Thursday, December 18, 2008

Brandy's "Human" Experience on New LP


When we last left Norwood, she was recovering from a range of ills and a record that saw her stumble creatively and commercially. On Human, her fifth album overall, and first for Epic Records, Norwood establishes that her music is built for longevity only.

Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins returns to appropriate a classic and modern layout for Norwood to work over. Helping with Jerkins vision, several other producers and songwriters joined in for the recording of Human: Chase N. Cashe, D'Mile, Midi Mafia, and Natasha Bedingfield notably.

Of the two songs penned by Norwood herself, the title track is the driving feeling behind the concept of this album. Thematically assembled around the celebration of the "human experience," Norwood's vocals are an important ingredient to the chemistry here. Visits with withered patience ("Long Distance"), universal affirmation ("Right Here (Departed)"), and the isolation music cures ("Piano Man") aren't easy to carry. Yet, the glow of sincerity in Norwood's voice has only gotten stronger and breathes life into the music. So, when Brandy begins quietly on "Long Distance" before the climatic chorus shift, soars throughout "Right Here (Departed)," and paints in lonely textures on "Piano Man," easily Human is her vocal champion.

"Right Here (Departed)"
Directed By: Little X


Bringing it back to the production, the grooves (sometimes) veer close toward poppier elements and that isn't a bad thing. The expansion of Norwood's sound is just that, an expansion, the urban root is still active.  Human benefits from various musical influences that compliment, not cover, her R&B as heard on the acoustic reflection of "Torn Down." Nothing on Human courts the dance of Full Moon (2002) or Afrodisiac (2004), but there are uptempo rewards to be had. "1st & Love," has Norwood singing through bombastic sonics, literally. "The Definition" can be tagged as "classic Brandy" with its tight, metallic beats.

A record like Human will keep her core fans satisfied and may (or may not) pull new listeners. The latter is dependent on what they want to hear from a contemporary R&B record concerned with actually connecting with its audience. Like some of my favorite soul interpreters before her, Norwood brings her own experience home to this LP. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Human is available in physical and online stores, check it out. For more information on Brandy, please visit http://www.foreverbrandy.com-QH]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The QH Blend's Records of 2008



2008, 2008, 2008! What can be said about another year that dealt hands of hope and despair equally in terms of music? Madonna lost the groove (but she still gets love from The Blend), Britney attempted to reacquire it, Usher was outclassed, Kanye West let his ego supercede his talent, and of course Beyoncé attempted to upstage everyone.

There were glimmers of promise where veteran acts continued to step their game up, and a few new surprises really made an impact than not expected. Here at The QH Blend while I acknowledge genre walls, it's quality that brings together the acts in this list. These artists embodied artistry because they stared down musical mediocrity without flinching. I present the 13 Records of 2008, QH Blend style.

#13. Common: Universal Mind Control



Even a cool, hip-hop monk such as Common has to have fun sometimes. Over a bubbly and kinetic production map, courtesy of the re-energized Neptunes, Common wants to chill, make-out, and pose a few socially conscious questions to the girl he was chatting up. The flows here aren't always brilliant, but they are always clever and executed efficiently.

#12. Jewel: Perfectly Clear



Jewel's vocal strength has been that she can wear a variety of vocal hats: girlishly soft or harsh and strained. The dusty, sensuous gleam of Perfectly Clear is grounded in the various country doused, guitar-laden settings. Brazen and flirtatious in equal measure, Jewel's presence is always one of curvaceous romanticism.

#11. Donna Summer: Crayons



Pop doesn’t sound this good, unless you're Donna Summer. The Queen herself returned with her first original LP in over a decade and didn't disappoint. With a voice that defied gravity and any sort of genre boxing, Summer touched on dance, bossa nova, and R&B, these being the tip of the iceberg when discussing Crayons' sonic contents.

#10. Alanis Morissette: Flavors of Entanglement



Not content with anger for anger's sake, Morissette has entered a new, amber-hued sphere of her alternative rock/pop sound. Courting a more uptempo sound in spots, bordering on trip-hop, Morissette's vocal exorcisms and affirmations brought a much needed human warmth to the proceedings.


#9. Estelle: Shine



Neneh Cherry is somewhere smiling in approval. The torch of the female emcee who can spit and croon in ample amounts has found a new owner: Estelle. Sonic summer in terms of its reggae bumps and grinds, Euro-disco one-off's, and British hip-hop swagger, all of these sounds hold Estelle's buoyancy effortlessly.


