo
set, too. Tony himself describes the music on his solo album as “fitting
somewhere middle of the R&B and jazz groove”, and “containing something for
everyone”, but I would hasten to add that all of the tracks are suitable for
our readers – in other words, no rock tracks!
The debut single Crush has a relaxed
horn-ladden mid-tempo soul groove that would not be out of place on any Willie
Clayton album. Even deeper in the soul genre go tracks like From The
Toes Up and Six Feet Under. The former is a slowly grinding real
soul ballad with a delicious backdrop dominated by funky bass licks (by David
Jones) – reminding me of John Whitehead’s solo album in the late
80s. Tony really shines on vocals, with Willie Clayton again being the closest
point of comparison. Six Feet Under is a more traditional Southern soul
ballad that would have been perfect for Johnnie Taylor, but Tony
certainly does a good job interpreting the classy melody by himself, too.
Another extremely soulful ballad song is a song titled Shoulda Been There.
Still, my number one pick on the album is
a song titled Who Cares, which is a gorgeous sax-drenched, feel-good
soul tune. Tony sounds absolutely terrific while delivering the soulful melody,
and this is the kind of soul track that makes you really miss back the “good old
days” when this kind of classy mid-tempo soul tunes were the order of the day.
The rest of the album is not bad, either,
and there are no duds on this album at all. Most of the tracks are mid-paced,
and the backdrops are colored by real instruments, including saxophone, trumpet
and real drums. A highly recommendable CD for lovers of traditional soul.
With its tight funky groove and soulful
singing, a track titled Something I Wanna Say to You by FATHERS
CHILDREN sounds very similar to Tony Lindsay’s musical style, but the whole
album Sky Is the Limit (US FC Music, 2007) is quite varied. On
their own introduction, they admit that “the music on the CD is quite diverse,
with songs ranging from funk with a little hip hop sprinkled in, to R&B
ballads, to smooth jazz-like melodies.”
Fathers Children is not a new name in the soul scene, since they recorded their first (untitled) album on Mercury
back in 1980, under Wayne Henderson’s production. The self-contained
group contains six members, including the lead vocalist Ted “Hakeem”
Carpenter, who has a pleasant tenor voice and the group’s overall sound is
not far away from Atlantic Starr’s early albums. Davey Yarbrough supports
on background with his sax and flute solos.
The ballads on the album are all quite
attractive, especially If I, which has a vocal group feel of the 70s,
the melodious Key to My Heart and the soothing, flute-tinged When I
Think at All I Think of You. The title track Sky’s the Limit is
probably influenced by The Isley Brothers, while the uptempo tracks This
Is What We Do to Have Fun and Move on try a modern approach with
programmed beats. Still, the album is mainly targeted for 70s soul fans.
Talking about traditional soul, RUBY
BAKER’s CD Love Is Worth It All is one of the strongest
rootsy soul albums by a female singer I’ve heard in recent years. On several
websites she has been likened to Anita Baker, probably because of the
same surname and ballad-oriented style, but I feel that some Southern soul
queens like Shirley Brown or Betty Wright (who has contributed
here) would have been much more appropriate points of comparison for this South Florida based songstress. The 16-track album is crammed with soulful ballads, four of
them written and produced by Betty Wright and Angelo Morris. Kyle
Bynoe has co-written 12 tracks and is also the main producer, two of them
together with smooth jazz keyboardist Bob Baldwin. Former Atlantic
Starr lead vocalist Sharon Bryant is featured as the backing
The backgrounds are very basic and there
are not many other instruments than keyboards, but the backings are
professional enough not to disturb the main attraction here, which is serious,
gospel-influenced ballad singing. 16 full-length tracks and almost 75 minutes
of music on the CD probably gives the buyers great value for money, but
personally I would have dropped a couple of more mediocre compositions out of
the set and we would have a shorter but excellent ten-track soul CD. The rest
of the tracks are well sung, too, but they sound a lot like Kelly Price albums
to me: strong vocals but aimlessly wandering melodies.
