You know you’re likely to get something special when Seal, one of the finest male vocalists around, decides to cover a dozen stone-cold classics by soul giants like Otis Redding, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Gamble & Huff, Al Green and Curtis Mayfield. When super-producer David Foster is brought in to oversee the project, the potential for a stellar album rises to just this side of sure thing. Happily, the odds hold on “Soul” (Warner Bros.), Seal’s wonderful sixth studio release, in stores now.
The set opens with Sam Cooke’s Civil Rights era anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” and it’s clear from the opening string arrangement that singer and producer intend to honor the sound of these
originals, but not slavishly reproduce them.
“Change” is arresting from the moment Seal’s crystalline tenor wraps around the song’s iconic opening: “I was born by the river, in a little tent/And, oh, like that river, I been runnin’ ever since.” The track builds in emotional intensity until stabbing brass and Seal’s multi-tracked and reverb-ed voice power it to a thrilling crescendo that breaks at the end like a summer fever.
“It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” arguably James Brown’s best-ever ballad, is a bended knee, sweating under the klieg lights epic as performed by The Godfather of Soul. Foster’s orchestration gives the song a much finer grit — that thankfully never collapses into gloss — while Seal reveals a real knack for old school soul beggin’.
For me, the standout track on “Soul” comes near the end with a mesmerizing take on Al Green’s “I’m Still In Love With You.” Supermodel and “Project Runway” impresario Heidi Klum must have swooned when she heard her husband sounding completely love-struck singing lines like “It seems to me, that I’m so wrapped up in your love/Don’t you know that I’m still in love with you.” Foster’s luxe production makes true love sound like a hand-in-hand stroll down Park Avenue at midnight.
The album closes with a reverential version of Curtis Mayfield’s soulful (literally soul-full) spiritual “People Get Ready.” A 12-voice choir provides restrained support for Seal’s earnest, controlled performance. Tasteful strings add to the track’s delicate beauty.
Notable versions of “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” further cement the fact that this “Soul” has been saved. Hallelujah!
Sound bytes Casual fans of Enrique Iglesias and Hilary Duff (or hardcore admirers who have to own everything they release) should be aware of the new compilations that have been issued for each. Iglesias’ “Greatest Hits” offers 15 chart singles, including former #1s “Be With You” and “Hero,” along with two new songs. Duff’s “Best Of” contains a dozen tracks, two of them newly recorded for this release. These compilations are the first such albums to be issued for either artist.