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Upfront Soul

Our editor's picks from the recent soul CDs

  Philly songstress CAROL RIDDICK is best known for her contribution for the Larry Gold project Larry Gold Presents Don Cello and Friends, a song called Loving You. She also sang a track Can You Come Over on Jeff Bradshaw’s Bone Deep album, wrote a song for Terry Ellis and was a backing vocalist for Kindred the Family Soul, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton and Musiq. Now she has released her debut album Moments Like This (US Axis, 2006), and the album features James Poyser as one of the producers.

  Even though most of the aforementioned artists are typical neo-soul artists, Carol’s own music and style reminds me more of Lizz Wright. There is no hint of R&B anywhere, and nothing refers to neo-soul, either. Carol has a mature, strong voice that she uses in a way that is even a bit bluesy, bending and shaping the notes in a painfully moaning tone. The eleven-track CD is virtually an all-ballad set, and Carol has co-written all songs.

  The individual songs seem to grow with each listen, but there are no instantly fascinating gems. Personally, I would have preferred more colour in the arrangements, but there are some trumpet lines featured on two tracks and Larry Gold provides the strings on another two cuts. As a personal favourite, I would pick a mellow James Poyser co-produced song titled Confused, and All I Wanna Be (Krystal’s Song) with Larry Gold strings is another fine composition. Flirtatious has a slight Latin tinge with Matt Cappy on trumpet.

  MIKE AVERY’s album Destination Love (US Avery Park Music, 2006) strongly reminds me of Michael Bohannon’s Build a Fire set from 2001, with both guys performing Marvin Gaye –influenced traditional soul music in a simple musical setting. Bohannon’s album was a big favourite of yours truly – number 6 in my “albums of the year” of 2001, so it’s natural that I like Avery’s CD as well.

  All songs are written by Mike together with his musicians Richie Davis (guitars) and Neil Artwick (keyboards, rhythm programming), and they are quite soulful and tuneful. Khari Parker adds real drums on three tracks. Mike has a strong tenor voice that he swoops easily into falsetto and the Marvin connotations are immediate. Of course, nothing here rivals Marvin’s classic efforts, but songs like Miss Lady, Fantasy, Loveland and Best Friend are well worth hearing and make this short 8-track (plus one alternative version) album enjoyable listening.

  JACQUI NOBLE is a stylish young lady who cites Phyllis Hyman, Gladys Knight, Miki Howard, Chaka Khan and Maysa Leak as her influences, and while Jacqui herself is not quite in the same league yet, her debut set Releasing Expressions (US Noble Notes Entertainment, 2006) contains some enjoyable moments. The CD starts with the melodious mid-pacer Do You Know What You Want from Me, which is set in a horn-laden real instrumentation highlighted by some trumpet soloing. The trumpet playing also colours the next track, a melancholy mid-tempo ballad In Love Alone, and there’s a short jazzy guitar solo at the end of the song. I really welcome indie releases with real drums and other instrumentation, while they have become more and more rare in recent years.

  The rest of the album has less notable background playing, but real drums, bass and guitar continue to support Jacqui’s smooth and confident vocalising. She has written all the songs, and although they don’t include any real masterpieces, they are decent, traditional soul songs. Tracks worth a special mention include a guitar-laced, serene ballad entitled Tickle Me and the slightly Latin-tinged swayer Where Has the Time Gone.

  It has been very quiet in the neo-soul front in recent months, but SOPHIA DARCELL’s CD Soul Eclectic  (US Groove Craft, 2006) should cause some buzz . Sophia has written or co-written all the songs and also produced the set together with Todd Watson. All the music is played by real musicians, including lots of percussion, alto and tenor saxophone, flugel horn, trumpet and real drums. I especially like the use of wah-wah guitar. Also, Sophia herself has a powerful voice and a right attitude for singing in a soulful way.

  Thus, all she would need is some proper melodies. On her Soul Eclectic set, the most worthwhile tracks are the pulsating mid-pacer 7 Seas, the dynamically delivered Make up Your Mind and the sax-drenched swayers Someday Someone and Senor Alvarez, but unfortunately some other tracks are spoilt by rock guitar, and none of the tunes are very memorable. Anyway, the aforementioned four tracks are well worth hearing, so hopefully one of them ends up on some Expansion or Soul Brother compilation.

  The established soul heroes seem to release nothing but all-cover albums these days. While I know that some readers love listening to new versions of classic soul songs, I personally dislike the idea especially when now every soul artist is repeating the same formula. Still, of course you can make a good or bad album of cover songs, and at least Regina Belle has succeeded well with this receipt.

