ESTELLE: Shine (Label: Atlantic)

Wednesday, 02 April 2008 09:52 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF


Estelle (Swaray) burst forth a couple of years back, and straight away her work was pigeon-holed as "British hip hop". Now, even though she's working for the mighty John Legend's label, google-style searches still put her in the same category. In fairness, on this new 12 tracker, there is a deal of that mockney-patois-toasting and plenty of references to Big Ben, boozers, blokes and chirpy Cockneys, but there's also music here that's a million miles away from Sarf London. Indeed in places Estelle offers us a real soul conviction that's more heartfelt than a lot of stuff that's currently labelled as "modern soul". By now everyone will be familiar with the hit 'American Boy'. Its big brashness has deservedly won it considerable success but that very commercial celebrity might put off blinkered soul people from investigating further - sadly their lack of curiosity will deny them access to some great soul cuts. Case in point is the duet with label boss, Legend. The song's 'You Are' and the gentle little tune is as good as anything on his own last epic LP; more, despite the fact that he owns the label, our Estelle is never over-shadowed. Then there's the plaintive 'Back In Love' on which Ms. S displays a vocal vulnerability that recalls Lauryn Hill's first solo album. 'In The Rain' is another superb soul cut. It samples Love Unlimited's 'Walkin' In The Rain With The One I Love' and yes, there is a rap in there but it's totally organic and gives the cut a whiff of contemporary commercial appeal. The album's fourth big soulful event is 'More Than Friends'. Here the sample reference is Aretha's version of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and no one would be surprised if you mistook the cut for a Jill Scott outtake. Elsewhere, 'No Substitute Boy' is a light lovers rock romp while 'Magnificent', 'Come Over' and 'So Much Out Of The Way' will satisfy those who liked Estelle as she was and how she is categorized. 'Shine' though is one of those albums that ultimately defies simple categorization.
(BB) 4/5


MICHAEL McDONALD: 'Soul Speak' (Label: Universal)

Wednesday, 02 April 2008 09:27 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


Following the prodigious platinum success achieved by his last couple of solo efforts - two albums of Motown-inspired cover versions - the hunky he-man of hirsute, blue-eyed soul returns with a 14-track opus helmed by '80s pop star-turned-producer, Simon Climie. Again, it's a predominantly covers-based affair showcasing the gruff, soulful histrionics of the former Doobie Brothers' front man as he tackles songs as diverse as Teddy Pendergrass's 'Love T.K.O.', Dionne Warwick's 'Walk On By,' Van Morrison's 'Into The Mystic' and Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song.' For the most part, the set works fine - McDonald's passionate retooling of Stevie Wonder's 'Living For The City' is particularly noteworthy, as is his gospel-meets-rock-infused retread of the old Aretha/George Michael duet, 'I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,' which opens the album. However, on 'Walk On By,' his robust, overly-virile tones seem a tad too rough for conveying the bittersweet delicacy of Burt Bacharach's elegant melody - also, I don't feel his version of 'Redemption Song' quite hits the spot, rendering Marley's potent original into a quagmire of MOR blandness. That said, there's plenty for fans of the big man to enjoy here - including fine original tunes like the mid-tempo groover 'Getting Over You' and the achingly plaintive ballad, 'Only God Can Help Me Now.' Listen out, too, for an arresting revamp of Stevie's 'For Once In My Life' and an energetic take on Jackie Wilson's dance floor perennial, '(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher.' Another thing that can't be faulted is McDonald's commitment to his music - he always gives 100% and sounds like he's putting blood, sweat and tears into each and every performance. In that sense, he's a true soul man. He's also as solid and reliable as a rock - and that description just about sums up the consistency and quality of his latest album.
(CW) 3/5


NORTH "2UNES" WOODALL: Straight At You (Label:

Wednesday, 02 April 2008 08:41 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF


