LALAH HATHAWAY: Where It All Begins (Stax)

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These days soul singers of the stature of Lalah Hathaway are, sadly, few and far between, so any new release on the lady is always more than welcome and eagerly awaited. However, her soul-loving fans might be disappointed when they pop this new 13 tracker into their players, ‘cos the opener is… well an eye opener! ‘Strong Woman’ is a hefty slab of contemporary R&B and a country mile away from anything Lalah’s recorded before. It’s feisty and lyrically as much in your face as the electro/techno backing track. Cleary Ms. H is willing to diversify and ready to take on the R&B princesses on their own terms. There’s a whiff of experimentation and newness about some of the other cuts too. A new version of Gary Taylor’s ‘I’m Coming Back’ (a duet with Rachelle Ferrell) is hauntingly atmospheric, eerie and eclectic. Very different is ‘Wrong Way’ which is a catchy pop confection while ‘Dreamland’ is a plaintive, folksy lullaby. On those three she’s in terrific vocal form, imbuing them all with a proper tenderness that’s unusual amongst modern performers.

That intimacy is more apparent on the slinkier numbers and there’s any number of them to satisfy any critic who might be a little put off by the newer style numbers. Best of them is the take on her father’s ‘You Were Meant For Me’ – a superb song, treated here with all the respect it deserves. It’s quiet beautiful – proper soul music, if you would. But then again so too are ‘Wrong Way’, ‘Always Love You’ and an anonymous “hidden” track in the run out groove (if indeed CDs have those kind of grooves!)

The set boasts some fine club dancers too. ‘My Everything’ and ‘If You Want To’ are tight and infectious while the very lovely ‘Small Of My Back’ has the same kind of dance floor magic despite some slower passages. Indeed, for my money, that one’s the album’s standout. As I’ve indicated it’s not a ballad and the lyrics aren’t particularly romantic (they’re certainly not explicit) but the whole thing is hugely sensual. I guess it’s down to Lalah’s delivery. That “tenderness” we talked about up top turns the small of anyone’s back into a mighty erogenous zone. Yes, it’s good to have Lalah Hathaway back.

(BB) 4/5