MINI REVIEWS - Smokie Norful, Booker T, Laura Izibor, Eugene Pitt, Professor RJ Ross and Mike Farris (2009)

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    Smokie Norful - Live   The uncontrollable, energetic live recording for most gospel performers remains their strongest, riskiest and ultimately most rewarding playing field, but Smokie Norful doesn't take full advantage of this opportunity on his fifth project Live. While his voice is still radiant and silky, the tightness of a polished stage presenter like a Donnie McClurkin or John P. Kee is missing.

    Smokie Norful - Live   The uncontrollable, energetic live recording for most gospel performers remains their strongest, riskiest and ultimately most rewarding playing field, but Smokie Norful doesn't take full advantage of this opportunity on his fifth project Live. While his voice is still radiant and silky, the tightness of a polished stage presenter like a Donnie McClurkin or John P. Kee is missing. The good presented is that Norful isn't alone for this ride: Tye Tribbett guests on the spunky, befitting album opener ("He's Gonna Come Through") and R&B songstress Heather Headley revisits the Commodores' "Jesus Is Love" for a not-so-necessary, but appropriate live encore performance. Contributing much of the writing, as usual, Norful jumps into a dominating list of ballads that pretty much drowns out the much-anticipated excitement. It's not because the slower cuts are badly done or written, but because they seem strongly familiar. "In the Presence of the King," "Don't Quit" and the "I Need You Now"-reprising "Dear God" all bear a bulk of trademarks that are conventionally familiar in today's gospel records. Still, power ballads like the radio-friendly "Justified" and "Mighty God" play on Norful's strengths and help save the day. Unfortunately, Live positions Norful further away from his hardcore gospel listeners into a more languid AC format. Notable songs: "Justified," "He's Gonna Come Through" and "Mighty God." Vocals: 4 stars  Lyrics: 2 stars  Music: 2.5 stars  Production: 4 stars  SoulTracks Call: Mildly Recommended

    Laura Izibor - Let the Truth Be Told    With its melodic soars of Lauryn Hill's "That Thing," the cute piano arpeggios of "From My Heart to Yours" whispers of neo-soul's second coming. With the major media blitz surrounding Ireland's Laura Izibor, the new R&B singer/songwriter sensation has already established her as the latest R&B version of Lauryn Hill. Yet, if you move the single aside and dig deeper into Izibor's debut, Let the Truth Be Told, what you hear are the slight glimmers of a warm, easy-going project. "Shine," with its feel-good lyrics and peppered horn responses, opens the set on good terms. The same goes for the popish "If Tonight Is My Last" and the sweet, radio-ready "What Would You Do;" churning with effective pop country schmaltz and Jennifer Hudson attitude. Even the soulful ballad "Mmm," anchored with gospel choir echoes, piques some curiosity. But nothing here sounds as favorable or ecstatic as the colorful melodic groove of "From My Heart to Yours;" which is an unfortunate fate for Truth. The album sounds pleasant, no hurried mishaps, production glitches or horrific album filler, but rather than painting safe impressions on pop and R&B canvases, it may have been more beneficial for Izibor to try for some musical innovation or at least take a few artistic risks. Instead, she comes off as a second-generation Hill. Better song development and more interesting stories reflective of the title, rather than the status quo "falling in-and-out of love" yarn, might have added the pizzazz promised by the single. Still, Izibor gives listeners a mesmeric collection worth buzzing about. Notable songs: "From My Heart to Yours," "Shine," "What Would You Do," "Mmm," and "If Tonight Is My Last." Vocals: 2.5 stars  Lyrics: 2.5 stars  Music: 2.5 stars  Production: 3 stars  SoulTracks Call: Mildly Recommended

    EUGENE PITT: Steppin\' Out in FrontEugene Pitt - Steppin' Out in Front    Unless you're from the Carolinas, you're probably unfamiliar with Southeastern "beach music," but you've heard its influences and distinctive, soulful sound. Drawing from the well of Motown melody, classic doo-wop and jump blues, beach music-and its accompanying shag dances-is the musical heart and soul of the Carolinas. On Steppin' Out in Front, Eugene Pitt, lead singer of the 50s/60s doo-wop group Jive Five pays homage to this regional sub-genre. With the production help of deejay Bobby Jay, Steppin' exercises Pitt's bluesman vocals over an exhaustive twenty-track collection that is heavy with shag-tinged renditions, few tempo changes and incorporates an array of pop genres. Pitt mildly succeeds in an acoustic approach to "Jazzy Lady" (minus the irritating opening rap) by taking out the 80s synths from Richard "Dimples" Fields' originating version. Satisfying winners here include: a modern update of Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music" (switching out references of Redding and Cooke for Souljah Boy and Chris Brown, an appeal to younger audiences), a Caribbean take on Gaelic Storm's "Before the Night Is Over," and the Drifters' "Gonna Move Across the River," churning with Robert Reich's accompanying guitar licks. A strong band keeps this tribute interesting, covering for the occasional vocal mishap ("Soothe You") and production failures ("Happy Trails") spotting this project. Overall, Steppin' is a fine tribute to one of America's most vibrant yet overlooked musical fusions in beach music. Notable songs: "Jazzy Lady," "Before the Night Is Over," "There Ain't Nothing Like Shagging" and "Just Don't Care." Vocals: 2 stars  Lyrics: 3.5 stars Music: 3 stars  Production: 2.5  SoulTracks Call: Mildly Recommended

