***STEVE WINWOOD. "Roll With It." Virgin.
In 1986, English singer Steve Winwood made "Back in the High Life," arguably the best R&B; album by a white singer in the last five years--at least until George Michael surpassed it with his glorious "Faith."
Winwood's new album, "Roll With it," is in the same lofty league as "Back in the High Life." The new one also features medium-tempo, funky R&B; numbers and slow, tension-packed, gospel-like ballads. Though he doesn't really explore new territory, he covers old ground with admirable fervor.
At 40, Winwood still hasn't gotten over his desire to be Ray Charles. Good thing. Those searing Charles-like inflections still define Winwood's R&B;/gospel style. He has always been a refined version of Charles. While he doesn't have Charles' unbridled power (who does?) Winwood does sing with a restrained passion that's carefully and cannily unleashed. Fans still speak reverently about Winwood's vocals in his Traffic days, which ended in 1974. But truth is, he's singing better now.
For a white-soul singer, ballads are the real test. This is where Winwood has always been able to best his peers. Even George Michael doesn't sing with quite as much conviction or employ such a startling array of textures and shadings. On the new album, Winwood pours his soul into three slow, simmering, mournful songs, "The Morning Side," "One More Morning" and "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do," which is enhanced by a marvelous vocal arrangement. White soul ballads don't come any better.
But the title song is probably the album's finest track. It's a raucous revival of '60s Motown, sounding like something that Junior Walker might have recorded back then. "Put on Your Dancing Shoes"' is in that same smolderingly funky vein.
As usual, Winwood's R&B; is heavily slicked-up for maximum commercial appeal. You won't find any of the rough edges which might convey spontaneity and earthiness--always appealing in the style. But you'll still find plenty of first-rate white soul.
CHECK LIST **** Great Balls of Fire *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Running on Empty