Reviews

ALICIA KEYS: As I Am (Label: J Records)

Sunday, 11 November 2007 13:01 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

ALICIA KEYS: As I Am

Back in 2003, this Big Apple-born singer and pianist made both a creative and commercial quantum leap with her sophomore album, 'The Diary Of Alicia Keys,' which featured the stunning self-penned gem, 'If I Ain't Got You' - to my mind the best soul song written in the last ten years - and the addictive retro-groove, 'You Don't Know My Name.' Up to that point, Keys was just another aspiring R&B starlet with a promising debut to her name ('Songs In The Key Of A Minor'). Even though 'The Diary Of Alicia Keys' catapulted the young songstress into the R&B stratosphere inhabited by the likes of Mary J Blige and Whitney Houston, the singer was brought down to earth with the disappointing sales of the stop-gap follow-up, 'Alicia Keys Unplugged' in 2005. Four years on from her last studio effort, Keys is back with a new opus that has received a fairly mixed response by both the punters and pundits so far. I have to confess that on my first listen, I was profoundly disappointed - there's nothing here that remotely reaches the Olympian heights of 'If I Ain't Got You.' Having said that, with repeated plays my reservations were brushed aside - the album turns out to be a real grower and much more consistent in terms of quality than its predecessor. The arrangements are sparser this time around, with Keys' piano mostly accompanied by bass, drums and occasional guitar. Following a short, classical-tinged overture, the album proper opens with the boisterous beat ballad, 'Go Ahead.' Even better is the mid-paced, 'Superwoman' - not the '70s Stevie Wonder song - which makes way for the single, 'No One,' which is tough, brash and infectious (though its big, anthemic chorus is somewhat overcooked at the end by Keys' excessively declamatory vocals). By contrast, the dreamy soul ballad, 'Like You'll Never See Me Again,' is beautiful and delicate. The gorgeous, mid-tempo 'Lesson Learned' featuring John Mayer also seduces the ear, as does 'Teenage Love Affair,' which is vaguely reminiscent of 2003's 'You Don't Know My Name.' Another couple of engaging, soul-drenched ballads, 'Prelude To A Kiss' and 'Tell Me Something (Nana's Reprise)' can be found towards the end of the album, rounding out what is a significant release from a prodigious talent.
(CW) 4/5

 

LUTHER VANDROSS: Love, Luther (Label: Sony BMG, Legacy)

Saturday, 10 November 2007 11:13 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

LUTHER VANDROSS: Love, Luther

The sad passing of Luther Vandross left a void in the soul world that will never be filled. Happily the great man left a magnificent musical legacy which will last forever and in the coming years, I'm sure, his albums will be re-issued and re-packaged alongside all kinds of compilations and collections. Its doubtful, though, if any future set will get anywhere near the majesty, thoroughness and poignancy of this new four CD, 56 track collection. Where 'Love, Luther' scores is in its sheer variety - juxtaposing, as it does, the familiar with the less so; then, to top it all, we're treated to five previously unreleased items. Let's deal with them first. Three come in a sequence of tracks that were recorded during rehearsals in Montserrat and include a wonderful new look at 'So Amazing' and brand new song, 'There's Only You'. The other two rarities are demos for 'Ready For Love' and 'If You Can't Dance'. Accompanied by a simple piano, both cuts portray the beauty of THAT voice which is strangely so familiar thanks to top tunes like 'Never Too Much', 'If Only For One Night', 'Shine' and 'Anyone Who Had A Heart'. Those and many more big ones are included but the set preserves its freshness with the inclusion of lovely album cuts like 'Don't Wanna Be A Fool' and 'I'd Rather'. There's also plenty of duets (check how the Sinatra collaboration really swings); live recordings (including a lovely Burt Bacharach tribute); and plenty from the early days - including tracks with Change, Greg Diamond and Charme. There's even a cut from the rare Cotillion 'Luther' album' Its 'Funky Music' - slightly different to how I remember the original, but still superb. As a tribute to a singer who could make a Juicy Fruit ad sound soulful this collection is essential… and if you doubt my Juicy Fruit reference - well the chewing gum jingle is included too.
(BB) 5/5

 

THE MAIN INGREDIENT: Spinning Around: The Singles 1967-1975 (Label: Kent)

Saturday, 10 November 2007 07:10 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

