The emergence of Ten City from Chicago's house music scene is the best news for soul fans since Luther Vandross's breakthrough a decade ago. True soul music has been in decline ever since disco, and then hip-hop, subordinated the role of the singer to the beat. Like Vandross, though, the trio of lead singer Byron Stingily, singer-guitarist Herb Lawson and singer-keyboardist Byron Burke has kept the flame alive by exploiting the expressive powers of vocal melody and harmony. Ten City is not interested in merely replicating soul's glory days of the '60s and early '70s -- it harnesses its classy vocals to state-of-the-art rhythm tracks.
As a result, Ten City's second album, "State of Mind" (Atlantic), sounds refreshingly modern even as it epitomizes the timeless pleasures of such vocal groups as the Impressions and the Miracles. Ten City has updated not only the sound of classic soul music but also its unapologetic romanticism. In an era when most male rappers and dance music singers brag ad nauseam about the supremacy of their guns, their possessions, their desires and their anatomy, Ten City gives us back the male who can be strong and dignified even as he's emotionally vulnerable and romantically devoted.
The key to the Ten City sound is Stingily's high tenor-falsetto, which warbles with the swooning giddiness of new love in the tradition of Clyde McPhatter, Smokey Robinson and Al Green. On most songs, Lawson and Burke establish a strong melodic center with their mid-range harmonies, and Stingily soars above them, testing the upper limits of both emotional excitement and the male voice. On the bottom, Lawson and Burke create a disco-fast, bass-heavy syncopation that betrays the trio's roots in Chicago's dance clubs. Filling out the sound are non-synthesized horns and strings, which are tastefully arranged for mood enhancement rather than as padding.
Ten City wrote eight of the 10 songs on the new album, and each one features a meaty melody, intoxicating three-part harmonies and a brisk house music beat. The first single, "Whatever Makes You Happy," recalls vintage early-'70s Earth, Wind & Fire, with horns and voices punching out a funky melodic hook and Stingily's falsetto sailing overhead like Philip Bailey's; the lyrics reflect the "different strokes for different folks" liberal optimism of Sly & the Family Stone. The same contagious optimism informs the title tune and the musical suggestions to avoid "Superficial People" and to try "Livin' Easy."
The best songs, though, are the love songs. On "I Should Learn to Love You," the combination of a propulsive bass track and a sweeping string arrangement pushes Stingily into a dizzying sustained wail as he contemplates the rewards of learning to love. "Destiny" builds a similar momentum as the smooth Motown harmonies, live drum rolls and thumping drum program seem to carry Stingily inexorably toward the preordained love that the lyrics promise. All in all, this is one of the year's top albums, a welcome reminder that pop music works best when it captures intense, uninhibited emotion.
LeVert: 'Rope a Dope Style' The Ohio trio LeVert has soul music running in its veins -- Gerald and Sean Levert are the sons of Eddie Levert, lead singer of the legendary Philly soul trio the O'Jays. As the songwriters-producers behind the LeVert sound, Gerald Levert and band-mate Marc Gordon have found an inspired balance between old-fashioned soul singing and modern dance-funk. The fourth LeVert album, "Rope a Dope Style" (Atlantic), contains seven of the trio's best efforts yet in the soul-funk vein and three awkward attempts to incorporate rapping into the LeVert sound. If the songwriting and arrangements aren't quite as original as Ten City's, LeVert's solid singing and thoroughly modern production should help keep soul music alive in the '90s.
The album stumbles badly at first, as the two opening rap numbers offer little more than lame boasts, nonsensical wordplay and a long list of thank-yous over repetitive, singsong music. The album regains its footing with "Absolutely Positive," which features Gordon's imaginative synth work and an appealing funk chant. Even better are the two love ballads that follow: "All Season" and "Rain" showcase Gerald's big, gruff soul voice and the trio's creamy harmonies. Gerald's lead vocal on the sexy bedroom ballad "I've Been Waiting" slides back and forth between a purr and a growl as his two partners provide the vocal equivalent of soft cushions and candlelight. Best of all is "Hey Girl," which marries sophisticated vocal harmonies to programmed up-tempo dance tracks.
Guy: 'The Future' Like Ten City and LeVert, Guy is a male vocal trio trying to fuse traditional soul singing with modern street sounds. Teddy Riley, the songwriter-producer who leads Guy, coined the now-ubiquitous term "new jack swing" to describe the mix of soul and hip-hop he parlayed into hits for Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Johnny Kemp and others. Unfortunately, no one in Guy can sing nearly as well as those three, and the group's second album, "The Future" (MCA), suffers from the same problem as the first: You can't combine soul and rap successfully if you don't have a convincing soul singer.
The 23-year-old Riley has parted ways with 47-year-old Gene Griffin, the mentor-partner who helped Riley score his breakthrough hits. The new album's toughest rap number, "Total Control," accuses Griffin of stealing Riley's money. Whether that's true or not, Griffin was Riley's connection to the soul music tradition, and Riley's new songwriting lacks the structure of their collaborations. Whether the rap or the singing dominates, the tracks on "The Future" are impressive examples of cutting-edge production, with the synths and programmed beats meshing with impressive style, but there's little in the way of real songs focused on a memorable melody hook or rhythm riff. Moreover, Riley and his partners, brothers Aaron and Damion Hall, have the bland professionalism of session backup singers who lack the personality to step out front.