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In Marvin and Aretha's Footsteps
by Gregg Shapiro

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Pictured: Fefe Dobson, Aretha, Luther

With the passing of Barry White this year, and the near loss of Luther Vandross ( wishing you a continued and speedy recovery, Mr. Vandross ) , I thought it would be a good time to assess the 2003 soul scene, beginning with Luther himself. With a live album ( his first ) recently dropping, I wanted to take another listen to Dance With My Father ( J Records ) , the studio album Vandross released earlier this year. Still smooth as silk, Vandross the innovator has had many imitators, but there will always be only one Luther. When he stays in his zone, as he does on R&B ballads such as "If I Didn't Know Better," "Think About You," "Buy Me A Rose," "Once Were Lovers," the dramatic title track and the respectful remake of "The Closer I Get You" ( with Beyonce Knowles ) , Vandross dances away with our hearts. However, Luther falters when it comes to the funk, stumbling on a pair of hip-hop heavy duets with Busta Rhymes and Queen Latifah, sounding like he's trying too hard to get with the kids.

Donnie, a young man likely to carry the torch for Luther, Barry White and old school soul legends of the past, such as Stevie Wonder, proudly wears his influences on his rolled-up sleeves on The Colored Section ( Motown/Giant Step ) . Personal and political, passionate and powerful, the songs on The Colored Section are multi-hued and as wonderful as the Stevie Wonder-esque "Cloud" and tantalizing as the tent revival of "Big Black Buck." After one listen you will almost certainly want to get to know the bossa nova rhythms of "Do You Know?" better, follow the instructions on "Turn Around," raise your hands and testify to "Heaven Sent," board Donnie's "Rocketship," and pledge your allegiance to "Our New National Anthem."

Subject ( Virgin ) by Dwele is closer in sound to the new soul style of DíAngelo, Musiq and Raphael Saadiq than to Donnie's retro resurrection. However, there are traces of Marvin Gaye, Al Green and other forebears in songs such as "Truth," "Find A Way," "Sho Ya Right," "Hold On," "Kick Out Of You," "Let Your Hair Down," and the title track.

The reason contemporary soul music continues to be so heavily influenced by artists such as Marvin Gaye is because of the way that Gaye's music stands the test of time. The SACD ( Super Audio CD with surround sound ) reissue of Gaye's 1972 masterwork Let's Get It On ( Tamla/Motown/Chronicles ) drives home the point. Following his political masterpiece What's Going On and the soundtrack to the movie Trouble Man, Gaye got it on with this erotic tour de force. Almost 10 years before he instructed us in the art of "Sexual Healing," Gaye took the direct approach and simply stated what he wanted in the title song. He didn't stop there, but continued the sexual sentiment on "Please Stay ( Once You Go Away ) ," the near reprise of "Keep Getting It On," and the less than subtle "You Sure Love To Ball." Serious soul ballads such as "If I Should Die Tonight" and "Just To Keep You Satisfied" also contribute to the longevity of this album.

Two collections acknowledge the contributions of two men to the soul and R&B sound of the late '80s through the present day. Even though he only released three albums, Al B. Sure! surely made his mark with his huge 1988 hit single "Nite And Day," which along with his cover of "Killing Me Softly" and 14 others can be found on The Very Best of Al B. Sure! ( Warner Brothers/Rhino ) . Revered producer and songwriter Babyface released his first solo album in 1989 and has continued to be an important and influential presence ever since. The Essential Babyface ( Epic ) compiles 14 "essential" tracks including "Never Keeping Secrets," "For The Cool In You," "Whip Appeal" and "This Is For The Lover In You," to mention a few, on one single-disc collection.

Jeffrey Gaines probably has more in common with Lenny Kravitz than with Luther Vandross on his fifth album Toward The Sun ( Artemis ) . Co-produced by Gaines and Mitchell Froom ( Los Lobos, Elvis Costello ) , Gaines puts a folk rock spin on his soulful tunes. Standout tracks include "Life Of The Living," "Our Lie," and "Falling Apart."