Despite the famous contributors, I rate
the Kyle Bynoe & Derrick Harvin –written songs like Motions of
Love, 7 Days, Come to Me and Caught Up as the prime tracks here. They
are decent ballad tunes and they give Ruby a good chance to show her soulful
wailing and dynamic, gospel-trained vocalizing. Of the Betty Wright &
Angelo Morris written tracks, Heart of Hearts is a tuneful, smooth
mid-tempo ballad, while All My Love is a relaxed mid-beater spiced by
some piano soloing by Angelo. Ruby has performed as the opening act for
celebrities like B.B. King, The Manhattans, Bobby Womack, Atlantic
Starr, The Four Tops and Phyllis Hyman.
CARLTON BLOUNT is the throaty soul singer who was the lead singer
Ingredient for a short period early this decade, on their superb but
highly underrated Pure Magic set on Magnatar Records. While the album
did not succeed, Carlton departed the group to start a solo career. His debut solo
CD (From) a Man’s Point of View was also on Magnatar, and although it was
an uneven album, it contained the truly magnificent, bitter-in-the-extreme
ballad titled Acting Like You’re Free.
Carlton’s second solo album All I Need
Is One (YS Records/Raven CD, 2007) has received almost no publicity at all,
and the few comments I have read online have been utterly negative. Maybe it is
because the album tries to mix rootsy, Southern-type of soul singing with
trendy R&B backings, but on the other hand artists like Anthony Hamilton
and Jaheim have been getting rave reviews while doing exactly the same. What
the other reviewers have not noticed is that the album is practically a re-production
of the Pure Magic album, since of the eleven full-length songs on the
CD, six are same tunes that were already released on the Pure Magic set.
Admittedly, the arrangements are now less attractive for soul listeners but
probably get easier airplay from formatted US radio stations than the more
traditional original versions.
Anyway, the compositions are excellent,
and most of all, Carlton is in terrific vocal form, tearing down the lyrics like
any first rate deep soul vocalist of the 60s or 70s. Just take a brief listen
to tracks like Why Should I, Will You Marry Me or We Got Us, and
you know what I mean. The Letter is arranged in a smoother piano
backing, and on this track Carlton reminds me of Johnny Gill a lot.
The new songs on this CD are written by Royal
Bayyan, who has earlier composed (and produced) tracks for Freddie
Jackson, Gerald Alston, Meli’sa Morgan and Kool & the Gang,
amongst others. Good Old Fashion Love tries to repeat the same formula
as The Commoders’ Nightshift, Why You Wanna Love Me That Way
has slightly Temptations-ish feel of their Ali Ollie Woodson
period, and Selfish continues in the same mould. Just Don’t Want to
Be Lonely is of course an updated version of the old Main Ingredient hit,
and the other Main Ingredient members also guest on the track We Got Us.
Sadly, the third member of the previous line-up, Tony Silvester, passed away
in November 2006. Despite the R&B-inclined backdrops, this albums
represents Soul with a capital S.
VICTORIA WHITE is a talented New Jersey based singer-songwriter, whose new album The Upside has been
published on Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White’s (no
relation to Victoria) Kalimba label. Current EWF member Sheldon Reynolds
discovered Victoria while she was performing Girl of Your Dreams at Myrtle Beach with just an acoustic guitar, and Reynolds was so impressed that wanted to produce
Victoria’s album on Kalimba Records.
This is Victoria’s second album. Her
debut set Home was a self-recorded project that was sold at CD Baby. It
was described as an album that brings elements of rock, folk and jazz to
contemporary R&B, and in a similar way, the new CD fuses folk and jazz to
R&B. At first I thought this was just another attempt to cash with the trend
started by Norah Jones, but Victoria’s CD is much groovier and tastier
than the sound Norah represents. I was also impressed by Victoria’s
songwriting; all the songs on the album are self-written by her, and the tunes
include several gems. Victoria’s ballad style actually reminds me of Janita’s
recent ballads; listen to tracks like the compelling opening song Exodus or the
afore-mentioned Girl of Your Dreams.
The mid-pacers on the album have a nice
groovy feel when Victoria herself plays also wah wah guitar (check the
excellent single release Can’t Buy Love or the swaying Paper Doll),
while Brian Culbertson joins her on Keep On and plays the
sparkling piano lines. As a whole, the eleven-track CD is quite refreshing, and
although some of the tracks are a bit too folk-tinged to my taste, I find
myself returning repeatedly to the highlights of the album.
