Eric Benet could go on to win 10 Grammys, save a boatload of drowning children and win the Nobel Peace Prize, but to most people, he will forever live in infamy as the guy who cheated on Halle Berry during the period when the actress was at her Oscar-winning peak. Because of this fact, some people may never give Benet’s music a chance, even though he certainly isn’t the first and won’t be the last philandering musician.
Of course, there’s a sizable chunk of people who have no idea who Benet is besides Halle’s ex-husband. After all, the guy’s never had a major crossover pop hit. In mainstream circles, he’s always been below the radar. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been successful or made music that wasn’t worth checking out, though. Over the course of five albums in 15 years (yes, he was making albums prior to meeting Halle) he’s drifted into neo-soul territory (with 1997’s platinum-selling A Day in the Life), wandered into adult contemporary pop (the David Foster-helmed Hurricane-essentially an hour-long apology to Halle), and his latest album, Lost in Time, is a tribute to soul music of the past-specifically the Seventies, the time period when the 44-year old singer first got bitten by the singing bug.
Eric is certainly a capable songwriter and vocalist, but I can’t help but feel a bit of a disconnect when I listen to Lost in Time. The problem with tribute albums (or covers albums) is that the artist too often finds themselves shoehorned into a style (or a song) so closely identified with a particular artist or era that they wind up losing their own originality in the process. There’s a little disco boogie here, a little sweet Philly soul there-but there’s barely a touch of individuality to be found on most of these songs.
Benet’s major go-to period of inspiration for this album appears to be the early-Seventies sound defined by producer Thom Bell and groups like The Delfonics and The Stylistics. Songs like “Never Want to Live Without You” and “Always a Reason” highlight Benet’s creamy tenor and also find him reaching for his rarely-used falsetto. Although he’s no Russell Thompkins Jr., Eric more than holds his own on these songs. His other default appears to be upbeat disco, as evidenced by songs like “Feel Good” and “Good Life.”
Lost in Time has more than it’s share of guest artists. Modern R&B divas Ledisi, Faith Evans and Chrisette Michele offer a female foil for some of his more uptempo joints, and he’s also joined by his teenage daughter India, who sings background vocals on the breezy, Stevie/Isleys hybrid “Summer Love.” Some of those collaborations work, some don’t — Michele spends way too much time preening on “Take It,” while the Evans collaboration “Feels Good” sounds like a K-Mart version of The Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” The most interesting team-up, however, is his attempt at creating a “Back Stabbers”-styled social commentary track with “Paid.” It doesn’t totally work right, even with O’Jay Eddie LeVert doing most of the vocal heavy lifting. The lyrics are certainly timely (amazing how little things have changed in 40 years), but Eric’s vocals (even in a support role) aren’t tough enough to carry a song like this, and an even bigger problem than that is the song-which sounds totally recycled. Eric fares much better on songs like the album closer, “Something’s Wrong,” which sounds like-well, I’ll be damned — an Eric Benet song!
Reaching back to the past is certainly not a novel concept. However, it’s also not a concept that gets executed well in most cases. On Lost in Time, Benet does a decent if not spectacular job recreating sounds from soul’s glory years. While the album’s not entirely a success, I at least have to give the man props for making a throwback-type album that sounds like it was created simply for the enjoyment of the music rather than as a crass stab at continued commercial relevance a la Rod Stewart.
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