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Our editor's picks of the new release CDs:

Upfront Soul 1/2008

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 partners  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.

ANN NESBY 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 vocalist.

  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 of Main 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 Festival.

  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 guitar.

  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 today.

  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 the abuser.

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.

Ismo Tenkanen
Soul Express

All the albums reviewed in this column are available from our CD shop.

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