Best known as the fiddler for the Dave Matthews Band, Boyd Tinsley steps out on his own on his solo debut disc True Reflections ( Bama Rags/RCA ) . Not surprisingly, Tinsley holds his own on this mostly mellow 11-track offering. Moments of "true" inspiration occur on "Show Me," which features out lesbian folk legend Toshi Reagon on backing vocals, the lap steel slow dance of "So Glad," featuring background vocals by Lisa Germano, the somewhat more uptempo Doyle Bramhall tune "Listen," and the near-perfect "Perfect World."

With albums by Beyonce Knowles, Mary J. Blige and Ashanti all in the top 30 of the Billboard charts at the time this is being written during the second week of September, and the release of the new Aretha Franklin CD just around the corner, the shelves and the airwaves are not lacking for sassy soul divas. That shouldnít prevent you from listening to The Soul Sessions by Joss Stone ( S-Curve ) . Co-produced by the legendary Betty ( "Clean Up Woman" ) Wright, The Soul Sessions lives up to its title, delivering bluer than blue-eyed soul covers from start to finish. Stone is a twenty-something British vocalist with fierce pipes who put aside the recording of her own album of original material to work with Wright and other soul superstars including Timmy ( "Why Can't We Live Together" ) and Latimore. Stone's red-hot renditions of Harlan Howard's country chestnut "The Choking Kind," The White Stripes' ( yes, The White Stripes! ) "Fell In Love With A Boy," "Some Kind Of Wonderful" ( a hit for Grand Funk Railroad ) , a dreamy cover of John B. Sebastian's "I Had A Dream," and a soul-saturated reading of Aretha Franklin's "All The King's Horses."

Speaking of the diva herself, it's been five years since the release of the last Aretha Franklin studio album, so to say that her latest So Damn Happy ( Arista ) has been eagerly awaited would be an understatement. As uneven as a majority of her recent discs have been, the album suffers from the common "too many cooks" ailment, which includes a multitude of producers. Honestly, how many people does it take to write a song? Opening track, "The Only Thing Missin", is credited to four people, and the only things missing from the song are a catchy melody and a reason to listen to it. The suitably titled steppers delight "Wonderful" and the Earl Klugh sample-driven "Holdin' On," are both wonderful and give the listener an excuse to hold on for what comes next. The Jam and Lewis written and produced "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," pours out like an update of "Everybody Plays The Fool" and the title track and "You Are My Joy," two Aretha originals, sound like the long-reigning diva is longing for a simpler time, when she was happy and had joy. Burt Bacharach co-wrote and produced "Falling Out Of Love," which is a pleasantly dramatic number and Aretha testifies, with both bejeweled hands in the air, on "Good News."

Rhian Bensonís debut disc Gold Coast ( DKG ) has a jazzy sophistication that puts it into a different class. The sway and swoop of "Soul Boy," is indeed souful, and the subtle funky edge of "Words Hurt Too" gets its point across. "Invincible" takes its empowering message seriously as Benson moves from breathy to bold and the sexy beat of "Gold Sky" give the song its shine. The varied expressions of "Freedom Song" and "Young Girl" present two more sides of Benson make this golden debut as multi-faceted gem.

FeFe Dobson's influences may be closer to Courtney Love than to Aretha Franklin. In fact, her sister's Nirvana records had more of an impact on Dobson's mother's Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie albums, as is obvious from her self-titled debut disc ( Island ) . She sounds like she could pulverize fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne on the smart opening track "Stupid Little Love Song" and the album's first single "Take Me Away" has the potential to take the listener away. There's a touch of Red Hot Chili Peppers on "Everything" and the vintage rock vibe of the aptly named "Rock It Till You Drop It" is a piece of friendly encouragement. "Revolution Song" is a musical call to action and wraps its "mad at Daddy" message in a metal blanket. Dobson reveals other, equally interesting aspects of herself on "We Went For A Ride," "Julia," "8 X 10," and the hidden track "Rainbow."

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