Vandross makes 'Songs' his own with gutsy, original interpretations

September 20, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

One thing that ought to be corrected about the new Luther Vandross album is the title.

He dubbed it "Songs" (Epic 57775), because it consists entirely TC of material written and originally made famous by other artists. To be fair, though, it ought to be called "Singer," since the album's real focus isn't the material, but what Vandross does with it.

It's one thing for an artist to cut an album's worth of cover tunes as a way of paying tribute to his or her influences; whether the outcome is slavishly imitative or radically original, no one seriously expects an improvement over the originals. Vandross, however, has made the far gutsier move of approaching these songs as if he was the first ever to record them. As he explains in the press materials, "I had to erase my slate and treat the songs as if they were being brought to me unheard. I wanted to reinvent, not just remake these songs."

Given some of the titles here, that kind of transformation is by no means easy. Who could possibly think of "Killing Me Softly" without remembering Roberta Flack's rendition? How could anyone remake "Evergreen" without drawing an unflattering comparison to Barbra Streisand? Is it even possible to sing "What the World Needs Now" without imitating the way Jackie DeShannon did it?

Well, yeah. It is. And Vandross does an amazingly fine job of it.

Listening to him sing "Killing Me Softly," for instance, is like hearing the song for the very first time. There's none of the implied romance found in Flack's recording; instead, what Vandross conveys is the quintessential pop fan experience of identifying so totally with a song that you'd swear it was your life being sung about.

Vandross not only understands the feeling; he puts it across with such honest intensity, you can almost feel him blush through the speakers.

"Evergreen" is an even trickier proposition, since the song's soft, flowing melody seems almost tailor-made for the liquid tone and surging power of Streisand's voice. Vandross wisely chooses to understate the melody instead, opting for soulful shadings instead of a bravura performance.

It probably won't steal Streisand's fans away from her, but there's no denying he makes the song his own.

Granted, not every song here warranted a remake. "Endless Love," the current single, seemed trifling in its original incarnation (as recorded by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross), and all Vandross' version -- cut with the usually estimable Mariah Carey -- adds is volume. As for "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," although it certainly is enjoyable to hear Vandross work a vintage Philly Soul groove, his light and lively phrasing doesn't quite capture the gospel-fired excitement of McFadden and Whitehead's original.

Those are fairly minor quibbles, though. For every performance that doesn't live up to the recordings we remember, there are three more that equal or exceed the originals. His silken, sexy "Love the One You're With" betters both the Stephen Stills and Isley Brothers versions; his "Always and Forever" captures all the tenderness of the Heatwave recording while avoiding its saccharine sentimentality; and his carefully nuanced delivery in "All the Woman I Need" utterly eclipses Whitney Houston's blustery treatment ("All the Man I Need" in her case).

Add in a sassy, soulful stroll through "Since You Been Gone" that almost makes the Aretha Franklin version seem superfluous, and "Songs" is clearly the work of a world-class singer.

NEW 'SONGS'

To hear excerpts from Luther Vandross' "Songs," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6184 after you hear the greeting.

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