MARGARET MURPHY is a Chicago based jazz songstress, who has been influenced by Carmen McCrae and Sarah
Vaughn, and on her website she also compared to Phyllis Hyman. On
Margaret’s In Full Bloom debut (US Earth Tone, 2007) she sticks mainly
to familiar standards, of which songs like I Got My Mojo Working and Misty
are already getting too customary to my personal taste. Undoubtedly much
more to soul listeners’ liking are her versions of Al Jarreau’s Distracted
(spiced by meaty tenor saxophone by James Perkins) or Sade’s melancholy
ballad song Pearls. Of the jazz standards, Margaret’s swinging versions
of Stolen Moments and Night in Tunisia are quite enjoyable.
Still, the absolute peak of the album is
an elegant duet song with Michael Logan, entitled Pieces of a Dream,
which is a theme song from a movie that was introduced at the 2005 Cannes Film
I liked NIKITA GERMAINE’s 1993
debut set on Motown quite a lot, and it is amazing that it took 14 years for
her to release a follow-up CD, which is titled Just Kita (US Family
Tree, 2008). Unfortunately the new album leans heavily towards R&B and
trendy dance sounds that try to appeal younger audience, even though Nikita sounds
much better singing melodious mid-tempo material and passionate ballads. The
first single pick 911 L.O.VE. is actually the worst example on
the album of the corny new teen-oriented sound, which hardly pleases anyone who
is older than thirteen. The rest of the R&B oriented upbeat movers are only
slightly more listenable, and needless to say, all the music is programmed except
It’s only on the ballad tracks that offer
Nikita a chance to show off her strong vocalizing, and she manages to turn even
the more R&B-inclined ballads into very enjoyable performances. Teena
Marie has been used as a point of comparison, and I’m pleased to note from
online shops that customers who have bought Nikita’s CD have also bought albums
by Lalah Hathaway, Regina Belle, Trina Broussard and Chanté Moore,
which proves that Nikita is still appreciated by soul listeners, despite the
production on the current CD.
To hear the more soulful side of Nikita,
check out tracks like the sax-laced One Day, the best mid-pacer Enough
Is Enough, the strongly interpreted It’s So Nice or the stylish closing
ballad Because of You.
When the UK duo HIL ST. SOUL
released their debut set Soul Organic in 2000, their Zambian-born lead
singer Hilary Mwelwa explained that they “chose the 'organic' title to
convey that it's natural back-to-basics music with virtually no samples”. But
after Hil St. Soul secured a record deal with US label Shanachie, they
adopted a very chart-oriented R&B sound, and on their latest (their third
on Shanachie) CD Black Rose you can hear very little but
programmed beats, slightly laced with guitar, like typical on all R&B chart
albums. Frankly, I find their current musical backings very tedious, but obviously
those who adore current R&B disagree. Anyway, there is very little
“organic” or anything that refers to their neo-soul origin on their sound
As often, the programmed backings don’t
bother that much on ballads, and if you love Hilary’s velvety, smooth vocal
style, tracks like Broken Again, Hanging On and Smile are worth
checking. Of the mid-pacers, We Were in Love is a melodic
swayer, while the musically simple title track contains some bitter lyrics about
black soul singers getting no appreciation, and If I Was You tells about
domestic violence, and advises the abused girlfriend to pack her bags and leave
REGINA BELLE’s new CD Love
Forever Shines (US Pendulum, 2008) is her first gospel album, but with Chris
Walker and Regina’s brother Bernard Belle producing, the music is
not that different from her previous sets – apart from a couple of uptempo
tracks, which represent traditional, hurried uptempo gospel.
The ballads are quite peaceful and conventional,
partly orchestrated with real strings and horns, and Regina sings them in her
emotional, powerful manner. The opening track Love Forever Shines sounds
like a hit tune, while I Hope He Understands and Victory are
classy The Winans-type of serene gospel ballads. Still, I must confess
that the delicious jazzy instrumentation on her previous album Lazy Afternoon
was more to my liking.
Anyway, lovers of contemporary gospel
will probably shout for joy, when Melvin Williams of the Williams
Brothers is also guesting here on two of the standout cuts, God Is Good and
Good to Be Loved, whereas Shirley Murdock and Chris Walker are
featured as the background singers. My personal favorites are the spirited duet
with Melvin, Good to Be Loved and the horn-ladden mid-stepper Coming
out of This.
All the albums reviewed in this column are available from
our CD shop.