LUTHER VANDROSS has a habit of making everything around him L sound wonderful, whether it's singing a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial or producing soul queen Aretha Franklin's triumphant "Jump to It".Both are finger-snappin' good, but they serve as mere appetizers for the main course, Vandross' second solo album, "Forever, for Always, for Love" (Epic FE38235).
A powerhouse follow-up to last year's "Never Too Much," the self-produced album confirms Vandross as the most exciting new singer since Teddy Pendergrass and Peabo Bryson. What's even better, it establishes him as the most promising studio wiz since Quincy Jones (for whom he once sang) and Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic (who were once in a band with Vandross). He also writes with the street smarts of Smokey Robinson, a bit more urbane but just as helplessly romantic. "Forever" is an album of love songs; some hurt, some warn, some shelter and some simply explode with heartbeat energy. Vandross even takes Robinson's Temptations classic "Since I Lost My Baby," and makes it sound brand new with whispery repetitions, shudders, melisma, held notes and spontaneous ornamentations that are at the heart of soul music.
In an age of macho posturing and dance floor dementia, Vandross epitomizes the smooth, sensual vocal tradition of Sam Cooke and spontaneous emotional symmetry of such black pop divas as Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross. And he's got the most gorgeous, crystalline tenor, almost sweet, so soft-focused and controlled that it's easy to understand why he was the most sought-after vocalist in New York's humbling jingle business.
"Bad Boy/Having a Party" kicks off the album with some emotional range-finding, as do most of the eight selections. In this case Vandross' Cheshire cat-scat bouncing over Yogi Horton's diamond-cutter percussion and Marcus Miller's elastic bass line. Like the frame of a phone call on Franklin's "Jump to It," "Bad Boy" takes place in the middle of a party, a Sam Cooke party at that (his anthem pops up as counterpoint) and one can almost sense the sweat forming on Vandross' forehead as he overrides today's mindless "funk in my face" riffs with an exuberant offer to have a good time with him and his friends.
Here, as throughout the album, the production touches are impeccable: the seductive thrust and suspensions of the rhythms, subtle keyboard and string-section washes, the compelling backup vocals that are more responses than echoes, incredibly tight but insistently earthy ensemble playing. It's music less for dancing than for squirming in your seat, and Vandross always keeps his sensual vocals on top. On the slow title cut, the slyly understated "Promise Me" and the redeeming "Once You Know How," Vandross sustains an achingly emotional surface within a mellow tone, themes of separation and renewal stated in everyday terms.
"She Loves Me Back" is a classic Motown-flavored song that Sam Cooke would have loved. Vandross, who will perform at Constitution Hall Nov. 13, handles it like a stick of burning dynamite, cautiously worrying about "a lover who did not love me back," finally speaking to her from his heart and saying "I love you girl of mine." "And then she said, 'I love you back . . ' pause followed by an explosion of emotion SHE LOVES ME BACK." It's a transcendent moment, an intimate, shared high that careens from the speakers.
"Forever" is a vibrant album by a supremely confident performer, songwriter and producer who never overwhelms his material or the voice delivering it. Vandross revives the sophisticated soul edge in black music from a decidedly modern perspective. It would be a shame if his album were overwhelmed by Lionel Richie's first solo effort. After 15 years as the lead voice of the Commodores, Richie's voice may be as familiar as Vandross', but it has little to offer beyond warmth.
The Commodores often were referred to as the black Beatles, and Richie filled the Paul McCartney role perfectly. He wrote most of the band's crossover hits (and a few for Kenny Rogers, as well), emphasizing soft-spun melodies and near-maudlin romantic lyrics. There's a soft, warm edge to his singing, but there's practically no edge to "Lionel Richie" (Motown 6007 ML). Part of the problem is Richie apparently didn't trust his instinct or his ability; songs that might have benefitted from tight wrappings are cast adrift in a sea of over-orchestration and over-production (Richie and James Anthony Carmichael).
There are two basic moods evident here, the Commodores-like light-funk of "Serves You Right," "Tell Me" and "Round and Round" and the ballad mode of "Wandering Stranger," "Truly" and "You Mean More to Me." Problem is, most of the latter songs have the emotional depth of Hallmark mood cards: "You are the sun, you are the rain/that makes my life this foolish game/you need to know/I love you so/And I'd do it all again and again" and "You mean more to me than words can say" and "My love, just thinkin' about you blows my mind." "Wandering Stranger" sounds like it wandered in off a Dan Fogelberg record (bringing the orchestra with it). Like the other ballads, it's pretty but slight, candy floss for the ears. Only "You Are" shows much energy, its bright, bouncy rhythm begging for uncluttering; oddly, it has a tinge of Sam Cooke to it.
Richie sings well, though he's a bit too laid back; most of the time, he seems overwhelmed by the lush arrangements and the sheer weight of the production. There are more unneccesary touches here than at Plato's Retreat during a membership drive, a question of too many cooks spoiling the froth. Richie's past work shows he's capable of much more than he's delivered on this first solo flight.