Monday, November 17, 2003

Ronald Isley

Here I Am

Dreamworks Records

One of the small pleasures of hearing Ronald Isley sing Burt Bacharach tunes is when he sneaks in a soul uppercut. Amid all the gauzy schmaltz of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” for example, comes an ad-libbed “I can’t stand the rain.”

Oh, this is Ron Isley, all right, and the cottony accretions of Bacharachian strings and brass can’t contain a voice like his.

This is the guy who fronts the Isley Brothers, the legendary siblings who did gospel, Motown and hard funk with equal skill and verve.

The Isleys, at one point, employed an unknown guitarist from Seattle named Jimi Hendrix, and they even got sampled by rappers Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Just where did you think “Fight the Power” and “Say It Was a Good Day” came from?

Mr. Isley, who, in “It’s Your Thing,” refused to tell us exactly whom we should sock it to, has decided to do what pop singers such as Elvis Costello do when they’re bored: They call Burt Bacharach and say, “Burt, I think it’s time for me to sock it to my audience with soft pop.”

Were it not for that instantly identifiable voice, “Here I Am,” co-produced, arranged and conducted by Mr. Bacharach, would be an hourlong cycle of mushy Muzak.

But what a tenor: reedy, yet sweet and tender and warm. “Make It Easy on Yourself” says “breaking up is so hard to do,” but coming from Mr. Isley, it sounds like the easiest, most desirable thing in the world.

“Here I Am” is a calming listen. To take it in is to sit alone in a hotel lounge with a glass of stiff liquor and a bad attitude. If you heard it live in a piano bar, you would either fall asleep or toss your drink in self-pity.

These 13 Bacharach standards (all, save for a pair, co-written with lyricist Hal David) are bubble-gummy confessionals on the messy business of relationships, each designed to talismanically keep the blues at bay and maybe squeeze in a little therapy.

“In Between the Heartaches,” “A House Is Not a Home,” “Count on Me,” “Love’s (Still) the Answer” — if music stores had self-help sections like bookstores do, this is what you would find there.

Give Mr. Isley credit, though. He’s itching for creative satisfaction. In the space of a year, he has sung with artists as diverse as Burt Bacharach and, I kid you not, R. Kelly.

Unlike the latter, Mr. Isley didn’t need a judge’s permission to travel to Hollywood, where he recorded this inspired, heartfelt album of unbearable lightness.

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