The frustrating truth about a lot of R&B and soul that's being made today is that everything tends to be so identi-kit that it's difficult to tell one label from another, one act from another. A soul act on Motown sounds like one on Epic sounds like one on Qwest -- all twinkling synthesizers, obnoxious drum machines doing the same programmed beats, all low smooth bass, all the same neatly arranged vocal harmonies. It's all very professional, all very formal, and one wonders, even with gospel acts like the Winans, whether there's any soul left after the gloss has leeched out the interesting wrinkles. It's a sad truth that most of the technology that's been developed since the introduction of MIDI has wound up backing up either R&B acts or new age performers. That major gripe aside, what about this new Winans album, Return? Well, it's a nice enough affair, despite the fact that they open the album with one of those mutant rap songs that's also meant to be a forceful number about it being time to stand up and be counted. After that it's a not-too-obnoxious mix of standard-sounding modern R&B and Isley-flavored ballads in which the floating harmonies of the Winans are a constant key. They're just about rough- edged enough still, and forceful enough, that the vocals carry through the synthesizer barrages. On the whole, though, the best numbers here are probably the ballads, such as "When You Cry" and "Together We Stand," in which a real human band interacts nicely with the voices. It's an interesting example, in fact, to listen to the juxtaposition of "Together We Stand" and the following track, "This Time It's Personal" -- the latter is a cool, ticking number that does a fair bit of bible-thumping, and has the voices buried under or fighting against a harsh backing track. It's a rather annoying example; the song itself isn't particularly inspiring, and the way in which the performances end up struggling against each other is something of an indictment of the technology in use. The same problem crops up with just about all the tracks produced with machinery -- the high end is harsh and brittle, and the rhythm arrangements, never mind anything else, are extremely irritating. Musically, trying to mix gospel with modern R&B is tricky at best, frustrating at worst, and the half-and-half mix here is truly annoying. One hopes that the next time will see the Winans taking their admittedly solid songs into the studio with altogether more flexible performers. Gospel is very much a music of the spirit, and there's very little spirit evident in most of the music on Return.
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AllMusic Review by Steven McDonald