#8. Lenny Kravitz: It is Time for a Love Revolution



Kravitz always parties like the '60's and '70's never ended, depending on what album you catch him on. On Revolution, Kravitz has internalized his influences bringing enough of himself to his old school rock and soul tricks. Revolution also displayed Kravitz as an under appreciated male vocalist.

#7. Brandy: Human



If not certain before, with Human, Brandy now casts away any doubt at her vocal interpretation abilities when bringing her own story to a song. Paired again with Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, her musical partner, Brandy's maturity is sound tracked appropriately and updated perfectly.


#6. Janet Jackson: Discipline



Janet Jackson is matched only by Prince in producing a noticeable enough change to her sound to draw ears to each new record she releases. Discipline is a platter of Quiet Storm come-on's, post-coital slow jams, and polished urban dance music with emphasis on Jackson's quality over quantity position.

#5. Swing Out Sister: Beautiful Mess



Swing Out Sister wear their love of Mendes and Bacharach on their sleeves, as their ninth LP demonstrates this effectively. Corinne Drewery vamped and vocally pulled out every stop in partner Andy Connell's arrangements, which drew from the duos aforementioned inspirations. Over 21 years strong, British pop isn't nearly as divine as this.

#4. Q-Tip: The Renaissance



There is more to hip-hop than ego, and in a time when that seems to be the only requirement for this movement, Q-Tip arrived to walk the walk. A spacious, airy, groovy party record, with occasional thoughts to concerns of love and the world, Tip's cadenced rhymes don't lack for anything.

#3. k.d. lang: Watershed



k.d. lang is the manifestation of the chanteuse. Check out the smoky, moody, sensual stylings of her 10th and first self-produced LP. Her rich voice wrapped itself around sparse country twang, ‘60’s lounge, and contemporary adult pop fluff with a maximum of panache and a minimum of fuss.


#2. Solange: Sol-Angel and Hadley St. Dreams



Candy-coated gems that showcased Solange's impressive vocalizing litter Hadley St. Dreams. Whether dividing between the retro swing of "I Decided, Part 1" or organic soul flourishes like "T.O.N.Y" and "6 'O' Clock Blues," Solange assuredly released one of the better R&B records of 2008.


#1. Cyndi Lauper: Bring Ya to the Brink



Cyndi Lauper is still around and that she’s around making work as cutting edge and engaging as this album is not a real shocker. Taking her excellent songwriting skills to the dance music arena, Lauper managed a mean mix of introspection and escape. Vocally, she hasn’t lost any of her chutzpah, and that alone is worth the price of admission.-QH

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Spice Girls Kind of Christmas


Last Christmas, the Spice Girls were enjoying the fruits of their successful reformation tour. There is another reason to discuss Spice this holiday season, 10 years ago on Decemeber 14th, 1998, the Spice Girls released their first single without (then-departed) group mate Geri Halliwell, entitled "Goodbye." The single, their eighth, topped the U.K. charts, giving them their eighth U.K. #1 single. It would also be their third chart topper in the Christmas season consecutively for their third year running. The Spice Girls hold a multitude of records and their run of three number ones at Christmas in the U.K. is a distinctive one. It was a record held by The Beatles.

In celebration of the holiday season, the Spice Girls, and these three amazing pop songs that were released in Christmas' past, I look back and give my thoughts on all three songs.

"2 Become 1" from Spice (1996)



Single, released on 12/16/96
Written By: Spice Girls, Richard Stannard, Matt Rowe
U.K. Pole Position: #1 (3 Weeks)
U.S. Pole Position: #4 (Released 7/29/97)
Video Directed by: Big! TV

This genteel slice of pop has become a standard within the Spice Girls discography. Popular on both sides of the Atlantic, the song wouldn't see its American release until the summer of 1997, "2 Become 1" was, at that time, their most mature outing. The content dealt with love making, of the safe sex variety, and encouraged unity through body and soul, tastefully of course.

Against a lush string accompaniment, the Girls each vocalized with ease separately before they formed to a unified chorus. Also unique is the shift of lyric in the second verse on the single edit. Victoria handled the line: "Once again if we endeavour, love will bring us back together, take it or leave it." The switch from the album version where Geri sang, "Any deal that we endeavor, boys and girls go good together, take it or leave it" was done to leave the appeal open to the Girls GLBT audience.





