Smooth soul, but where's the heart? Luther Vandross' latest is polished perfection without much emotion

SOUNDS ADVICE

June 01, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

These days, when young soul singers set out to work the groove, they seem to take the term literally. They grunt, they holler, they shout, they wail. And when they really want to show their stuff, they dress up the melody with all sorts of acrobatic ululation, as if under the impression that singing was some form of athletic competition.

But when Luther Vandross works a groove, he barely breaks a sweat. His singing is so smooth and assured that it appears almost effortless -- as if he could toss off an entire album more easily than most of us could hum a melody. In short, he's so on top of his game that he barely seems to be playing it.

Maybe that's why it's so hard to get excited over his latest release, "Never Let Me Go" (Epic/LV 53231, arriving in record stores today).

Sure, it sounds great -- the songs are as soulful as ever, the production is typically flawless, and the singing is predictably exquisite.

Indeed, it offers pretty much everything a Luther fan could want, from heartbreak ballads to upbeat dance songs to the expected oldies medley. Likewise, there's no denying that "Little Miracles (Happen Every Day)," the album's first single, is classic Vandross, a impeccable blend of emotional intensity and melodic immediacy. As a testament to his skills as a singer, songwriter and producer, the album is pretty much perfect.

Perfection, though, gets to be kind of boring after a while, and that, ironically enough, is what ultimately undoes "Never Let Me Go." Because truly great soul singing should involve some sort of sweat -- maybe not as much as the new jack acts exude, but certainly more than can be found here.

That's not to say Vandross loafs his way through these songs. Some of what he does is amazing, like the shimmering vibrato he uses to highlight the tag line in "Hustle," or the way his angelic ascent at the end of "Too Far Down" lifts him into falsetto range without noticeably changing his vocal tone.

Trouble is, that sort of thing may impress vocal aficionados, but hardly anyone else is going to care. And unless he's trying to gather an audience that's as knowledgeable and discriminating as opera fans, focusing on the finer points of his vocal technique isn't likely to do him much good.

Of course, this wouldn't be a problem at all if Vandross balanced such subtleties with more visceral performances: a fiery ballad, a scalding rhythm number, anything.

But "Never Let Me Go" never gets any hotter than slow simmer. True, "Heaven Knows" bounces along engagingly enough, thanks to the way Marcus Miller's string-popping bass line anchors Vandross' insinuating chorus, but most of the album just sits there.

Like "Emotion Eyes," which squanders its tear-filled lyric on a vocal that barely gets even a little choked-up.

Maybe that's why the oldies medley, which strings together the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love," the Spinners' "Love Don't Love Nobody" and Johnny Ace's "Never Let Me Go," is so disappointing. This is the sort of thing that ought to be Vandross' bread and butter, a slowed-down, dramatic rendering that brings a new light to old favorites. Given what he's done in similar circumstances -- remember his classic pairing of "Superstar" and "Until You Come Back to Me"? -- it's hard not to approach this medley with high expectations. Instead of musical revelation, though, what we get is a second-hand epiphany.

Obviously, these songs have deep personal meaning for Vandross, but what that might be is never revealed to the listener. Consequently, though we might be impressed at the ease with which he links his jazzy rethink of "Love Don't Love Nobody" with the classic cadences of the title tune, it's hard to follow how the songs fit together emotionally.

As such, "Never Let Me Go" ends up an empty pleasure, an album that caresses the ear without fully engaging the soul. And while that hardly makes it a failure, it's hardly the sort of recording to which any listener is likely to grow much attached.

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