Gene Van Buren - Still (2014)

Gene Van Buren
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Beyond the game-changing 1960s and '70s works of luminaries ranging from The Supremes to Stevie Wonder, Motown Records continued its colorful legacy with an impressive, groundbreaking roster throughout the '80s and '90s. Although many of these signings failed to ignite the same level of sales as their predecessors, it was not for lack of natural talent and substantial material. One such example is singer-songwriter Gene Van Buren, who released a highly funky set for the label's Tamla division in 1982 before seemingly dropping off the radar. Although the fiery tenor's voice is often associated amongst R&B connoisseurs with kinetic dance floor romps such as "What's Your Pleasure" and "Rock the House," his most widely distributed single release in the U.S. was the reflective midtempo number, "You've Got Me Where I Want You"—which may explain his choice to concentrate on smooth ballads and laid-back grooves on his first set in 30 years, Still.

Beyond the game-changing 1960s and '70s works of luminaries ranging from The Supremes to Stevie Wonder, Motown Records continued its colorful legacy with an impressive, groundbreaking roster throughout the '80s and '90s. Although many of these signings failed to ignite the same level of sales as their predecessors, it was not for lack of natural talent and substantial material. One such example is singer-songwriter Gene Van Buren, who released a highly funky set for the label's Tamla division in 1982 before seemingly dropping off the radar. Although the fiery tenor's voice is often associated amongst R&B connoisseurs with kinetic dance floor romps such as "What's Your Pleasure" and "Rock the House," his most widely distributed single release in the U.S. was the reflective midtempo number, "You've Got Me Where I Want You"—which may explain his choice to concentrate on smooth ballads and laid-back grooves on his first set in 30 years, Still.

In the tradition of Motown legends such as Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Van Buren strives for thematic cohesion on Still. Mixing tunes about social awareness and positive cultural change with musical letters of romantic dedication and honesty, the album finds its home in understated soul guided by a reassuring vocalist capable of injecting just the right precision and tenderness into his messages. The title track will likely strike the strongest chord with longtime fans, as it coasts along with a lightly swinging uptempo arrangement beneath his smooth phrasing and nostalgic melodies. It's got the ideal balance of swagger and restraint.

On the slower side, he covers a particularly moving ballad, "One," from his first LP. Although the vocal stance of this rendition isn't quite as powerful as its predecessor, the gently paced song structure and roomy rhythm arrangement remain intact—providing a fine example of class and sophistication for up-and-coming writers and producers.

Highlights for new listeners, in addition to "Still," are found in the subtly moody stepper, "Automatic," and the easy-ridin' "The One to Blame." With sultry contemporary-jazz undertones, these tracks boast Van Buren's seamless self-harmonizing abilities and straight-ahead (yet poetic) storytelling prowess. The life experience evident in the lyrics is just what the mature crowd needs, while the rhythmic persuasion is cool enough to draw in younger ears.

Van Buren pays tribute to Gaye (one of his foremost heroes of song) via a breezy cover of "What's Going On." Many singers have interpreted the standard through the decades, but it remains a bold move to do so. While it would be unfair to compare any remake to the timeless original, Van Buren does a commendable job of preserving the integrity of the composition and the essence of Gaye's recording. His breathy take on the progressions, backed by a supple programmed arrangement, make for a relaxing and appealing listen.

Still closes with the cleverly coy "Anticipation," a summery jam expressing the inner desires of connecting intimately with a newfound love interest. Delivered with slightly bluesy keyboard lines and guitar strokes, the entrancing mood is set for Van Buren's forthright longing to make good on the anticipation that "controls" his mind: "Wish I could pour myself on you/Like a bubble of shampoo, running from your head all the way down to your feet…" It's an alluring conclusion to a serene collection of songs that will hopefully afford his work the long-overdue exposure it deserves. Recommended.

By Justin Kantor

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