Various Artists - Songs 4 Worship Soul (2009)

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    As one of the foremost advertisers of CDs, books and DVDs, the Time-Life music library has enjoyed unfettered growth since launching in 1962, initially with little competition for its various compilation series. In the 1970s, when Time Life and competitors like K-tel (a distributor known for its music genre anthologies and novelty items like the Veg-O-Matic) followed the infomercial model, they became music marketing pioneers. By negotiating with artists, licensing the back catalogs of major labels and creating direct distribution channels to consumers, Time Life and its competitors created new opportunities to repackage and reintroduce popular and obscure American music to a nostalgic public. Three decades later, K-tel is gone and several other imitators have cropped up, each vying for the music buying public's attention with the logo "As Seen on TV." This music compilation infomercial boom has created plenty of choice specialty products for fans of any genre, including the contemporary gospel music fan.  

    The popular gospel series WOW Gospel and Gotta Have Gospel joined the "As Seen On TV" parade dropping their decade and annual "Best of..." collections since the late eighties. Not to be outdone, Time Life launched and advertised their own gospel series, including the Voices: The Ultimate Gospel Choir Collection. Of course, the overall Time Life catalog is immense, affording it the opportunity to produce a variety of series specializing in different sub-genres of gospel music. Initiated in 2000, the Songs 4 Worship series caters to all serious worshippers with familiar, contemporary worship melodies (Shout To The Lord), different moods (Tranquility, Sing Out), and genre (Country, Southern Gospel, Espanol).  Following the success of their Songs 4 Worship Country & Espanol series, Time Life Entertainment has now released Songs 4 Worship Soul, featuring all new recordings by vocalists with excellent track records in soul and R&B.   

    The producers of Songs 4 Worship Soul, Preston Glass and David Nathan, are internationally renown music experts and performers of classic R&B and soul. Glass has produced and played with artists such as Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Earth Wind & Fire, to name just a few. Nathan, a major SoulTracks contributor, is a burgeoning artist and recognized music historian who has produced compilations for MCA, Capitol and his own Ichiban Soul Classics label. Both Glass and Nathan have assembled an impressive list of secular artists, many with gospel music upbringings but who established their creative and commercial success in the urban adult contemporary market. 

    Initially, Songs 4 Worship Soul should please fans who love the silky textures and smooth stylings of old-school soul. However, I wondered: could secular artists credibly carry forward Christian messages with the same integrity of seasoned gospel messengers of say a Yolanda Adams or Richard Smallwood? In some instances, vocalists conveyed the integrity and spiritual undercurrents of their Christian messages while still staying true to their classic R&B approaches.

    The best work on Songs 4 Worship Soul comes from those R&B superstars who have occasionally incorporated gospel throughout their recording histories. Backed by H.B. Barnum's Life Choir (Barnum was Kirk Franklin's Musical Director), Melba Moore utilizes her operatic pipes on "Days Of Elijah," a song once successfully recorded by Donnie McClurkin. Deniece Williams, another classically trained singer, brings a more smooth jazz angle to Fred Hammond's "Glory To Glory." Covers by the pure and piercing voices of Howard Hewitt and Peabo Bryson are just as compelling as the original recordings of "Reedemer" by Nicole C. Mullin and "Shout To The Lord" by Darlene Zschech & Hillsongs Worship, respectively. Fresh off her critcally acclaimed gospel entry, the versatile Regina Belle rejoins her "Whole New World" duet partner, Peabo Bryson for a reverent version of Richard Smallwood's "Total Praise."

    Despite those strong outings, I believe the crème de la crème honor goes to Evelyn Champagne King for her first gospel recording effort. Her unpretentious rendition of Adams' 2000 hit "Open My Heart," truly surpassed my original expectations of Champagne's rendition possibly being bland at worst or just average at best.     

    Unfortunately, there are also several tepid tracks on Songs 4 Worship Soul. Though it signifies a rare recent recording from Maurice White, "Young Hearts" is, in essence, a complete disaster, thanks to tacky, outdated synthesized arrangements. It also pains me to say Teddy Pendergrass, one of soul's most vibrant voices of his day, offers a performance on Walter Hawkins' "Oh, Happy Day" that is a shadow of Pendagrass's former work with Philly International Records.

    Overall, I am only mildly recommending Songs 4 Worship Soul based on the sum of it parts. However, if this disc fares well in the long run, there is a good possibility that Songs 4 Worship Soul will receive the royal infomercial treatment or at least heavy exposure on the "As Seen On TV" circuit alongside fellow WOW and Gotta Have Gospel products. With the recent success of specialty genres in the Songs 4 Worship series, do not be shocked if a Songs 4 Worship Hip-Hop is waiting right around the corner.

    By Peggy Oliver