Songwriter Parkes Stewart has made a name for himself in music circles through his many compositions that have been recorded by such artists as Yolanda Adams, Commissioned and David Hollister. He also recorded two Gospel albums in the early and mid 90s, with more limited success. Stewart is now back with his newest release, Heart & Soul (Nexus), an ambitious attempt to create an album that merges Gospel and contemporary R&B in a more architected way than artists such as Yolanda Adams and Mary Mary have attempted over the past few years.
While contemporary Gospel has been a fast rising genre, it has typically gained acceptance on urban radio by applying contemporary sounds to somewhat ambiguous -- or less "vertical" -- spiritual lyrics. That is not the manner in which Stewart is creating a "nexus" on Heart and Soul. Here Parkes creates more of an identifiable line between Gospel and R&B, essentially creating two albums in one. The first is a spiritual album much in the mold of Marvin Gaye's legendary What's Goin' On, but with a more obvious Christian theme. The other is a contemporary R&B album that musically sounds like late 90s Boyz II Men or even Dru Hill, but lyrically attempts to provide a more traditional, respectful view of love and romance.
The Marvin Gaye influence pervades the excellent "Soul" half of the disc, as Parkes effectively recalls the spirit of Marvin's most socially conscious work. Stewart pleads to God for guidance on the excellent "Help Us" (which musically hearkens to Gaye's "I Want You") and "My Brother" (a clear descendent to Gaye's "Trouble Man") each of which bemoans the loss of the community spirit that fueled the early civil rights movement and its replacement by a more individualistic, materialistic culture. Even better is "My Soul," which serves as a paean to both the civil rights leaders of the 60s (Malcolm X, King) and the socially conscious Soul Music singers of that era (Cooke, Hathaway, Wonder). But unlike the assuring hope that Cooke proclaimed in "A Change Is Gonna Come," the checkered past forty years have made Stewart more unsure of the outcome, as he pleads with the Father for unity and brotherhood that isn't necessarily inevitable. It is in this lyrical imagery and in Stewart's solid tunes and performance that the Soul part of Heart and Soul shines.
The Heart part of the disc, generally represented by the love songs on the second half, is musically solid but generally less interesting than the first portion of the CD. The only cut that captures the emotion of the first half of the disc is "Prayin Man," a sad but hopeful song by a divorced father separated from day-to-day engagement with his children.
Overall, Heart and Soul (Nexus) is an interesting experiment by Parkes Stewart that generally works, particularly on the inspired first half of the disc. It captures the spirit of some of the great Soul music of the 60s and early 70s and brings that spirit to the 21st century, acknowledging past failures to fulfill the "Gospel Vision" of that earlier time but simultaneously expressing a continuing hope and faith for the future. A praiseworthy album.
By Chris Rizik