sealCovers albums are a tricky concept. Not too many folks have gotten it right. While I’d imagine it’s fun and maybe even challenging to tackle music made popular by someone else, a lot of times those songs are so identifiable with the original artist(s) that your album winds up sounding more like well-produced karaoke than anything else.

This is the problem that plagues British singer Seal on his sixth studio effort, entitled “Soul”. While the album itself is sung beautifully, the songs he chooses to cover are songs that were sung beautifully the first time around. And the second. And the third. The album might have been a bit more interesting had Seal decided to tackle some songs that are less familiar, but, let’s be honest here. How many versions of “A Change is Gonna Come” do you really need to hear when Sam Cooke’s original is still the definitive version?

Seal obviously put his heart into this recording, on which he gives us the best vocals of his entire career. “Soul”‘s major redeeming quality, actually, is Seal’s voice. Gravelly and soulful, he does a good job with songs like Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, but after a while, you realize that you still want to hear that voice, just performing Seal’s material, not someone else’s.

The album’s biggest problem, aside from the very unimaginative song choices, is the production. David Foster was smart enough to back Seal with a live band, but wound up runining some of the songs with obnoxious amounts of horns and strings. The reliance on horns especially, occasionally makes this album sound more like “Seal Does Vegas!!” than it does Seal sings soul classics.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the material. The songs are top-notch, but the definitive versions have been made already and nothing more can be added to them. Not that many folks haven’t tried. Remember UB40’s remake of Al Green’s “Here I Am (Come & Take Me)”? How about Amii Stewart’s disco version of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood”? The six million versions of “People Get Ready” in existence? Seal covers all these songs here, and while his versions are all pleasant, they’re also totally unnecessary. Seal wrings every bit of emotion out of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” and STILL can’t touch James Brown’s original. Even when Seal and Foster try to add a bit of contemporary bounce to Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”, all it winds up doing is reminding me of the techno-funk remake of the song that Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White did back in 1985.

Seal has the right idea when he tackles the comparatively unknown “Free” by Deniece Williams. He’d have served himself much better by going with material that wasn’t so obvious. He’d have been BEST served by following the template that’s given him a twenty-year career and stuck with his own material.