    Professor RJ Ross - Face to Face    Call it a laid back smooth jazz spectacular with an earful of blue-eyed soul. With his casual baritone, coated with grit and gruffly phrasing, RJ Ross and his University of Soul ensemble affably delivers an easy-listening experience that merges Motown with California soul's polished bravado on Face to Face. With such a low register, there's only so much his voice is able to jolt, but exercising good judgment Ross smartly allows the music to drive these performances, engulfing listeners in orchestral sounds. When Ross reinterprets a few classics, he infuses his mellow swagger into contemporary jazz facelifts of Steely Dan's "Do It Again," America's "Ventura Highway" and George Gershwin's "Summertime." While these covers may not compare to their originals, their refreshed jazz arrangements comfortably fit Ross.  Unfortunately, when it's his turn to reveal new compositions, the album slumps into a B-side affair, as personified by the show tune flavored title track. Only the original "Only Dreamers," with its bluesy Pointer Sister banter, comes out strong. Of the covers, the standouts are  Ross's exciting take on the Beatles' "Drive My Car" and the  stalking tempo, sassy background vocals and moody, stylistic gusto of Ross's experimental rendition of Gladys Knight's "I've Got to Use My Imagination." Luckily, Ross's talented roster and his own effective piano playing make even the most generic song on Face seem gratifying. Notable songs: "Ventura Highway," "Only Dreamers," "Drive My Car," "Do It Again" and "I've Got to Use My Imagination"  Vocals: 3 stars  Lyrics: 2.5 stars  Music: 3.5 stars  Production: 3 stars  SoulTracks Call: Recommended

    Booker T - Potato Hole   Front man of the soul-surviving, legendary Stax machine, Booker T. & the M.G.s, power organist Booker T. Jones returns to the forefront once again on Potato Hole, his first solo outing since 1981's "I Want You" for A&M Records. On this round, joining him in the studio is alt-country band Drive-By Truckers and the legendary rock/country guitarist Neil Young, humbly serving here as an impeccable session player. The all instrumental Potato Hole is not too far a cry from the Stax glory days, but don't expect something as organic as "Green Onions" or "Melting Pot" to magically appear. When he tackles Outkast's "Hey Ya," the gospel-ish organ solos cannot replicate Andre 3000's playful, synth-driven original. Jones is still a creative force, penning such amalgams of cool organ-rock like the opening "Pound It Out" and the bluesy Sly Stone funk of the title track. Besides the country-rock hybrids of Jones's soulful organ pumps, effective experiments-something the 64-year old veteran is historically known for-are miniaturized in this mix. Sure, the band exercises their Memphis soul sweet-tooth and blend well with the organ legend, but Potato Hole is not quite the big, memorable return many may have anticipated, particularly considering his wealth of hits and relevance to soul's origins. Back in the day, Jones was an innovator. Potato Hole shows an innovator revving in the shadows of the M.G.'s revolution. That said; Potato Hole is a satisfying and highly appreciated return to the recording world, cooking with all the right ingredients of a post-Stax revival. Now let's hope Jones doesn't have us waiting another three decades to pump out some more of that original Memphis soul food. Notable songs: "Pound It Out," "Potato Hole," "Native New Yorker" and "Space City." Vocals: N/A  Lyrics: N/A  Music: 3 stars  Production: 3 stars  Soul Tracks Call: Recommended

    Mike Farris - Shout! Live   With only one gospel record to his credit, the brilliant, critically-acclaimed Salvation in Lights, Mike Farris sings the good news like a veteran traveling evangelist. Courtesy of his tenure with rock/blues band Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies, Farris's vocals-with its arsenal of pleading high notes and hair-raising shouts-are refined, tested and burning with stage passion. But his spiritual awakening and torch-bearing commitment to the legends of old make him just right for a live recording. On Shout! Live -an essential bootleg taping at Nashville's Station Inn-Farris maintains the key ingredients that made his studio workings so amusing. Live horns, a dazzling rhythm section and the soul-stirring McCrary Sisters on backgrounds: it's everything Farris needs to complete his production. He walks through live reprises of his familiar tunes, but comfortably extends the choruses and allows the band to breathe through engaging solos. The Al Green-natured "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and the bluesy slow burner, "Devil Don't Sleep," get better with every listen. Farris even allows the McCrary Sisters to command the stage on a warm acapella rendition of the Fairfield Four classic "Dig a Little Deeper," and again on the fierce vamp of the Staple Singers' "Take Me (I'll Take You There)" where Regina McCrary's impromptu teaser leaves the audience frothing at the mouth. With a few new song additions on board, Shout! Live is more than a quick-assembled event rehashing the best of Salvation in Lights; old and new, these songs proves Farris was reborn to do music like this. Notable songs: "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," "Selah! Selah," "Good News," "Take Me (I'll Take You There)," "Devil Don't Sleep" and "Cain't No Grave Hold My Body Down." Vocals: 4 stars   Lyrics: 3.5 stars Music: 4 stars Production: 3 stars SoulTracks Call: Highly Recommended

    By J. Matthew Cobb