"Too Much" from Spiceworld (1997)



Single, released: 12/15/97
Written By: Spice Girls, Absolute (Paul Wilson & Andy Watkins)
U.K. Pole Position: #1 (2 Weeks)
U.S. Pole Position: #9 (Released 1/27/98)
Video Directed By: Howard Greenhalgh

Rivaling similar U.K. slices of soul-pop genius such as "Time (Clock of the Heart)" (Culture Club) and "Careless Whisper" (Wham!)  in artistic and emotional depth,"Too Much" was pop doing a fantastic doo-wop impersonation. Lyrically, the song was a complex reading of dissatisfaction about doing with or without love. It is the Spice Girls at their silkiest, where everyone shined and never sounded better than they did here.





"Goodbye" from Forever (2000)



Single, Released 12/14/98
Written By: Spice Girls, Richard Stannard, Matt Rowe
U.K. Pole Position: #1 (1 Week)
U.S. Pole Position: #11 (Released 12/15/98)
Video Directed By: Howard Greenhalgh

Written while on the North American leg of their Spice World tour, and after Geri Halliwell's abrupt exit from the group, the song discussed the universal concepts of endings and beginnings. It's open ended enough where anyone who has experienced any loss can relate to the track. "Goodbye"  showcased the Girls as lyricists, separating them from groups that only shared a genre tag versus any sort of musical compatibility. "Goodbye," a beautiful and simple composition, is a proper ballad throughout.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rockin' With Janet: The Live Experience



From the initial, and successful, launch of Jackson's Rock Witchu Tour and my actually seeing her on October 15th, 2008, a few hiccups occurred. In a statement issued on the eve of my show in Washington, D.C., it was revealed Jackson was dealing with vestibular migraines or "vertigo." I waited patiently for word from Jackson to confirm her D.C. show as the media sharpened their blades to prepare for her failure. Dramatic? Yes. So was Jackson's return to the stage that night in D.C. on the appointed date after her bout with her illness. Silencing all her detractors and delighting her fans, last week, Janet Jackson stormed the stage and proved her relevance where it truly mattered.

Her setlist included a full smattering of hits from Janet Jackson (1982) through Discipline
(2008), served in an extended medley fashion. Jackson worked across and through her crossover pop pleasantries, urban aggressive jams, chilled-out soul, and plush ballads. Highlights included the Fatman Scoop remix of "So Excited," the post-disco R&B perfection of "Say You Do," and a brief reading of "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)."  Also, "Luv," "Discipline," and "Feedback" staked their claim as new Janet Jackson classics. "Luv," part of the closing section of the show, shined live and it became clear that Island/Def Jam dropped the ball with her recent album.

Ninety percent of the show saw Janet vocally live and in effect, only on certain songs when choreography was turned up did her a backing tape rise to meet the occasion. Even then, her disciplined pipes guided the songs; it made her one of the only live performers with intricate dancing and vocal prowess to be weaved together. On "Call On Me," or any of her slow jams familiars ("Again," "Come Back to Me,"), Jackson was in fine vocal form. Visually and thematically the show was clean and uncluttered, her themes of "Good Janet" versus "Bad Janet" came across as odd, but interesting if one followed.

Against a backdrop of fireworks, flame plumes, and neon showers Jackson plunged through nine costume changes, updating her look with a fierce mohawk cut. In terms of her attitude, Jackson was gracious, sexually deviant, and cocky when she shouted, "I'm from Gary, Indiana...what's my name?" The doubters were hushed that evening and since with stops in New Jersey, Atlanta, Houston, and recently Austin.

(Janet-Xone Fan Meet-Up Before the Show, L to R: Kevin, Me, Steve, Courtney, Mika)


For me, seeing a music figure whom I've admired for sometime (for the first time) was an intense and gratifying experience. I was fortunate to spend the evening with my best friend and Aural Examination founder, Steve Flemming. Janet Jackson is undisputed in her realm of contemporary R&B and pop without many to really challenge her. That's "control."-QH

[*Editor's Note: Special thanks to blog wielders and true Janet heads Lonnell, Andre, and Darian for this excellent compiled video of reactions from fans after the show. Guess who gets featured? All pictures featured are from the opening night of Janet Jackson’s “Rock Witchu” Tour in Washington, D.C. 10/15/08. Visit http://www.janetjackson.com/ or http://www.livenation.com/ for "Rock Witchu" Tour updates, tickets, merchandise, and news. -QH]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Sol-Angel & The Hadley Dreams": Solange's Masterpiece

Beyoncé's surface level infatuation with Diana Ross is well documented. Her sister Solange has actually listened and reworked the sound print of that Motown siren for Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (2008),  her second LP after 2003's Solo Star.