  Shanachie record label has now released four soul CDs this year using this same “singing timeless classics” formula, all produced by Chris “Big Dog” Davis. I was disappointed with PHIL PERRY’s Classic Love Songs (US Shanachie, 2006). Phil is a wonderful, extremely dynamic and spiritual high-pitched singer when he gets the right kind of material, but I didn’t like either the choices of cover songs or the arrangements on his album of classics. He focuses heavily on the romantic sweet soul tunes of the early 70s, songs like La La Means I Love You, People Make the World Go Round, I’ll Be Around, You Make Me Feel Brand New and Hey There Lonely Girl, which have been set on spiritless, mainly programmed backings, and Phil’s readings are very calm. Honestly, I feel the overall atmosphere is simply flat and even Phil’s interpretations have much less passion than one could expect. Lionel Richie’s Hello is a song I’ve always hated, but at least it has been arranged in a more experimental, slightly jazz-tinged musical setting with some flute soloing. Will Downing did recently a much more enjoyable cover of the Temptations’ Just My Imagination. Phil’s reading is OK but does not really shine. All in all, Phil’s weakest solo album to date.

  MAYSA has been one of the most prolific songstresses in recent years, and her Shanachie CD Sweet Classic Soul (US Shanachie, 2006) contained both musical highlights and failures. The choices of cover songs were much more to my personal taste than on Phil Perry’s album, even though it also contained a couple of songs I have never been fond of. However, especially such songs as the Rose Royce ballad Wishing on a Star, The Isley Brothers’ Don’t Say Goodnight and the Thom Bell song Love Comes Easy (earlier recorded by The Stylistics and Eloise Laws) were excellent choices, and suit Maysa’s mellow, jazz-flavoured style well. These are also arranged in a tasty musical setting, using real drums and highlighted by sophisticated instrumental solos by saxophone (Kim Waters) or piano (producer Chris Davis).

  Instead, a machine-driven reading of Stevie Wonder’s All I Do was a silly idea on paper, and the end result is exactly as mundane as you might expect, even if saxophonist Dave Wells tries to breathe some life into the programmed backing. RufusAny Love was a great showcase for Chaka Khan’s shouting vocal style, but I don’t think it suits Maysa at all, and the programmed rhythm and keyboards also sound very clumsy. Also, I feel that the loud programmed beat kills the atmosphere on Maysa’s reading of the Teddy Pendergrass bravura Come Go with Me.  However, Maysa’s version of the Barry White hit Playing Your Game, Baby is much more successful, as the backing is spiced by trumpet and flute, and some sophisticated guitar soloing by Wayne Bruce.

  Timeless R&B Classics (US Shanachie, 2006) is GLENN JONES’ first album since Feels Good in 2002. That CD included a 1:46 interlude I’ll Always Be Here, which was a duet between Glenn and his wife Genobia Jeter Jones. The new all-cover album contains two duets with Genobia, and these two tracks are probably the most enjoyable part of the CD. These songs are Where Is the Love?, a song originally performed by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, but also recorded by Will Downing with Mica Paris. Glenn Jones’ version is set in a surprisingly hurried rhythm, but Glenn and Genobia’s vocals are spirited and Randy Bowland adds some guitar soloing over the beats. Even better is, though, the other duet My First Love, originally by Rene & Angela, and Glenn and Genobia really shine on their interpretation of this soulful tune.

  There are a couple of other very interesting choices of songs, too. I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much from Bobby Womack’s repertoire is of course a truly deep and soulful song, but I really think it would demand a rootsy backing, too, and singing it over a modernised programmed beat waters the atmosphere. The same applies to Show and Tell (Al Wilson) and Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Stevie Wonder),. both of which are simply spoilt by machines. Luckily, Glenn’s interpretation of the Tomorrow’s Promise minor hit You’re Sweet, You’re Fine, You’re Everything is arranged in a more sophisticated musical setting, featuring Kim Waters on saxophone, and the end result is quite fascinating. Peabo Bryson’s Reaching for the Sky is certainly also ideal material for Glenn to sing, but again, I would have preferred more real musicians to the background.

  Finally, MIKI HOWARD is the fourth soul artist this year to release an all-cover album on Shanachie. Her CD is titled Pillow Talk – Miki Sings the Classics (US Shanachie, 2006), and like the other Shanachie cover version CDs, it contains both programmed and real instrumentation. As a singer, Miki has developed enormously since the early days of her solo career, and today I rate her as one of the most breathtaking female soul singers. Just take a listen to Miki’s reading of the old Natalie Cole smash Inseparable, and you know what I mean: from the very few seconds when Miki starts wailing the tune you get that spine-tingling feel that only the first-rate soul singers can create.

  Furthermore, I love Miki’s instantly captivating version of Boz Scaggs 1976 smash Lowdown, which was also covered by Jazzhole (with Marlon Saunders) recently. Miki’s version of the Leon Russell song This Masquerade was not inspired by George Benson’s version but Shirley Bassey’s reading of the song, and it has been arranged in a traditional jazz setting with Kim Waters on saxophone. A splendid version! Dorothy Moore’s classic Misty Blue and Marlena Shaw’s bravura Go Away Little Boy also get mellow sax-drenched backdrops which surely sound good to me. Instead, for some reason Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand the Rain has been set in a funky, guitar-driven setting with some rocky and bluesy overtones.

