Summer's here, and so is a seasonal surfeit of soul, from newcomers and here-they-come- again-ers:
BILL WITHERS -- "Watching You Watching Me" (Columbia FC 39887). This man doesn't make bad records, and the pop-styled soul on this new one, the first after a long absence, is the essence of calm. Withers' baritone -- halfway between a hum and a moan -- may sound anesthetizing to some, but he fits a lot of warmth and feeling in those three notes. And the guy's got a sense of humor -- listen for the naughty little joke in "Heart in Your Life." The music here continues in the elegant electronic vein he has worked with percussionist Ralph MacDonald, all shimmering vibes and chimes.
ARETHA FRANKLIN -- "Who's Zoomin' Who?" (Arista AL8-8286). The Voice is still strong, maybe a bit darker and grittier, but the soul is weak. The songs in Franklin's latest pop crop are about strong women surviving, etc. But the silly lyrics don't hold up under a second listen, and there's nothing that wasn't already being said when Franklin was singing "Respect." Producer Narada Michael Walden's glossy, trend-conscious settings make Lady Soul sound like a guest on "Puttin' On the Hits," lip-synching her way through a variety of ill-fitting background tracks. Franklin produced two of the cuts herself, and though they are edged with electronics, they still have the shivery gospel wail and eccentric phrasing that made her great. More of that, please.
MERC AND MONK -- "Merc and Monk" (Manhattan ST53005). On the basis of impressive first singles, the bottom-heavy groove of "What's Your Name?" and the jump-to-it "Baby Face," this pedigreed duo is off to a fun start. But they also want to be taken seriously, and the jazz overlay on their formulaic funk drags the rest of their debut album down. One-man band Thelonius Monk III sets his sequencers to chattering and drum machines to clattering, and overloads the circuits at times. Eric Mercury's gravelly growl sounds best set against the stripped-down sound of his own "We Can Make It." The album-closing instrumental "Thelonii" sounds like nothing so much as Emerson Lake & Palmer with a Simmons drum machine.
FREDDIE JACKSON -- "Rock Me Tonight" (Capitol ST-12404). Fast Freddie's out for Teddy Pendergrass' vacated title as soul's good-bad Lover Boy -- Capitol has taken out full-page ads announcing his ascendancy to the throne. Though he has yet to prove his live appeal, Jackson lives up to his promise on his sexy, silky debut LP. It's a nearly flawless make-out record, with one exception: an overwrought, piano bar interpretation of "Good Morning Heartache," graced by a Stanley Turrentine sax solo.
WILLIE HUTCH -- "Willie Hutch" (Motown 6142 ML). Newcomer Hutch has an appealing, husky-throated voice and shows talent as a producer/arranger who keeps his ear on the radio. Much on this first set sounds like earthy variations on the shiny settings George Duke has given Jeffrey Osborne. And on "Super Sexy," Hutch sounds eerily like the late Marvin Gaye, complete with the airy mix and Gaye's trademark hoots and calls. The album's highlight is an extended version of "The Glow," a slow, inspirational rap/song with ethereal, siren-like vocal backing from Syreeta.
ELTON JOHN AND MILLIE JACKSON -- "Act of War" (Geffen single 28956-7). Perhaps the oddest couple in some time, but in assuming the roles of a man and wife declaring domestic battle, this mutual admiration society churns out an adrenalin-fed 45 of frenetic funk, edged with guitar abrasion and explosive synthesizer pyrotechnics. Elton John hasn't been this charged-up since 1973's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." And you just don't mess with Millie Jackson, an overlooked soul screamer best known for her hilariously dirty stage rap, who somehow meshes perfectly with the plump piano banger.