It's no surprise that traditional soul singing is in serious decline, for the genre's very foundations have been dangerously eroded by recent developments in rhythm and blues. Soul singing has always emphasized the expressive powers of melody, for example, but melody has been deemphasized not only in rap and house music but in all hip-hop-influenced dance music. Earlier soul singers were willing to expose their most vulnerable emotions even as they maintained the dignity of high style, but the prevailing macho ethic of today's R&B and hip-hop discourages such emotional honesty.
The great soul singers have always dominated their recordings, freely interpreting each song to give it their own distinctive personality. In the past decade, though, the singer has often become just one more instrument manipulated by R&B's dominant producers. And, in order to fit the producers' formulas, many modern vocalists have adopted the same interchangeable sound. Of course, there have been exceptions, such as Luther Vandross, Johnny Gill and Alexander O'Neal, but the ability of bland singers such as Geoff McBride, Glenn Jones and Frankie Beverly to score hits indicates the sad state of soul.
Keith Sweat: 'I'll Give All My Love to You'
Harlem singer Keith Sweat has freed himself from the tyranny of outside songwriters and producers by producing and co-writing all nine songs on his second album, "I'll Give All My Love to You" (Elektra). His strong tenor dominates the funky programmed rhythm tracks and aspires to the romantic confessions of Marvin Gaye. The results -- like Sweat's voice and songs -- are good but not great; that is, they sound honest and entertaining without being particularly original or thrilling. It's the kind of album that's fun while it's new, but that will easily be forgotten in a year or two.
Sweat stretches out ballads such as "I Knew That You Were Cheatin' " and the title tune into elaborate vocal embellishments, as if too overcome by emotion to sing the lines straight. The effect is enough to make the listener believe that Sweat is confessing an actual heartbreak but not enough to convince one that Sweat's heartache is any different from dozens of others similarly described. The clever, syncopated rhythm patterns designed by Sweat's co-writer and arranger, Bobby Wooten, are the most original aspect of the album; these inventive beats (especially on the up-tempo first single, "Make Me Sweat") make the songs' dance pulse sound fresh without getting in the way of the vocals.
Geoff McBride: 'Do You Still Remember Love'
Geoff McBride dedicates his debut album, "Do You Still Remember Love" (Arista), to Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and others, but the young North Carolina singer has a long way to go to match the high style of his heroes. McBride has a better natural voice than Sweat but much less vocal personality. He hits his notes strong and true, but nothing is revealed in the process. McBride has the vocal equipment to be a real soul singer, but he has yet to find anything he needs to communicate.
Gerald LeVert, who sang a duet with Sweat on his album, co-produced four songs on McBride's, creating contemporary pop-funk arrangements in the style of his own group, LeVert. LeVert and his band mate Marc Gordon wrote McBride's current hit single, "Gotta Good Thing," as a knockoff of Luther Vandross's "The Night I Fell in Love," but produced it without his total emotional investment. The three songs produced and co-written by McBride's Atlanta manager, Sammy Knox, are forgettable formula work.
Unlike so many contemporary singers, Howard Hewett, the former lead singer of Shalamar, is able to communicate more than one emotion at once. His big, commanding tenor often finds itself torn between romantic desire and disappointment (or between social idealism and frustration) and cracks with the ragged ache that reveals the "soul" in the singing. On his new album, "Howard Hewett" (Elektra), his soulful singing transcends the standard-operating-procedure songwriting and production to stamp his distinctive signature on the music.
The album opens with Hewett singing a duet with Anita Baker on Joel Davis's inspirational ballad "When Will It Be." Not only does Hewett match the stretched-out jazz phrasing of his better-known partner, but he makes Davis's simplistic hopes for universal brotherhood sound painfully urgent. Most of the album is devoted to songs of adult romance, and Hewett enriches the material with a sense of wounded experience and rekindled desire that's not always there in the writing. When he opens up his throat and wails on the ballads "Let Me Show You How to Fall in Love" and "Shadow," the effect of inhibitions dropping away is thrilling to hear. The album concludes with "Jesus," a powerhouse hymn written and produced by Hewett, who got his start in an Ohio family gospel group.
The Holmes Brothers: 'In the Spirit'
If you want an undiluted dose of classic soul singing, you can't do any better these days than the Holmes Brothers' "In the Spirit" (Rounder). Sherman and Wendell Holmes grew up in Christchurch, Va., and have been playing music professionally for more than 30 years. Sherman, a bassist, and Wendell, a guitarist, backed up Jimmy Jones and Charlie and Inez Foxx, and they formed the Holmes Brothers with drummer Popsy Dixon in 1980, but this is their first album. Against all odds, though, the trio's many years playing other people's hits in bars haven't worn out their inspiration; in fact, they seem to have honed it into a rare purity of sound.
Some would call this collection of blues, gospel and soul standards old-fashioned, but the joy and heartbreak that come through these songs are timeless. Sherman's hearty party shout, Wendell's raspy soul growl and Dixon's pure gospel falsetto make the familiar songs by Sam and Dave, Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles sound so fresh that it's like hearing them for the first time, and the Holmes Brothers make the album's originals and obscurities sound so instantly familiar that it seems as if you've heard them all your life. The band's own arrangements are lean and wiry, the perfect roadhouse vehicles for the vocals. This is real soul singing, where every line is sung as if it were the singer's last chance to bare his soul.