It's a pleasure to hear '70s and '80s soul songstress Melba Moore return to her R&B roots on The Gift of Love, a collection of duets with contemporary soul and jazz singer Phil Perry. Each track addresses either romantic or spiritual love, which fits with Moore's recent forays into gospel. Upon first listen one immediately senses the camaraderie between these two pros. After all, Moore is a Broadway veteran and successful recording artist, whereas Perry forged his reputation as an in-demand studio vocalist and ultimately an urban contemporary performer. Their voices blend beautifully, and they sound as if they truly enjoyed recording together. Both use their full ranges on the track list, which contains well-known and more obscure soul songs, with some gospel standards thrown in the mix. While their selections are laudable, the songs' arrangements detract somewhat from those terrific vocals.
Moore and Perry demonstrate their chemistry on classics such as "You're All I Need to Get By" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." Original singers Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell would surely be pleased by the duo's vocal interaction and obvious joy. Perhaps the most surprising track is "Weakness," a Stevie Wonder-penned duet with Dionne Warwick from the 1984 film, The Woman in Red. The song represented Wonder's attempt at a Burt Bacharach sound (further underscored by Warwick's inclusion), and remains an underrated gem in his vast catalog. Perry particularly shines on this new version, handling the tricky chord changes with ease.
Both singers also take solo turns on The Gift of Love, with Moore showing off her powerful vocal chops on "I Believe." Perry illustrates his vocal range on "U Never Know," the most jazz-influenced track on the album. "We'll Be Together Then" allows Moore to use a deeper vocal range, proving her musical versatility. Both voices are best showcased on the gospel classic "It Will Be Alright," although the song also includes, for no apparent reason, the sound effect of a vinyl record. Nevertheless, Moore and Perry clearly believe in the lyrics, such as when Perry croons the line, "I was born in East St. Louis," from the perspective of a man seeking redemption. Spiritual love also appears in "Sadie," the Spinners classic nicely reinterpreted by the duo.
The album also includes a couple of originals, the best being the fun "Survival Kit," a danceable track that really allows Moore and Perry to interact. "What makes you think you know how to handle it?" demands Perry. "Pack it up!" snarls Moore toward the end of the song. Perry's composition, co-written with producer Preston Glass, provides a lighter change-of-pace from the slow to mid-tempo tone of the rest of The Gift of Love.
Despite Moore's and Perry's soaring voices, one factor detracts from The Gift of Love: the arrangements. Producers Glass, Cal Rutherford, and Chris "Big Dog" Davis play virtually all of the instruments on the album, which are predominantly synthesizers and electronic drums. This overly mechanical sound makes some of the tracks sound cold and sterile. For example, the Sounds of Blackness's "Optimistic" should be a raise-the-roof gospel number displaying elation. Instead, the synthesizer and drum sequence-dominated arrangement here robs the song of this power and emotion, overshadowing the duo's vocals. This talented twosome deserves a full, live band with real instrumental power, and the absence of such detracts from the album's overall sound.
Hopefully The Gift of Love will be the first of several collaborations between these two pros, but future projects should involve a full backing band to do these great voices justice. While the arrangements disappoint, the album is worth a listen if only to hear two veteran performers in top form interacting with each other.