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Sound Check

What is it about summer that makes people go out and have, as one person once put it, "hot, lovely relations?" Is it the skimpy clothing? The heat? The extra daylight? The humidity? Whatever, summer has always been a time for music to park to. Sure, you could pop in a Marilyn Manson or Wu-Tang Clan tape and see how far that takes you before your beloved smashes your tape deck, but more appropriate are sensuous forms of music. And just in time, two record labels have released some summer-suitable sets of retro R&B: Rhino's Smooth Grooves -- The '60s and Right Stuff's Slow Jams '70s, Slow Jams '80s and Timeless collections.

The release of these flashback-stirring compilations couldn't have come at a better time. With the exception of Babyface, Luther Vandross and soul conformists Maxwell and D'Angelo, the R&B balladeers of today have become schizo mouthpieces for their generation's impatient libidos. The guiltiest of this is R. Kelly, whose macho-musical design and allusion-less lyrics ("Bump N' Grind," anyone?) have spawned a coven of shirtless, pelvis-thrusting crooners. Maybe this is why record companies are extending an olive branch to those in need of make-out music.

Other labels have their own make-out mixtures currently in stores (EMI's Sex & Soul and Legacy's Between the Sheets collections for two), but the Rhino/Right Stuff sextet of CDs are essential for two reasons: 1) As a collective, these CDs trace the sexual chronology of the three decades preceding our own: the '60s, when back-seat necking was a precursor to eventual sexual liberation; the '70s, when people overindulged in carnal gluttony; and the '80s, when AIDS red-lighted erotic excess; 2) The liner notes for all six of the discs were written by David Nathan, a writer for Billboard and Blues & Soul and the self-dubbed "British Ambassador of Soul." Nathan actually produced the '70s and '80s Slow Jams compilations, but he also brings a textured detail and a love for the music to the Smooth Grooves notes.

And for good reason. All three Smooth Grooves CDs, which are special-edition extensions of Rhino's contemporary Smooth Grooves: A Sensual Collection series, compile tracks that enshrine a time when a love song could be both aggressive and vulnerable. They were lyrical interludes that served as romantic thought patterns for a repressive age, with each verse echoing a kitschy and beguiling tension. (Then again, since I wasn't around during that time, I could be wrong, though my romantic heart thinks not.)

With its unabashed analog sound, Volume 1: Early '60s is so velvety you could drape it over an old couch. Following the era's three-minute time limit, each song is a brief vignette of wonderful desire. In the opening tune, Carla Thomas's teen-crush ditty "Gee Whiz, (Look at Those Eyes)," you can hear the influence of production master Phil Spector emitting from each puppy-love line. But it's not all wax-lip smooches and hand-holding at the malt shop; other tunes emote a bad-to-the-bone imagery. A pre-Godfather of Soul James Brown (with His Famous Flames) projects a slow burn with "Prisoner of Love," while the blues-inflamed voice of Bobby Bland evokes a devilish streak in "I'll Take Care of You" and the wicked yelp of Wilson Pickett summons suggestive lines ("You suck my soul dry") in "I Found a Love." But it's Etta James's beautifully orchestrated closer, "At Last," that gives this compilation its finely polished finish. (*****)

A beautiful tune, Percy Sledge's organ-grinding 1966 hit "When a Man Loes a Woman," be-gins Volume 2: Mid-'60s, hinting early on that the marvelous balance of Volume 1 carries through to this CD. Joe Tex's charismatic stylings, complete with a break-it-down bridge that current troubadours work to death, ride "Hold What You've Got," while Sam and Dave's classic "Something Is Wrong with My Baby" dares you not to slow dance. A few tunes, especially Lorraine Ellison's beseeching closing number "Stay with Me," lay on the vocal histrionics, but it's a small price to pay when you get perfect diamonds such as Aretha Franklin's priceless "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman." (**** 1/2)

Aretha's church-bred splendor also ends up on the final installment of this trilogy, Volume 3: Late '60s, but with most of these songs echoing the music of the first two CDs, this end-of-the-road reissue leaves well-trod skid marks. Not all of the tunes are bad: The Delfonics' "La-La Means I Love You" has a mellow, orchestral flow, while "Back Up Train" offers the satisfying vocals of a pre-"Love and Happiness" Al Green and "Hey There Lonely Girl" offers some soprano soul from Eddie Holman. But most of these songs sound, if not repetitive, hokey. The metaphorical slush of the Dynamics' "Ice Cream Shop" ("If my love was a lighter / The darkness would never come around") almost rings of Stephen Bishop's "I Gave My Love a ... " from Animal House. And ending the album with the Unifics' goofy-ass "Court of Love" was a big mistake. If the Rhino people plan on doing another decade threesome, they should get some better songs for the final album, if only so every date can end with a bang, not a whimper. (** 1/2)

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