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Queens Chronicle

James Taylor and Seal take us under the covers

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Posted: Thursday, December 4, 2008 12:00 am

James Taylor “Covers” (Hear Music)

No one can question the singer-songwriter credentials of James Taylor. Countless songs such as “Fire & Rain,” “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “Shower The People”and “Mexico” make Taylor’s publishing catalog one of the most lucrative in pop music. Even when he was at the height of his popularity, Taylor never worried about harming his credibility by recording new versions of pop tunes that were his favorites when he was growing up, like “Mockingbird,” “Handy Man,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance,” “Up On The Roof” and “How Sweet It Is.”

Last January, Taylor gathered some of his favorite musicians at his farmhouse in the Berkshires to record an album of songs that were written and recorded by others. The material ran the gamut from Motown (Junior Walker & The All-Stars’ “I’m A Road Runner”) to country (George Jones’ “Why Baby Why”) to classic rock-n-roll (Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”).

You have to wonder why he waited so long to put his stamp on the Drifters’ “On Broadway” and Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.”

With his mellifluous voice, James Taylor could make an album out of singing the names in the phone book and most of us would still want to listen to it, so it is not surprising that “Covers” is a very satisfying effort. The only misfire is a deathly dull slow version of “Hound Dog” that will undoubtedly disappoint Elvis enthusiasts.

Seal “Soul” (Warner Bros.)

It has been awhile since we’ve heard from Sealhenry Samuel, better known to pop music fans simply as Seal. “Soul” is Seal’s tribute to the songs that most influenced him as a young man.

The album opens with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which was quite prescient on the parts of both Seal and his record label, Warner Brothers, in light of the recent presidential election. Seal’s voice would make Cooke proud although producer David Foster’s turgid orchestration doesn’t do the singer any favors.

Against all odds, Seal ignores Motown completely and performs only one song from the Philadelphia International Records catalog, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Seal is apparently more a devotee of the Memphis school of rhythm and blues as he selected such tunes as Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” Eddie Floyd’s frequently covered “Knock On Wood,” Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and two Al Green numbers, “Here I Am” and “I’m Still In Love With You.” He easily nails all of them.

Seal saves arguably his best vocal performances for a pair of Curtis Mayfield classics, “It’s Alright” and “People Get Ready.” He also does a surprisingly good job on James Brown’s difficult-to-sing “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

David Foster “Hit Man” (Warner Bros.)

The term “hit man” has nothing to do with organized crime when you are talking about producer and songwriter David Foster. Foster has long been in demand by both top-flight artists and record companies. As always, Foster has kept himself occupied in 2008, as he produced the aforementioned Seal album, and wrote his autobiography, also titled “Hit Man” (Pocket Books).

To celebrate his book, Foster gathered some of the artists he has worked with over the years, such as Michael Buble, Josh Groban, Brian McKnight, Peter Cetera, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston soundalike Chanice for a concert at Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay Resort.

While the CD and companion DVD are certainly both listenable and watchable, there is very little here to distinguish it from an episode of Fox’s “American Idol.” Unfortunately missing from the party is Paul Anka who teamed up with David Foster in 1983 for his last Top 40 hit, and arguably his best, “Hold Me Til The Morning Comes.”

Straight No Chaser “Holiday Spirits” (Atco)

A 10-member a cappella group who formed a few years ago at the University of Indiana (just as the Four Freshmen did nearly 50 years earlier), Straight No Chaser has quickly developed a multi-generational following.

If you’ve tired of the old warhorse Christmas albums that come out every year at this time, take a listen to this one. Straight No Chaser is equally effective on uptempo holiday fare like the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” as they are on slower numbers such as Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night.” The album ends fittingly with a solid rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

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