Reviewed by Tony Cummings
First a wallow in nostalgia. When in the mid '60s soul/R&B music was still the reserve of a tiny elite, I ran a fanzine with some other R&B freaks. No UK record company at that time would have thought of advertising in such an absurdly uncommercial venture as an R&B/soul publication but just so our fanzine would look like a "real" magazine we put in two or three pages of "adverts" for our favourite US imports of the moment (without the knowledge of the US companies of course!). And so it came to pass that Aaron Neville's first exposure in the British media was an advert for "Three Little Words" by Aaron Neville on Parlo Records in Soul Music magazine. Aaron didn't stay a Great Unknown in Britain forever of course. By the '80s the world and his dog knew what the R&B connoisseurs back in the '60s knew, that the man from New Orleans happened to possess one of the most thrilling voices in the world of music. A voice that could turn both soul ballad devotees and wistful romantics into adoring fans, an impossibly sinuous tenor able to demonstrate such dazzling displays of melisma whether dueting with Linda Ronstadt or coming on with some New Orleans funk. But that was then and this is now, as they say. Aaron has been creatively treading water for years with some dull, half asleep albums. And until now there was little to hint his output would interest Cross Rhythms readers. Despite the occasional gospel song on previous secular projects, no one seems to know whether Aaron is a committed Christian, or one of those marriages of convenience (ala Kenny Young or Michael Crawford) dreamed up by corporate America. So EMI Gospel's snap announcement that they'd signed Aaron surprised us all. But it's still a prestige signing getting an act every reader of Mojo magazine would at least recognise (not true, of course, for 99 per cent of the artists featured in Cross Rhythms). But what of the music here? Let's get the worst out of the way first. Presumably to act as a bridge between Aaron's secular fans and the Christian market, producer Steve Lindsey and Aaron himself have placed quasi-Christian songs like "Morning Has Broken" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in this set. Although that wonderful, warbling voice does its usual magic with them, their sentimental content puts them nearer Vegas than gospel church. For that you need to go to the slow, soulful "Banks Of The Jordan", the jubilee-tinged spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep" and best of all "Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine" where an extended monologue-cum-testimony tells of Jesus seeing Aaron through bad life and prison to bring him through. If all this sounds a bit too earthy for sophisticated R&B palates, we have to say here that the album is surprisingly more trad gospel than R&B. The lack of any fast tempos mean listeners' attention begins to wander by the close while the band, though packed with seasoned R&B session luminaries (James Gadsen, Freddie Washington, Dean Parks, etc) sound like they're simply jamming through the material with little or nothing in the arrangements to show the last 20 years of R&B have occurred. But despite the dull arrangements, sameyness of tempo and occasional duff song; that voice, that stunning, goose pimple producing voice; continues to do its stuff. Just look what it does to the Victorian children's ditty "Jesus Loves Me". Now that's soulful.
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