Kenny Lattimore - Timeless (2008)

Kenny Lattimore
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To remix a famous phrase, "No more cover albums ever, Kenny!" With eyes bulging and a wire hanger high in hand, it's what you want to scream when you hear that such a talented musician has essentially relegated himself to a wedding singer. Timeless is Kenny Lattimore's third album of covers, including two with his wife, Chante Moore. As a collection Timeless holds up well enough, in some instances even better than most in the covers album cottage industry. The problem is that with each Lattimore cover album, we know Kenny less and less as a distinctive artist. The rapidly disappearing uniqueness of Kenny Lattimore is also starting to slip into his work as he strives to be more like the originals and less like himself.

To remix a famous phrase, "No more cover albums ever, Kenny!" With eyes bulging and a wire hanger high in hand, it's what you want to scream when you hear that such a talented musician has essentially relegated himself to a wedding singer. Timeless is Kenny Lattimore's third album of covers, including two with his wife, Chante Moore. As a collection Timeless holds up well enough, in some instances even better than most in the covers album cottage industry. The problem is that with each Lattimore cover album, we know Kenny less and less as a distinctive artist. The rapidly disappearing uniqueness of Kenny Lattimore is also starting to slip into his work as he strives to be more like the originals and less like himself.

"Stop trying to be someone you're not." This is a line Kenny covers from the Aretha Franklin classic "Ain't No Way" (from Lady Soul). The line also works as direction for Kenny Lattimore on some of these Timeless tunes. Taking homage and respect to new heights (or is it lows?), Kenny now approaches his Donny Hathaway material (in this instance "Giving Up") by copying far too many of his idol's vocal affectations and signature styling. This is worlds apart from Lattimore's more original cover of Hathaway's "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," heralded from Kenny's apparent magnum opus, From The Soul of A Man. While there were covers on that album too, including an endearing rendition of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and a jaw-dropping version of the gospel standard "Well Done," they were all squarely stamped with Kenny's distinct sophisticated style. That originality ducks for cover (pun intended) on Otis Redding's "I Love You More Than Words Can Say" and the Whitfield and Strong classic "That's The Way Love Is." With every faux growl and Southern soul yell, we wonder when did our Northern hipster start eating pig's feet and saying "reckon?"

It wasn't always this way. Once Kenny Lattimore was a well-respected artist with a unique voice and-some critic's argued-too pristine vocals. On his 1996 self-titled debut, Lattimore took that polished tenor all the way to #6 on the Billboard R&B chart with "For You," a wedding song whose prophetic qualities regarding Kenny's future were then underappreciated. He followed up that platinum debut with From The Soul of A Man, an elegant collection of original songs mostly produced by Stuart Matthewman (Sade, Maxwell) and that introduced the R&B career of Broadway diva Heather Headley. The album received deserved critical acclaim, but didn't fare as well in the market as its predecessor, only going a respectable gold.

Still, I think it was the follow-up to Soul that gave Kenny the shakes and sent him running to the safety of covers and standards. Weekend was artistically and commercially a failure; it re-imagined the sweet man next door with the bespoke suits and gentleman manners as a roving urbanite with a hint of hip hop playboy. The chosen producers guiding Weekend were at the height of their commercial powers, including Babyface, Raphael Saadiq, and Philly duo Andre Harris and Vidal Davis. Kenny's then new label Arista attempted an overtly commercial album of radio-ready tunes, but ended up with an overreaching affair of obvious, unmemorable tunes with no sense of continuity with the adult contemporary material Lattimore's fans had come to expect. The best thing I can say about the project is that Shanice Wilson and Kenny Lattimore make beautiful music together. It's a shame there was only one duet of the two undersung talents.

Maybe that's why Kenny Lattimore and Chante Moore decided to create a career as a husband and wife duet act. Ashford and Simpson were on the oldies but goodies circuit and Kindred hadn't yet hit the market. Moore's career was also on the decline following one too many albums that paled in comparison to her eponymous debut, Precious. Outside of the quickly forgotten rollerskate material of Koffee Brown, the field was wide open. But instead of entering the public consciousness as a fresh act, they came in as a veteran couple akin to Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo, handing out an album of underwhelming covers. Business must have been good on Things That Lovers Do, because they repeated the trick with a double-disc project, albeit with one disc of gospel originals. There were a few original R&B tunes on both duet projects, but it was clear that the couple was positioning themselves for bookings at celebrity weddings and Congressional Black Caucus events.

Recently, however, Chante Moore decided to rely a little less on covers on her latest solo release, limiting it to Nancy Wilson's "Guess Who I Saw Today" and Minnie Ripperton's "Give Me Time," and has subsequently earned critical praise for her daring. Her Love The Woman offered hope that Kenny would return to what made us love him as well. Despite excellent instrumentation and top notch production, Lattimore on Timeless disappoints by offering fans yet another album of someone else's glory. That the selected lights are sometimes obscure helps Timeless rise above the fray but it doesn't remove the sour taste in your mouth over Lattimore's consistent weak-kneed approach to his music.

Okay, so what works? Well, every tune that Kenny allows himself to be Kenny and not a vocal chameleon. The Beatles' "And I Love Her" is a fine example of the moody, smoldering approach we love from Lattimore. Kenny is one of the few male artists who can exude sexy in his music and not make it unseemly or profane. As demonstrated by Stevie Wonder's "Ain't No Use" and Terence Trent D'Arby's "Undeniably," few tonally do world weary melancholia as well either. Competing with "And I Love Her" for best cut is Elton John's elegiac "Come Down In Time," an orchestral orgasm of soothing sound. He also does a stand up job of Norman Conners "You Are My Starship," but did the world really need another cover of this overdone classic? Really?

Timeless moves us both closer and farther away from giving us our Kenny back. At its most mundane, it shows how playing it safe can make an artist increasingly invisible and irrelevant. However, in its nod toward rare material that have mostly disappeared from the public's consciousness, it ironically reminds us how relevant Kenny Lattimore could be as a unique voice performing original material, if only he believed it. Come Back, Kenny, come back. Recommended.

-L. Michael Gipson

 
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