The title draws its name from a street in Houston, Texas where her Svengali father, Matthew Knowles, had his recording studio. The record was a welcome sucker punch to my musical senses, evidence that there are still surprises left in music today.

Caution, this isn't just a retro makeover via stolen soul from the U.K. kewpie doll assembly line of Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and Adele. Solange succeeds due to marrying her own personal experiences through her songwriting, with assistance from fresh and familiar talent. Known producers include the U.K. dance-pop drivers The Freemasons, Mark Ronson (the man behind the success of Winehouse's pastiche), and The Neptunes (who end their creative drought here). The first single "I Decided, Part 1" is full of gutsy glam and powdery soul, listeners will undoubtedly remove their headphones with the sugary remains of this banger in their ears.

The Neptunes, who've been lacking the last few years, redeemed themselves with this day-glo soul number they produced. Yet, the relative newcomer Jack Splash, along with the established, yet unsung, producing duo Soulshock & Karlin nail some of Sol-Angel's best and defining moments.

See "T.O.N.Y." ("The Other Night Why"), where Splash arranges soulful lines of guitar and smooth bass to grant Solange the canvas to assertively, and sensitively, bring across the fallout of a one night stand. The romantic conflict isn't healed, thankfully, but playfully cast on "Sandcastle Disco," produced by Soulshock & Karlin. Lyrically, Solange manages to be both the bulletproof heroine and helpless damsel in the name of love. All of these ideas over a cool, hastened back beat and melodic pop swatches make a recipe for aural infatuation.

"Sandcastle Disco
Directed By: Solange


Solange's voice is the star real star of Sol-Angel & The Hadley Street Dreams. She occupies tarty curiosity on "Would've Been the One," whereas confusion colors her delivery on "Valentine's Day." The chatter of Solange lacking vocally are from individuals in need of re-examining the black female approach to song, because Solange is all nuance and expression here. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information on Solange, visit www.solangemusic.com]

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

George Michael's Moody Masterpiece "Older"

Out of adversity comes positivity, for George Michael the 1990's began tumultuously. Bouts with his sexual identity, the loss of his partner Anselmo Feleppa, and a legal blowout with his label Epic Records inspired George Michael to create his third album Older (1996).

The album locked Michael in as a top notch talent in pop throughout Europe and England, while America didn't know what to make of it. Despite this, Older is a testament of Michael's uncanny knack of making his human experience our sonic soundtrack.


History
George Michael had wanted his audience in 1990 to "listen without prejudice," and majority of the global music market did when Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 was released that year. Except America. His second solo album, an exquisite challenge, fell on lukewarm ears. America had already decided that Faith (1987) could never be topped, even by obviously superior material. This led Michael to move against his label Epic Records, accusing them of promotional bankruptcy, and he lost the misguided crusade. He signed with Virgin Records (British, international markets) and the now closed DreamWorks Records in America. Both labels allowed Michael a greater creative control than ever before.

However, with the passing of his partner Anselmo Feleppa, another layer of turmoil fueled the creation of Older that detailed Michael's life from 1993 through 1996.

The Record
George Michael wasted no time establishing his credentials in writing, arranging, composing, and producing his own work on his debut and sophomore albums. George Michael's pop functioned within a sturdy blue-eyed soul frame. Older exhumed the moodier elements present behind every coy and flirty jam he created in the past. Jon Douglas, longtime friend and musical partner, co-created with Michael on certain songs.

Assembling a golden range of musicians was imtegral: Steve Sidwell (trumpet), Andy Hamilton (saxophone), Fayyaz Virji (trombone), Stuart Brooks (trumpet, flugel horn),  and Chris Cameron (string arrangements, Fender Rhodes, electric piano, additional keyboards).

The importance of these musicians is apparent in the horn section within the desolate, but hopeful album closer, "You Have Been Loved." Michael's warm vocal coloring is haunting, as he sang about someone losing faith in God after their child dies. Michael's voice splendidly comforted and matched the emotional intensity of the mournful horns without melisma.

The stickiness of love, fidelity, and sexuality are addressed on the nu-jazz of "Spinning the Wheel" and the heady disco thrust of "Fastlove." "Fastlove" made dutiful use of Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Not's" which Will Smith sampled during the same period in his hit "Men In Black" from his Big Willie Style (1997) LP. Michael's poignancy on "Jesus to a Child," was a stunning portrayal of the eloquence of spirituality in love, and is the finest ballad he's recorded.  An amalgamation of pop flavors, Older was Michael's leanest album in terms of representing quality in such a tight package.