  Benny Latimore has proved that Captain & Tennille’s Do That to Me One More Time can be turned into a passionate soul ballad, and while Miki’s reading has a more pop-oriented feel, it is quite listenable. The CD as a whole has received surprisingly sour criticism, so I reckon that the younger generation would have preferred more funky and programmed tracks like the closing tune Which Way Is Up, originally a dance funk hit for Stargard, but for me it’s the weakest cut on display. Robert “WaWa” LeGrand on guitar is not a new Wah Wah Watson!

  We have had a few excellent jazzy soul CDs by female jazz vocalists recently, for instance albums by Raye Jones, Gabrielle Goodman, Veronica Martell and Kim Prevost. LIBERTY SILVER is another songstress who is basically a (Canadian) jazz artist, but her CD At Last (Canadian Thunder Dome Sounds, 2005) contains some splendid quality soul tracks as well. Especially a song titled Show Me the Way to Love is such a gorgeous soul track that it should be very high in the tracks of the year lists. The tune is written by Liberty herself together with pianist Eddie Bullen, who is also responsible for the beaming piano solo at the end of the song. Liberty also sounds more than brilliant while delivering the vocals. Read more about this track when we publish the Quality Time Tracks of 2006!

  Other soul cuts on the album include the Emotions cover Don’t Ask My Neighbor, which is set in a rather weird programmed beat backing laced with soprano saxophone, and the relaxed mid-beater All in My Mind, which has received airplay on special soul shows in the U.K. at least. You’re the Only One for Me is a profound jazzy ballad in a tasty serene musical setting, whereas Rain, Rain is a kind of mellow jazz-soul ballad you could expect to find on a Carmen Lundy album. Jazz in the Eyes of God sounds like a cut from an early Perri album, combining jazz, soul and gospel. Surprisingly, the jazz standard My Funny Valentine is the weakest cut on display here, with its odd disjointed backing and ugly keyboard lines. We have heard so much better interpretations of that track in recent years. Alabama Blu sounds like another standard, but is actually a new self-written song by Liberty, creating an old-fashioned bluesy feel although it is set in a modern, sax-coloured setting.

  Talking about jazzy soul – or soulful jazz music, an album by a songstress named ME’NA, Living My Life (US Menasvision,  2006) is also worth checking. Just like the Liberty Silver CD, it’s a combination of standards (My Funny Valentine, Summertime, Down by the River) and new and more soul-oriented songs. Of the last mentioned, the title track is an impressive slice of mid-tempo soul with a real instrumentation, including tasty acoustic piano basis and some funky guitar playing.

  Other tracks that should grab your attention include the ethereal, trumpet-flavoured (Joe Miller) ballad Deja View, the extremely stylish flute and piano-laced Journey Begins with You, the equally elegant ballad tune Home and the absolutely wonderful, sax-drenched ballad Stoopid. The swaying closing track Time is something you might expect from a future Ledisi album. If you’re into jazzy soul music like Fertile Ground and more recently The Five Corners Quintet and The Invisible Session, Me’na’s CD should be right up your alley!

  TRACI MATTISON’s CD Lament (US Williams Production) is already from year 2002, but it’s still well worth mentioning, as the album contains some of the most convincing soul tracks I’ve heard in recent years. The album opens with the splendid mid-tempo floater Let’s Take a Ride, which builds its groove over a meaty bass-driven backdrop. After nearly four minutes D.B. Williams joins the groove with his utterly stylish soprano saxophone soloing, and the closing two minutes are sheer ecstasy. Traci herself has a smooth and sensual vocal style compared to Betty Wright, Anita Baker and Regina Belle, and Traci mainly sings moody, jazz-tinged ballads and mellow mid-tempo tunes, but also demonstrates her rougher and throaty side of singing.

  Of the ballads, I was first fascinated by As a Matter of Fact, which is a traditional, rootsy soul ballad  that would be perfect for Betty Wright, Regina Belle or Maysa, and Traci also sounds utterly soulful while wailing through the emotional lyrics. However, after repeated listening, I’ve grown to like even much more a track titled Your One and Only, which is a truly unique ballad song with a pulsating real instrumentation further coloured by violin (Linda Senter), flute (Linda Allen) and tenor saxophone (Randy Mather). The melody is very captivating, and when the lyrics starts with “let me explain to you what kind of woman I am”, you can expect some real dedicated vocalising by Traci, and she really delivers the most soul-stirring lines I’ve heard for a while.

    Traci’s vocalising is also extremely strong on the closing moments of All I Ask, which is a swaying mid-pacer dominated by an effective rhythm guitar riff. Lazy Days is a serene mid-tempo ballad with D.B. Williams again colouring the backing with his soprano sax.  The jazziest cut on display is the six-minutes long Broken Promises, which features some wonderful trumpet and bass clarinet soloing over the swaying backdrop.

  Track titles like Lament, I’ll Pour the Wine and Quiet Sorrow describe the mellow quiet storm feeling of the rest of the album pretty well, and while there are no other real killer cuts like the aforementioned gems, I’d suggest that you go and get this album while you can. The CD copies were already out of stock for a while, but we managed to get some extra copies from the record label. Let’s hope that Traci gets a chance to record a follow-up to this album soon – she is really a diamond in the rough!

Ismo Tenkanen
Soul Express

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