Here’s one for the ages: Post-millennial female soul singers are (a) bold, assertive, and bodacious sistaaaaahs with chops and attitude to spare, or simply (b) self-confident, talented women who compare favorably to a crop of male singers who often sound like they’re still breast-feeding?
A crude breakdown, sure—obviously, no one could accuse grits-and-gravy Cee-Lo of wrapping himself in an amniotic sac, but no one could level that charge at butterscotch-mousse Raphael Saadiq either. And there’s plenty to enjoy in the analog-inspired crooning of the new generation of Donny Hathaway devotees (their notion of soul singing requiring more than grafting some post-R. Kelly emoting to a Neptunes-inspired Triton keyboard groove, for one).
But modern soul singers can’t just claim brownie points for not being Jagged Edge, at least not anymore. And while male singers have done their homework, the memories and styles they evoke are often selective, focusing on their influences’ more palatable concoctions. The Prince who sang “Adore” is more likely to get referenced than the Prince who sang “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Kiss” (let alone “I Wonder U”). Ditto for the part of the Isley Brothers’ catalog that includes the Hendrixian “Climbing the Ladder” or “Live It Up.” Call me a spoilsport—or at least someone who can’t wait for the Andre 3000 disc—but too much modern male soul is threatening to turn into a sweat-free, no-ass-kick zone.
Glenn Lewis’s soul masters thesis World Outside My Window (Sony) covers that part of the Stevie catechism that includes sultry intoxicants like “Creepin'” and “Superwoman,” leaving stompers like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” and Rufus’s “Tell Me Something Good” for another ambitious postgrad. But considering the level of Lewis’s songwriting and vocal abilities, it’s more a quibble than an objection. Overexposed though it is, the soaringly delicate single “Don’t You Forget It” still fires up your neurotransmitters, as do the acoustic-guitar spiced “Something to See” and “This Is Love.” And the gently propulsive “One More Day” shows that Lewis can get your head to bobbing when he wants. But it’s not enough to get your juices flowing. Lewis prefers to stay on the understated side of things. Even as he winds into pulsating sonic blankets like “Is It True” and the disc-ending “Your Song (For You),” you can’t help but wonder how much better the album would have been with a wicked funk change-up or slider—Eric Benet’s debut had the souladelic “Breaking Chains” as well as Sly’s “If You Want Me to Stay”; Rahsaan Patterson came Bootsy-ish nasty leading off his debut album with “Stop By.” Even the smoothest puree benefits from a couple of raw chunks now and again.
British phenom Omar, meanwhile, has always he had triathlon range, which makes his inability to crack U.S. consciousness even more puzzling (I mean, Craig David?). Listening to his latest, Best by Far (Sony International import), released last year, you’re reminded of why his 1994 debut, For Pleasure (which featured one of the few post-Wonder soul ballads worthy of the title “Little Boy”), trumped D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar in many cognoscenti’s soul-savior sweepstakes. He shares Lewis’s fondness for Stevie, but keeps it under control. And when he does, he explores the concepts rather than imitating the results—the push-pulling title track and the Rio-smoky “Essensual” draw from the same Afro-Latin stream that nourished Wonder tunes like “Bird of Beauty” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” But Omar adds enough of his own shit—obese acoustic bass, prodding keyboards, and his own deadly sense of rhythm—to make them more than mere homages. And despite his penchant for sweeteners like strings and flutes, he is funkier than hell too. The disc-opening “I Guess” swaggers onto your headphones like Truck Turner (the Isaac Hayes version, not the metal band), while his reworking of “Be Thankful” (featuring Angie Stone on one mix and Erykah Badu on the other) makes clear that being smooth doesn’t mean that you can’t have hair on your balls.
If you get the impression that Omar is big underrated, you get the door prize. But don’t feel so bad for him. Long after lesser talents have degenerated into Fender Rhodes-playing lurve men (second question for the ages: Who will be the Freddie Jackson of the 2K era?), he’ll still be bringing it with can’t-stop, won’t-stop intensity. Intensity is one thing that Remy Shand’s The Way I Feel (Universal) could use more of. Cast as a white soul wunderkind in the mold of Jamiroquai’s Jason Kay or the more impressive if less visible Lewis Taylor, Shand deals in lightly bouncing, vaguely soul-fusiony tapestries that genuflect to Messrs. Mayfield, Gaye, et al. By repackaged soul standards, Shand does pretty well, even if his preciously delicate vocals make you want to send him a care package of solid foods. Singing, composing, and playing several instruments, he proves himself more than adequate, adding gritty organ and keyboards to “Colour of the Day” and “Take a Message,” weighing in with an appropriately Ernie Isley-ish guitar turn on “Everlasting.” Taken individually, tunes like “I Met Your Mercy” do the do with some left over.
But lacking Omar’s overwhelming muse and Lewis’s songwriting flair, Shand’s chill-out vibe starts to wear thin midway through the disc. Songs like “The Second One” and “Rocksteady” end up little more than well-done tributes to Marvin and Al, respectively.
Whether this is a serious demerit depends on how long Shand plans on staying around. If he doesn’t suffer any serious setbacks, folks will eventually get tired of calling him a derivative craftsman and learn to love the bomb (lowercase emphasized). Hey, it worked for Lenny Kravitz. Besides, soul goes better with plush leather interiors and power steering. Not to mention a sun-roof top.