Of all of the popular female pop/soul singers of the 70s and 80s, few names bring a smile as instantly as Deniece Williams. Her "girl next door" aura and her light touch on a decade's worth of memorable tunes placed her in a unique position with a generation of soul music fans. So for many, her signing by Shanachie Records for its "covers" album series - along with discs made by Glenn Jones, Phil Perry, Maysa and Miki Howard, among others - gave instant credibility to the series and led to nearly a year of anticipation. To top it off, the label teamed her with Bobbi Eli, the respected Philadelphia guitarist known for working on many of the PIR classics and for penning the oft recorded "Love Won't Let Me Wait."
The result of the Williams/Eli pairing is Love, Niecy Style, Williams first non-Gospel album in two decades. And the first and best news is that, at age 55, Niecy simply sounds fantastic, her voice virtually unchanged from 30 years ago. "Covers" albums tend to rise or fall with song selection, and Williams has generally chosen wisely on Love, Niecy Style. She's avoided the plethora of overused Gamble & Huff and Holland/Dozier/Holland songs, choosing instead beautiful but rarely recorded music by such legends as Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire (Wonder and EWF singer Philip Bailey even participate on "That's How Heartaches Are Made" and "Love's Holiday," respectively). Best of all are an inspired cover of Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free" and two surprise remakes, Vandross's first solo hit, "Never Too Much," and the album's best track, a version of the Gwen Guthrie composition "This Time I'll Be Sweeter" that may even surpass strong previous versions by Angela Bofill and Roberta Flack. Eli's production is generally unassuming - even safe - but hits on all cylinders on "The Only Thing Missing Is You," a unusually sultry (if lyrically trite) Williams composition that is the lone new song on the album, and which serves as a great showcase for her ability to "bring it" in 2007.
Love, Niecy Style will undoubtedly be welcomed by Williams' numerous, long-waiting fans, and for good reasons: She looks great and she sounds great. And with any luck, we'll hear more new music from her again soon.
By Chris Rizik