PAUL YOUNG has the perfect white soul voice. Gritty, yet capable of seductive sweetness, it effortlessly conveys the sort of romantic anguish that English soul men have made a specialty. At the same time, his voice is subtle enough to absorb handily the melismas and mannerisms of the American singers Young so obviously admires: Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green.
Thanks to a stunning rethink of Gaye's "Anywhere I Hang My Hat," those influences came through loud and clear on Young's debut album, "No Parlez." But his new album, "The Secret of Association," downplays the more obvious R&B overtones, choosing instead to emphasize the singer's heartthrob potential. Consider his version of the Hall & Oates tune "Every Time You Go Away": where Daryl Hall gives the melody a straightforward Philly Soul treatment, replete with doo-wop backing vocals, Young gives the song a big romantic buildup, stressing lyrical content over melodic embellishment.
Unfortunately, that push for drama tends to cheapen the music. Although Young does manage to throw a few sparks through "Soldier's Things" and "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down," the greater part of his performance is pure ham, reducing the emotional power of his singing to a series of overplayed cliches.
Still, that's better than Nik Kershaw manages with "The Riddle," his latest album. Young may overstate his case, but at least there's actual content for him to exaggerate; Kershaw's songs offer little more than empty craft, cleverly constructed but singularly insignificant. As a result, the real riddle isn't what it all means, but why anyone should care.
PAUL YOUNG -- "The Secret of Association" (Columbia BFC 39957);
NIK KERSHAW -- "The Riddle" (MCA-5548); both appearing Sunday at the Merriweather Post Pavilion.