The Impact
Released to the world on 5/14/96, the album had huge success in the United Kingdom with its six singles, two of them double-A-sides: "Jesus to a Child" (10/9/95-U.K. #1), "Fastlove" (4/22/96-U.K. #1), "Spinning the Wheel" (8/19/96-U.K. #2), "Older/I Can't Make You Love Me" (1/20/97-U.K. #3), "Star People '97"* (4/28/97-U.K. #2), "You Have Been Loved/The Strangest Thing" (9/8/97-U.K. #2).  This run made Michael the first artist in British music history to place six singles at the #1, #2, #3 spots on the British charts from one record. The Older album achieved majority of its platinum scores in England where it perched at #1. It has currently shifted 12 million copies to date.

"Spinning the Wheel"
Directed By: Vaughn Arnell & Anthea Benton


In the U.S., Michael's commercial decline and critical indifference continued. "Jesus to a Child" and "Fastlove" both charted at #7 and #6 respectively on the U.S. Hot 100.  The album itself charted at #6 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and certified gold.  American critics didn't take to Michael's stark musings as well as their British counterparts. All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called the LP "...a bid for artistic credibility," furthering his skepticism with "It is one thing to be mature and another to be boring. Too often, Michael mistakes slight melodies for mature craftsmanship and Older never quite recovers."

Despite the dwindling of George Michael's U.S. audience, he continued to find success in his recording career well into this decade globally. Currently engaged in his TwentyFive Live World Tour, which rekindled his relationship with his hot and cold U.S. fans. One can ponder why one audience connected to Michael in his difficult, shining hour, and another didn't in 1996. Older depicted George Michael at his peak, one that has yet to be eclipsed. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information on George Michael, visit www.georgemichael.com. *-"Star People '97" was remixed for its single release with a sample of The Gap Band's cut "Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me?)," and differs from the album version initially released in 1996.-QH]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ashanti Declares Longevity on "The Declaration"

Consider, in about 15 years time The Declaration along with Ashanti's previous albums, will be deemed "old school." Either an intriguing or disturbing possibility depending on the individual music preference. Regardless, like Chante Moore, Monica, Aaliyah, and Brandy before her, Ashanti occupies that slippery slope of modern R&B. A field that can be kind or cruel to its inhabitants.

Ashanti is no longer the "hottest" young lady on the block, but what someone deems as "hot or not" will not make a difference as long as they put out quality product. The Declaration, Ashanti's fourth long player, presents growth, a staple for longevity in any genre of music.

Likely her last album on Murder Inc., the label that made her their female figurehead, Ashanti has gotten her artistic wind as it were. Barring a few dalliances with longtime creative partner Channel 7 (formerly Aurelius 7), Ashanti ventured out to secure other producers for this record. She brought back with her Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, Jermaine Dupri, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and L.T. Hutton. Ashanti herself also stepped up to the production, writing, arranging processes on the album, demonstrating her control extends beyond what knob twirlers she could gather.

Leading off with the barefaced ache of "The Way That I Love," the chafe of unfaithfulness is apparent in an astonishing vocal given by Ashanti. Before, her candy spun voice was pleasant, now it  has become much more full and rounded. Prepare for your sugar high to be extended on this album.

The double slap of feminine empowerment shown in the bursts of "You're Gonna Miss" and "So Over You." The songs have Ashanti borrowing notes from Cherrelle's Affair (1988) as she takes her best late '80's R&B stance on wayward men. The powdery "Good Good" sounds like it would've been at home on any of Mariah Carey's last three LPs, the difference is that Ashanti is able to carry the flirty silliness a bit better. The late night ambiance of "Things You Make Me Do," featuring blue-eyed crooner Robin Thicke, is doe-eyed sensuality done well.

"Good Good"
Directed By: Melina Matsoukas


The Declaration is succinct coming in at 13 tracks, by the time you reach the end, you may find yourself wondering where the filler was? There are a two duds in "Mother" and the title track, but they don't distract enough to remove the girlish aftertaste of the previous songs. Shaping up to be a modest hit in terms of sales, it has given Ashanti the much coveted prize of longevity. Even if she never records another album after this, she can be proud that The Declaration beckons with  progression before anything else. Four stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more current information on Ashanti, visit www.ashantithisisme.com-QH]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chic Decides to "Take It Off" in the '80's

Before the "demise" of disco, Chic was one of the most popular acts of the movement. Their mannered soul had become a new brand of cool. Thick slabs of bass, juicy guitar riffs, dense string sections, and stately vocalizing defined the Chic sound.

