After Soul II Soul and Neneh Cherry scaled the U.S. pop charts last year, music trade publications on both sides of the Atlantic began to trumpet the British soul invasion. That first wave of the movement, however, may end up looking like a mere ripple, for coinciding with the release of Soul II Soul's latest are several British soul albums with similar dance chart ambitions.
Soul II Soul: '1990 -- A New Decade' Despite its title and the absence of some familiar voices, "1990 -- A New Decade" (Virgin) doesn't mark a sharp departure for Soul II Soul, which performs at Capital Centre Aug. 8. Less a band than a loosely knit music, art and fashion collective, Soul II Soul is overseen by Jazzie B, an enterprising North Londoner with West Indies roots and a marked fondness for American soul circa Barry White, as well as plenty of R&B and light jazz, much of it spiced with Caribbean and African rhythms.
Along with his longtime collaborator and fellow producer, Nellee Hooper, Jazzie B has made sure that the similarities between the new album and Soul II Soul's platinum debut -- last year's "Keep On Movin' " -- far outweigh the differences. He even goes so far as to offer listeners reassurances at the end of the album when he echoes a sentiment first expressed on the dance smash "Jazzie's Groove": "The future of Soul II Soul still is, and always will be, a happy face, a funky bass, for a lovin' race."
By then, though, reassurances are hardly necessary. While none of the original female vocalists return, several newcomers, including Marcia Lewis (Jazzie B's cousin) and especially Victoria Wilson James, take up the slack on a now familiar and savvy mixture of inspirational ballads, slinky bottom-heavy dance tracks and insinuating pop-jazz instrumentals.
Getting the album off to an utterly disarming start is "Get a Life," a slyly arranged, reggae-flavored tune featuring a kids' chorus made up of Jazzie B's nephews that ponders the meaning of life. Jazzie B's affection for recalling the sort of synthesized string arrangements that Barry White popularized ages ago creates a curiously flattering setting for Kym Mazelle's torchy vocal on "Missing You," and while fans of straight-ahead jazz familiar with saxophonist Courtney Pine's own recordings are likely to find his cameo on "Courtney Blows" only mildly diverting, it nevertheless makes for a breezy and tuneful interlude.
Other highlights include the album's title cut, a quirky, richly layered mixture of vocal tracks, synthesizer riffs and percolating percussion that has Soul II Soul looking forward, not backward, for inspiration, and the album's cocky sign-off, "Our Time Has Now Come," featuring guest rapper Fab 5 Freddie.
'The Chimes' Prior to Soul II Soul's international success, Jazzie B and Hooper produced a couple of tracks by the Chimes, a British-Scottish dance club trio that recently released its self-titled debut album here (on Columbia). Both songs appear on the album but neither really stands out, though the silly but undeniably catchy "1-2-3" did help the trio make a name for itself.
Instead, the most enjoyable cuts by far are the album's opening selections -- the simple but moving ballad "Love So Tender" and the emotionally wrought "Heaven" -- along with the sensuous cover of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Each taps singer Pauline Henry's powerful alto voice, the trio's one genuinely distinctive asset, but too often the band settles for trite lyrics and tedious dance club rhythms that quickly take their toll.
Jamie J. Morgan: 'Shotgun' The results are far more impressive when Jazzie B, Hooper and former Soul II Soul singer Caron Wheeler give an assist to British singer and songwriter Jamie J. Morgan on his recent debut, "Shotgun" (Epic). Wheeler pops up on a rap-scratch remake of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." With its quickened tempo, thumping bass line, street chatter and gospel harmonies, it's one of two updates on the album that are hard to resist. The other is "Rock Steady," which cleverly fuses ska and go-go.
Morgan, who cowrote Cherry's hit "Buffalo Stance," has also come up with a fair amount of interesting lyrics and appealing melodies to go along with "Shame," "She's On It" and other bass-intensive dance tracks. His "Third World Man" espouses the same kind of world harmony Soul II Soul champions, while "Mercedes Blue" (cowritten by Cherry) is an unusual and lustrously produced love song.
Lisa Stansfield: 'Affection' The British chanteuse Lisa Stansfield hasn't collaborated with Soul II Soul, but there's no mistaking the group's influence on her debut album, "Affection" (Arista). Without Jazzie B's guidance, she's put together an album that captures a very similar mood and optimism. The tunes and production, though not nearly as innovative, diverse or colorful, suggest the same passion for '70s soul music, even to the extent that the hit single "All Around the World," as well as "When Are You Coming Back?" and other yearning ballads, sound as if they were arranged with Barry White in mind.
Also like Soul II Soul, Stansfield laces her music with lots of contemporary dance grooves -- mostly house music and hip-hop beats that often give the album a rhythmic energy to match her considerable vocal talent. And as a singer Stansfield nearly always shines, moving easily from husky chest tones a` la Anita Baker to high-flying melismatic flourishes, conveying both innocence and heartbreak with plenty of style and conviction.