Joe Bataan

Sweet Soul

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Fania spent some time attempting to break into the pop-soul market during the early '70s with the sickeningly sweet falsetto of Ralfi Pagan and a few records by a young Joe Bataan. Bataan's instincts are in the right place, and the arrangements -- by label head and salsa superstar Johnny Pacheco -- make for bright, swinging accompaniment, but Bataan's voice doesn't hold up to this type of attention. (He reaches for notes and seldom hits them, and can't hold them when he does hit them.) Technical issues, however, are the only thing holding this record back. His four originals are solid, distinctive songs, a pair of them sweet ballads and the others turgid '70s blaxploitation pieces reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield producing the Jackson 5. His choices for covers are bizarre -- the record is bookended by versions of the Beatles' fey "This Boy" and Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" -- but are carried across by his plaintive wail. Bataan is also an ambitious artist, including a nearly eight-minute composition called "Cry," staged with a spoken introduction spotlighting a Dear John letter mailed all the way to Vietnam. Pacheco's charts are of-the-moment yet never exploitative, and his usually crisp horns are framed by furious percussion and a trio of righteous female backing vocalists. This is Bataan's show, and while Sweet Soul carries a great deal of focus, his voice can't carry this record like it needed to.

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