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Old 12-23-2011, 08:29 AM   #652 (permalink)
Trollheart
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What do you do when you've broken the world of soul and pop music wide open, had a bunch of hit singles, three of which hit the top five --- one a number one --- and sold over 20 million records? Why, you pay homage to the people who paved the way for your success by covering the great soul classics. This is what Seal did in 2008, with his album simply entitled “Soul”. It did very well, and was well received.

So what do you do after that? Well, do it again of course.

This time, he's picked more soul standards that he recognises as very important steps along the road to the birth and growth of soul music, and this time he's called the album --- well, what else?

Soul 2 --- Seal --- 2011 (Reprise)


Teaming up again with producer superstars Trevor Horn and David Foster, Seal kicks off with a spirited rendition of Rose Royce's classic ballad, “Wishing on a star”. Infusing it with new life, he ups the tempo just very slightly, bringing in strings and piano to flesh out the classic song and make it just a little punchier. Royce's original is still soul heaven, but he does the song proud. Of course, a portion of that praise has to be shared with Horn and Foster, who make this, and all the tracks on the album, pristine and perfect via their shared decades of producing for some of the biggest names in music.

Womack and Womack's “Love TKO” is the next one he tackles, and as people here who read this journal regularly will know, I'm not a huge soul fan, so I must say I don't know this song. For what it is though, he makes a nice George Benson/Luther Vandross job of it: nice gravelly vocal with some great backing. Horn manages to perfectly recreate the seventies soul sound, so you can really close your eyes and imagine Seal singing this on “Top of the Pops” or even “Soul train”. Beautiful strings outro, the perfect ending. Next up is Smokey's “Ooh baby baby”, and you have to wonder before it starts if Seal could possibly measure up to the sweet soulful voice of Smokey Robinson, but close your eyes and it could be him! Seal certainly has a versatile voice, as demonstrated on the different singers he covers on this album. This is pure gold, right down to the motown-style backing --- where are my flares?

Of course, they're all classics on this album, but what can you say about Al Green's “Let's stay together”? Reworked decades later and given new life by Tina Turner --- and essentially restarting her career in the process --- this song is approached a different way by Seal. He doesn't try to imitate Green (who could?), nor does he opt for the easy way out and emulate La Turner, but instead puts his own very unique slant on the song, and thereby grants this classic yet another stab at the charts, which a song like this certainly deserves. Great funky guitar and some solid drumming, though I have no credits for any of the musicians available, and totally out-there horns that just make you want to slow dance.

The hits just keep comin', and next up is Marvin Gaye's “What's going on?” with a truly beautiful and emotional orchestral arrangement that really does give this classic new life. The thing about the way Seal sings is that you can hear it in his voice: these aren't just a set of covers he's singing to sell an album. These are the songs he grew up listening to, these are the artistes he sought to emulate, that he probably studied and hoped one day to be as good as them. This is part of his childhood, his heroes revisited and thanked in the only, and best, way a singer can, by covering the songs that meant so much to him as a kid. More than just an album, for Seal this is an emotional journey, and he takes us with him.

One of my all-time favourite soul classics is given the Seal treatment next, the second by Rose Royce, their tender and bitter ballad “Love don't live here anymore”. Trevor Horn's arrangement is magical: he even recreates the signature drum machine pattern that makes the song. The tempo is, like his treatment of the other RR song, slightly faster than the original, but it doesn't take from the song. Of course, there's nothing like the original, but it's a good cover.

“Back stabbers”, on the other hand, I do not know. I believe it was a top three hit for the O'Jays in 1972, and whether it's meant to or not, Foster here gives it a classical piano intro, then the song gets into its groove, and for hearing it the first time it's not bad. Yeah I know: Philistine. But I already admitted I don't know a huge amount about soul music. So why am I reviewing this album then? Shut up, that's why.

Nevertheless, despite my limited knowledge of the genre, there are a lot of other songs I would have liked to have seen covered here, like “Being with you”, “I'll be there” or even “Ain't no mountain high enough”, but this is Seal's own personal choice, and the songs obviously mean a lot to him. It is a pity though (my own fault, I readily admit) that there are so many songs here that I'm unfamiliar with, which makes it hard to judge whether the cover does them justice or not. The next two fall into that category, firstly the Spinners' “I'll be around”, which has a nice string arrangement accompanying it, and some great backing vocals, while “Love won't let me wait” is a beautiful ballad given a sumptuous orchestral feel by Foster and Horn, as well as co-producer Jochem van der Saag, who also works on the previous two tracks, as well as “Let's stay together”. Gorgeous sax solo adds extra class to this lovely song, then we're into one I (finally!) know, as so I should.

Who doesn't know Bill Withers' uplifting “Lean on me”, a real anthem for the downtrodden, the lonely, the brokenhearted and the desperate, and just those of us who need a helping hand from time to time? It would be hard to emulate or even come close to Withers' powerful and emotional delivery of his song, and Seal really doesn't. He does a good version, but there's a lot missing, and it actually comes across, to me, as the weakest --- of the ones I know and can therefore judge --- of the covers. Which is not to say it's a bad version, just not the best I've heard, and certainly not the best on this album.

And then we're at the closer, rather more quickly than I had expected. Most of the songs, by their very nature, were and are short, most under four minutes. The closer then comes from the Chi-lites, and though it's not my favourite from them, “Have you seen her?” it is I believe their only number one hit single. “Oh girl” closes the album very well, and Seal puts in a triumphant finale performance, giving this song everything he has, and doing the classic proud, as indeed he has done for almost all of the tracks here.

If nothing else, this would be a good introduction to some true soul gems. As it is, Seal manages to not just cover these classics, but imbue them with a new life and open them perhaps to a whole new audience, and maybe make people like me who have more or less ignored or at least stayed on the periphery of soul music rethink that position. There has been some amazing soul music down the decades, and all music owes the artists here, and more soul legends, a great debt of thanks. We should never forget that.

Seal's “Soul 2” goes a long way towards ensuring that never happens.

Hey, look, I have to say it: the man's got soul. Again.

TRACKLISTING

1. Wishing on a star
2. Love TKO
3. Ooh baby baby
4. Let's stay together
5. What's going on
6. Love don't live here anymore
7. Back stabbers
8. I'll be around
9. Love won't let me wait
10. Lean on me
11. Oh girl
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