MAYBE LOU Rawls is right. And maybe the critics, who claim his recent albums mark a return to form, are all wrong.

In concert Rawls insists that he's never abandoned the kind of earthy R&B and blues that appears on his latest release "It's Supposed to Be Fun," so why not concede him the point? Let's just say the R&B emphasis is stronger and the change, no matter what the degree, is welcome indeed.

At first blush, however, it appears as if Rawls has more of a contemporary pop record in mind. The album opens with the title track, a tuneful but slick entry produced by the ubiquitous Narada Michael Walden that has Top 40 aspirations written all over it. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but the album has far more compelling things to offer.

For starters, producers Michael Cuscuna and Billy Vera (who also contributes three songs) enter the picture. After assembling a terrific cast that features saxmen Hank Crawford, Eddie Harris, Bobby Watson, trombonist Steve Turre and guitarist Cornell Dupree, they add a lot of classic but not impossibly overworked songs to the mix, including "This Bitter Earth," "If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody," "Any Day Now" and "But I Do."

The rest is left up to up to Rawls and his deeper than deep baritone, and while the results don't necessarily transcend the hit versions, they're never less than soulfully convincing.

LOU RAWLS -- "It's Supposed to Be Fun" (Blue Note). Appearing through Sunday at Anton's 1201 Club.