THE MAIN INGREDIENT: Spinning Around: The Singles 1967-1975

In a heady purple patch between 1970 and 1976, this sweet-voiced New York harmony trio notched up sixteen smashes on Billboard's R&B chart. But despite their popularity Stateside, in the UK it was a different story and the group could only muster a solitary British chart entry with 'Just Don't Want To Be Lonely,' which reached the lower end of the Top 30 in 1974. This fact is almost certainly responsible for the conspicuous absence of Main Ingredient CDs in the racks of British record stores. Now, though, that lamentable situation has been remedied by Ace's reliable Kent imprint, which has released this fabulous 22-track singles retrospective that should both appease and please the group's UK fans. What makes this chronological collection exciting - and a cut above the many available US compilations - is the presence of the group's late-'60s RCA 45s when they were known as The Insiders (before this, the trio comprising Tony Silvester, Luther Simmons and Donald McPherson, called themselves The Poets). There are three Insiders' tracks here, of which the Impressions-influenced number, 'I'm Better Off Without You' from 1967, stands out. By 1969, when the group had morphed into the Main Ingredient, the harmonies were tighter and the arrangements slicker. 'You've Been My Inspiration' was the group's debut US hit in 1970, but it was preceded by several tasty chart flops - most notably, the superb 'Brotherly Love,' with its laudable message of racial unity. Just as fame beckoned, though, tragedy struck - singer, Donald McPherson, died of leukaemia in 1971 just shy of his 30th birthday. His death didn't halt the group's progress and with his replacement, Cuba Gooding, on board, in 1972 they scored their biggest hit with 'Everybody Plays The Fool.' The group's undoubted forte was for romantic ballads, which they rendered with sweet - but not sickly or cloying - harmonies. They could also handle uptempo material with style and aplomb too, as the driving 'Black Seeds Keep On Growing,' 'Happiness Is Around The Bend' and 'California My Way' all vividly demonstrate. Like fellow soft-soul harmonisers, Blue Magic, the Main Ingredient have been often overlooked and underrated in recent years. With any luck, though, this stunning compilation will help revive interest in one of soul's greatest harmony groups.
(CW) 5/5

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Soul Togetherness 2007 (Label: Expansion)

Friday, 09 November 2007 13:21 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Soul Togetherness 2007

With hordes of soul devotees about to descend on Blackpool this coming weekend (9th and 10th of November) for the annual 'Togetherness' weekender, Expansion has released this tasty 15-track assemblage devoted to showcasing some of the tastiest Modern Soul morsels doing serious damage on the specialist dance floors and airwaves. The album kicks off with 'Don't Take It Too Hard,' a storming uptempo slice of retro-disco-soul from Finnish singer/songwriter, Tuomo. In fact, Tuomo, is one of several European artists featured on this superlative compilation - others include Wahoo from Germany (the hypnotic 'Don't Take It Personal'); Tassel & Naturel from France (the gorgeously mellow 'Let Love Shine'); Seven from Switzerland (his 'Brother & Sister' features vocalist, Tamar Davis); and Danish twosome, Cool Million, whose 'Naughty Girl' is fronted by singer, Lene Riebau. But the international connection doesn't end there, as the lovely Incognito-style 'Beauty-Flow' by Japanese act, Jazztronik illustrates. Of the Stateside tracks present here, gospel chanteuse, Darlene McCoy, impresses with the irresistible testifying groove of 'U-N-I-T-Y.' There's even more Holy Roller spirit in 'I Really Love You,' an aisle-stomping gospel number by Norman Hutchins but the track that really catches the ear is a brilliant brand new cut called 'Satisfied' (exclusive to this collection) by veteran vocalist, Alicia Myers. If that wasn't enough, there is a couple of tasty golden oldies in the shape of Rena Scott's 'We Can Make It Better' (an addictive slice of Mtume-Lucas helmed disco-soul in the vein of Phyllis Hyman's 'You Know How To Love Me' from 1979) and Billy Griffin's 'Romantic Number' from 1992. All in all, then, a terrific collection and one that offers a vivid snapshot of today's 'Togetherness' Modern Soul scene.
(CW) 4/5

 

BLUE MAGIC: Blue Magic (Label: Rhino)

Friday, 09 November 2007 12:23 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

BLUE MAGIC: Blue Magic

Soul historians often argue why Philly quintet Blue Magic weren't bigger stars. They debuted in 1974 with a wonderful eponymous 9 tracker that used the cream of the then Philadelphia scene. The band scored a run of deserved single hits but by the end the seventies they seemed a spent force, and despite comebacks, they're rarely mentioned in the same breath as Philly's big, big hitters from the same period. Hopefully with this new Rhino re-issue of that remarkable debut LP, Blue Magic might soon enjoy some belated glory. Essentially what you get here is a master class in sweet soul harmony singing which rivals anything laid down by the O'Jays, The Spinners, the Blues Notes, the Delfonics or the Stylistics at that time. The big hit 'Sideshow' kicks things off. You'll know it's a beautifully poignant ballad that's matched by stuff like 'What's Come Over Me', 'Stop To Start', 'Spell' and 'Answer To My Prayer'. If you like things a little more up-tempo, there's the crisp 'Welcome To The Club' and the crisper 'Look Me Up' while if you like to make direct comparisons try the Magic version of 'Just Don't Want To Be Lonely' in all its seven minute majesty. This re-mastered album includes three bonus cuts - two single B-sides ( 'Guess Who' and 'Where Have You Been') and the Tom Moulton mix of 'Look Me Up'. Main Magic man, Ted Mills has just made a comeback as part of the Three Philly Tenors, and though that trio's album is hugely enjoyable, there's nothing there that matches the wonderful seventies soul herein. Time now for everyone to catch up on the magic of the blue… this album incidentally is part of Rhino's big re-issue programme that also sees classic albums from people like Leroy Hutson, Ace Spectrum, Prince Phillip Mitchell, Ronn Matlock and Gwen McCrae deservedly back on the racks.
(BB) 5/5

 

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