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Behind Blue Eyes 

The return of British soul

Wednesday, Jan 26 2000
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Jungle-fever-stricken white boys toppin‘ the charts with bluesy wails and R&B licks can be traced back to Elvis’ first recordings in Memphis some 40-odd years ago. Yet today, one of the most enduring contributions to pop music is the ‘60s British crooner’s refulgent twist on blue-eyed soul. And a far cry from those days when Tom Jones, Georgie Fame and the late Dusty Springfield took soul music to task with their heavy-hairspray tunes, the dance-pop flavor of R&B throughout the ‘80s created fertile ground for subsequent British blue-eyed soul-pop artists like George Michael, Green Gartside of Scritti Politti and Mick Hucknall of Simply Red.

Mick Hucknall is blessed with rich pipes that can by turns resemble the fiery charges of a preacher caught up in the momentum of saving hell-bound sinners, or bluesy, warbled trills underlining the agony and ecstasy of love. Hucknall established his soul rebel’s credibility early on in his career with an impressive remake of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes‘ ”If You Don’t Know Me by Now“ and the introspective ”Holding Back the Years.“ While the singer‘s influences may have evolved out of R&B and soul, by using his strong vocals as an anchor in tandem with a solid ear for pop, demonstrated by the 11 tracks on his new Love and the Russian Winter, Hucknall navigates his voice across a pop euphony of reggae, jazz and acoustic balladry.

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Hucknall opens the album with the flamenco-tinged ”The Spirit of Life,“ then belts his way through the up-tempo ”Ain’t That a Lot of Love.“ While he also lets loose with the trippy acoustics of ”Back Into the Universe,“ most of the songs on this album are midtempo odes to love -- nothing new on Hucknall‘s plate and not necessarily a bad thing. Simply Red can consistently be counted on beat-savvy pop. Hucknall handles the reggae-driven ”More Than a Dream“ with confidence, while folding jazzy moans into ballads like ”Wave the Old World Goodbye.“ Other highlights include ”Thank You“ and the moody ”The Sky Is a Gypsy.“

Hucknall’s on a roll -- Love and the Russian Winter comes right on the heels of Simply Red‘s 1998 choice Blue. But where Hucknall’s creative juices flow freely, Scritti Politti‘s Green Gartside took a long sabbatical between ’88‘s Provision and his latest release, Anomie & Bonhomie. Reunited with producer and ex--Scritti member David Gamson -- who, since the duo’s last album, went on to oversee successful projects for the likes of Chaka Khan and Me‘shell Ndegeocello -- Gartside suffers little difficulty delivering a hip-hop-spiked montage of up-to-date material. Gartside’s inhaled-helium voice and his trademark affinity for pop licks and R&B remain staple ingredients for this 11-track set of summery grooves. Ndegeocello helps out on the funky ”Die Alone“ and on the rock- and hip-hop-tinged ”The World You Understand,“ and Gartside fares well with rapper Mos Def on ”Tinseltown to the Boogietown“ and ”Smith ‘N’ Snappy.“ Not surprisingly, Anomie & Bonhomie‘s true gems lie in delicate ballads like ”First Goodbye,“ where Gartside’s effeminate vocals ride gracefully aside the guitar strums laced throughout this sonnet. The singer achieves a similar end a with ”Born To Be“ and the beautifully crafted ”Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder.“

Despite a drop in popularity in the States, as evidenced by the sluggish sales of 1990‘s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 and ’96‘s grossly underrated Older, perhaps no other Brit vocalist, through image, voice and massive popularity, has done more to redefine the meaning of blue-eyed soul than George Michael. Indeed, his Faith album topped the R&B charts back in ’87, and six of its nine tracks were Top 10 hits. Nonetheless, even with the multiplatinum success of 1998‘s Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, it’s no shock that the honey-voiced crooner has grown bored with the fickle fields of pop, temporarily leaving them behind for more challenging pastures.

With Songs From the Last Century, which features a collection of standards ranging from ‘30s show tunes to a take on Ewan MacColl’s ”The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,“ Michael does just that. The problem, however, with this admirably diverse selection of songs produced by Phil Ramone is the fact that some of them work and some of them don‘t. Obviously a gifted vocalist, Michael lacks the phrasing depth of contemporary jazz singers like Harry Connick Jr. or Kurt Elling, who’d encounter few obstacles filling in the gaps left open by the piano-bar flavor of most these tunes. While Michael‘s vocal theatrics do justice to ”Brother Can You Spare a Dime,“ he whispers to oblivion on the subtle ”The First Time Ever,“ struggling to stay true to the song’s simple melody. In full voice, Michael works well with ”You‘ve Changed“ and U2’s ”Miss Sarajevo,“ as well as Doris Day‘s ”Secret Love.“

Hit or miss, the 10 tracks on Songs From the Last Century mark a worthy attempt to transcend the boundaries of pop, or even Michael’s vague classification, simply by virtue of his whiteness, as ”blue-eyed soul“ artist. After all, when it comes to good music, shouldn‘t we all be a bit colorblind?

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