Don't know a thing about the wonderfully named "2unes" Woodall save that he plays a mean guitar and knows a bit about soul's back catalogue. A few years ago the music on this eleven tracker would have become a mainstay on the old Jazz FM (remember when they played jazz - smooth or otherwise?) but now, with decent outlets denied, it's hard to say how this album will get away other than via word of mouth … and indeed that's how the buzz on the CD has built up. Some savvy, crate-digging, net-searching members of the modern soul crowd have gotten hold of one of the album's tracks and started to play it out, and so the interest in 'ole "2unes" has begun. Oddly though, the track in question, 'All I Need Is You', is not particularly representative of the album overall. The cut's a nifty, shifty dancer and though a little lightweight, its tempo and retro feel are both perfect for the modern room. It is of course a vocal track (courtesy of Anna Sullivant) while the majority of the remaining ten tracks are smooth jazz instrumentals featuring Woodall's Benson-inspired guitar. The most obvious Benson pastiche is 'Café' while 'MVP' displays a deal of fret board intricacy. Elsewhere there are plenty of covers of well-known tunes like the Friends Of Distinction's 'Going In Circles', Paul Hardcastle's 'Rainforest', EWF's 'Let's Groove' and the Whispers' 'Rock Steady' (a tune that's been put into a much better smooth jazz setting by Paul Jackson Jr., by the way). Interestingly Mr. Woodall claims to be the "songwriter" throughout - hope he knows a good copyright lawyer! That legal thing, though, is secondary to the music. What we have here is one of those indie albums that soul people will dismiss as a "one tracker" … bit of a shame that, 'cos there's some decent, if unspectacular, smooth jazz herein. You can investigate more at
(BB) 3/5


DIANE SCHUUR: Some Other Time (Label: Heads Up)

Tuesday, 01 April 2008 08:58 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

DIANE SCHUUR: Some Other Time

Washington's Diane Schuur has enjoyed a long and distinguished career. Blessed with perfect pitch, her particular take on jazz - often melding it with pop, country and blues - has won her two Grammys and countless lesser awards. Here on 'Some Other Time' the blind vocalist/pianist returns to her straight jazz roots and offers a selection of songs that were particular favourites with her jazz-loving parents. So the thirteen tracks are, by and large, taken from the catalogues of the great American songwriters, and are featured in classic jazz quartet format. But Schuur and arranger Randy Porter (whose piano features on all but three tracks) along with producer Marc Silag deliver them in new colours and contemporary shadings. So, for instance, on the opener, the Gershwins' 'Nice Work If You Can Get It', the band set up a rich harmonic platform for Schuur's clear vocal, while on the same writers' 'I've Got Beginners Luck', the time signature is strangely flexible - even elastic, but the vocal keeps it together. Schuur takes piano duties herself on two tracks - Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's 'Its Magic' and the Tony Bennett hit 'The Good Life'. On both she shows that her playing is sadly undervalued. Interestingly, the album ends with two very personal cuts. First there's a version of 'September In The Rain' which Diane recorded for her parents back in 1964 (she was just 10) - and despite her tender years there's real gusto in there. Then there's a new recording of the Irish air 'Danny Boy', which Schuur has recorded specially in memory of her mother. Poignantly, you'll hear the mother's voice (recorded again in 1964) asking for the song. Yes, I know its sounds contrived - some might even say over-sentimental, but the heartfelt reading of this most plaintive of songs makes the whole thing sound just right. It gives a kind of closure to the album - a unique ending to a very decent straight jazz vocal set.
(BB) 3/5


WAR: 'The Very Best Of War' (Label: Rhino Avenue)

Sunday, 30 March 2008 14:27 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

WAR: 'The Very Best Of War'

Back in the 1970s, this interracial octet hailing from Long Beach, California, came to prominence as one of the West Coast's leading exponents of head-nodding, groove-based music. Fronted for a short time by ex-Animal, Eric Burdon, War melded hot funk and sweet soul with buoyant Latin rhythms. Above all, what helped define War's distinctive sound was the liberal sprinkling of a plaintive, bluesy harmonica sound (courtesy of Danish-born member, Lee Oskar). Although the group was at its creative pinnacle in the '70s, War has remained active up to the present day (the reissue of this compilation coincides with a War/Burdon reunion at the Royal Albert Hall on April 21st). This new 34-track double set focuses on the band's most popular moments spanning the years 1970-1994. Two tracks ('Spill The Wine' and a version of John D. Loudermilk's popular perennial, 'Tobacco Road') originate from the period when War was led by the Tyneside rocker Eric Burdon. Far better is the music the band cut without Burdon, including the seminal 'Cisco Kid, 'All Day Music,' 'Slippin' Into Darkness,' and the anthemic 'The World Is A Ghetto.' One of the band's biggest commercial successes was provided by the catchy, groove-fuelled 'Low Rider' which more recently enjoyed fame in the UK providing the soundtrack to a Marmite TV advert. This is indubitably a classic collection and, if you're an aficionado of '70s soul and funk, it's one worthy of your utmost attention (for those interested in Eric Burdon's association with the group, there's also an Avenue CD, 'Best Of Eric Burdon & War,' which has just been reissued).
(CW) 4/5


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