The new albums by Hall & Oates and Steve Winwood have already generated hit singles, songs that are true to the kind of blue-eyed soul that first brought them recognition in the '70s. But while Hall & Oates's "Change of Season" suggests the duo (or its label) is intent on sustaining its Top 40 track record with another album full of hits, Winwood's "Refugees of the Heart" is frequently devoted to more moody and introspective songs.
As always, R&B infuses everything Winwood sings, and there are several tracks that indicate he wants the album to mark a subtle departure rather than sharp break from the past. The single "One and Only Man," currently riding high on the charts, reunites Winwood with Traffic bandmate Jim Capaldi (as did 1988's "Roll With It") and pushes all the familiar buttons -- Hammond organ, deep rhythmic groove, insistent percussion, catchy chorus, gritty vocals. Along with "Come Out and Dance" and "Running On," it's pure Winwood, the sort of record he's been producing ever since he began imitating Ray Charles as a member of the Spencer Davis Group in the early '60s. Not much different is "Another Deal Goes Down," a raucous slide guitar blues anchored by a drummer Russ Kunkel's jackhammer beat.
But unlike "Roll With It" and its multiple platinum predecessor, 1986's "Back in the High Life," much of the music on "Refugees of the Heart" (Virgin) has a pensive or spiritual slant. Seven tunes were composed by Winwood and Will Jennings -- extending a collaboration that dates back to 1980's "Arc of a Diver" -- and while neither is capable of conjuring the mystic soul of Van Morrison, they nevertheless succeed at creating something far more substantial and interesting than the usual Top 40 fare.
That much is clear from listening to the album's opening tracks -- the sax-laced, yearning ballad "You'll Keep Running" and the gospel-inflected "Every Day (Oh Lord)." Both tunes allow Winwood to show the expressive range of his voice in refreshingly low-key settings that occasionally recall his venturesome work with Traffic. And instead of devising more melodic hooks and dance grooves, Winwood opts for echoes of church organs on "I Will Be Here" and a minimalist pulse on "In the Light of Day." Of course, only Winwood knows for sure whether he set out to create an album that balances commercial success and personal satisfaction, but the results certainly point in that direction.
Hall & Oates: 'Change of Season' Hall & Oates, on the other hand, clearly didn't attain what they set out to achieve on "Change of Season" (Arista). Because of artistic differences, producer Bernard Edwards (of Chic fame) left the project early on, prompting the duo and the record label to come up with a slew of replacements.
The results, not surprisingly, are mixed. Nevertheless, the album still has more than its share of potential hits, though perhaps not the sort one might expect. There are no dance tracks, for instance, and for the most part the duo's focus has shifted away from a polished studio sound to a leaner, acoustic style.
Granted, producers Danny Kortchmar and Jon Bon Jovi pulled out all the stops on the current single "So Close," punching up an old R&B chord progression with overdubbed guitars and drummer Kenny Aronoff's trademark thump. Other guests have their say as well, particularly Eurythmics' Dave Stewart on his synth-swept "Heavy Rain." All told, five teams of producers worked on this project, and after hearing the formulaic "Give It Up (Old Habits)" it seems obvious that at least some of them were brought in to ensure the album's commercial appeal.
Still, the majority of the tracks, produced by Hall and "Saturday Night Live" bassist T-Bone Wolk, are refreshingly uncluttered and capitalize on the duo's strong affinity for Philly and Motown soul without sounding either overwrought or shamelessly derivative. Cool harmonies and slippery bass lines snake through the best arrangements, beginning with the emotionally restless ballad "Starting All Over Again" and the shimmering acoustic guitar piece "Sometimes a Mind Changes."
The album takes a turn for the worse whenever Oates sings -- he's not even in Hall's league, let alone the big leagues, when it comes to soul crooning -- but his lightweight vocals are redeemed by some nice guitar work. As for Hall, he's seldom sounded better. In keeping with the album's relaxed tone, his voice is more restrained than usual, and even when he has to belt out a tune he seldom indulges in Oates's soul mimicry. The record is further strengthened by several of Hall's lyrics, including the hook-laden "Everywhere I Look," a likely single, and the last-ditch love song "I Ain't Gonna Take It This Time."