Aaron Neville, Warm Your Heart (A&M Records)

In listening to Warm Your Heart you have to keep in mind a bizarre fact. After over 30 years as New Orleans’ king of soul, it is Aaron’s first real album. All the other albums with his name on them are compilations of singles. The closest he came to a real, conceptualized album was his spine-tingling, five-song EP of doo-wop songs, 1985’s Orchid in the Storm.

In that regard, Warm Your Heart—co-produced by his duet partner, Linda Ronstadt—has a bit of a patchwork feel, as Aaron fits in the old standards he has undoubtedly wanted to record for years with new songs aimed with a more commercial appeal.

There are some great moments here. Both Randy Newman’s classic anthem to Louisiana rainfall and John Hiatt’s new one (catch the oblique references to New Orleans and the Causeway in the latter) are drenched with feeling. Aaron bites into the (very timely) “Louisiana, they’re tryin’ to wash us away” chorus of Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” with unusual authority. The strings and the Van Dyke Parks-arranged chorus swell with a languid Dixie feel, but the sweeping torrent of the bayou angst-ville chorus is cut off abruptly at three minutes, as if Ronstadt was afraid of sounding too parochial.

“It Feels Like Rain” sucks you down into the New Orleans quagmire with a showering tremolo guitar as Aaron delivers a sensual, sweaty vocal and Ry Cooder insinuates his slide guitar.

“Angola Bound” and “I Bid You Goodnight” have a fine, loose, folksy feel, the former a percussive Aaron and Charles Neville chain-gang blues that could have come from the last two Neville Brothers albums.

The Allen Toussaint composition “That’s the Way She Loves” is chilling, with Aaron’s high flying vocals intertwining with the smoky sax of expatriate New Orleans legend Plas Johnson. When was the last time Toussaint wrote a couplet as piercing as “With her strong desire to please / The pressure to love is like a disease?”

Much of the rest here seems to give away the producer’s pop orientation. Aaron sings with delightful falsetto teenage angst in his search for a girlfriend in the big city in “Somewhere, Somebody.” Burt Bacharach’s “Don’t Go Please Stay” has an unusual combination of church choir vocals and rock ‘n’ roll guitar triplets. “Warm Your Heart” is basically a warmed-over steal of Percy Mayfield’s masterpiece “Please Send Me Someone to Love”—why not do the (much more profound) original?

Aaron’s duet with Ronstadt on the doo wop standard “Close Your Eyes” has Ronstadt sounding flat, especially on the spoken close—”I love you darlin’, with all my heart and soul”. A likely video, Aaron’s version of the Main Ingredient’s sing-song “Everybody Plays the Fool” is an obvious attempt in the programmed-percussion vein of Quincy Jones’ remake of “I’ll Be Good to You.”

You would be struck down if you criticized Aaron’s immaculate, heavenly “Ave Maria,” though it seems out of place.

The problem here is that Aaron likes a lot of different things, and without the strong producing hand of the likes of Daniel Lanois (who put the Nevilles on track), the direction is hard to find. A more profound avenue might have taken off from Randy Newman’s opening anthem here and sunk deep into Aaron’s bayou soul. Still, for a first album, it’s pretty, pretty damn good. What isn’t by Aaron Neville?