Chic members, the late Bernard Edwards (bass) and Nile Rodgers (guitar), wrote and produced for others to ensure their sound existed beyond Chic.

Sadly, once the deposed white-rock power usurped the R&B/disco hold on the mainstream charts and radio Chic, like other black acts at the time, were instantly contained within the R&B sphere only. That audience continued to show affection and attention to their last four albums: Real People (1980), Take It Off (1981), Tongue in Chic (1982), and Believer (1983). Released 11/16/81, Take It Off remains the watermark of Chic's '80's output.

Leading the production and writing duties as before, Rodgers and Edwards constructed a lean album with emphasis placed on live instrumentation with a few electronic ruffles. This contemporary glazing of their trademark coiffed sound revealed Chic could adapt to the changing R&B soundscape.  To this end, Chic member and drummer (the late) Tony Thompson (along with additional percussionists Sammy Figueroa, Roy Maldonado, Roger Squitero) laid down a strong beat foundation for Rodgers and Edwards' elastic wickedness to get evil on. Most importantly, it framed the sublime songstresses Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin.

Take It Off blasted off with the stop-start strut "Stage Fright," also the only single from the long player. The heat stayed up on the fussy funk tantrum of "Burn Hard." A fiery dance tune with searing tenor sax, trumpet, and flugel horn busted loose, Anderson and Martin skated on the cut with the hook: "Slap your face, burn hard, burn hard! Work out!"

The warmth of "So Fine" had all of Chic's members doing a collected, silky harmony on the chorus. Later on, "So Fine" became a sample staple for British soul vocalist Beverley Knight in her hit "Made It Back" from her '98 effort Prodigal Sista. The somber shuffler "Just Out of Reach," a duet between Edwards and Martin, is a forgotten Chic hit that never was. "Your Love Is Cancelled," a playful fusion of synth-pop and funk, jumped around next to the dependable kick-push urban dance of "Would You Be My Baby."

In all, Take It Off marked a continual commercial plight for Chic as sales continued to diminish. The album charted at #124 (U.S. Pop) and #35 (U.S. R&B), the latter betrayed a dent to their popularity at urban radio. While decidedly friendly to Chic, the black music began moving toward the up-and-coming sounds of black music on the horizon. The single "Stage Fright" was a small U.S. R&B hit, it slinked in at #35.

Chic's next two records followed a similar commercial fate before the original line-up disbanded in 1983. Both Rodgers and Edwards transitioned into crafting hits for Deborah Harry, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Jody Watley, and Madonna.  Take It Off was remastered in 2006 through Wounded Bird Records, a testament to the cult following the record garnered. Take It Off demonstrated that even when the chips were down, that Chic posture was unstoppable. Also, who doesn't love Tony Wright's illustration of Chic's members on the album cover? Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: This album, as mentioned, is readily in print and can be found in most independent retailers or online.-QH]

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Have You Met Miss Sophie Ellis-Bextor?

Initially walking into music as the lead singer of theaudience, Bextor's glassy vocals added a sense of model poise to their Brit-rock formula. Disappointingly, theaudience dissolved and Bextor later found her footing by providing vocals to DJ Spiller's "Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)" in the summer of 2000. The song is now a modern U.K. pop classic. Read My Lips (2002), Shoot From the Hip (2003), and Trip the Light Fantastic (2007) have done well in Bextor's native United Kingdom. The point of this piece is to share with you what it is about Sophie Ellis-Bextor's pop that makes it addictive.


The Blend's Favorite SEB single
"Me & My Imagination" (from Trip the Light Fantastic, 2007)

Both patience and excitement are conveyed on "Me & My Imagination." A sing-song melodic line bubbled to the top of the song before it spilled into Bextor's lyric of love for romantic mystery. Amid rushing strings and synths, Bextor guided her cool vocal with care. Catchy, bright, and pretty, it was Bextor at her best.






The Blend's Favorite SEB Album
"Shoot From the Hip," 2003
Of the three albums, her second is my personal favorite. Shoot From the Hip captured the perfection of pop experimentation. No musical wall kept her from trying different sounds: neo-disco, acoustic, electro, etc. Bextor's cerebral reading shone on the hidden track, a cover of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical." Not disposing of its sexual disposition, Bextor worked it from a different perspective.
If her vocal approach was high concept, her words grounded it in clever anecdotes.




The Blend's Favorite SEB Music Video
"Mixed Up World" (from Shoot From the Hip, 2003)
Directed By: Rupert Jones


The Jones directed video captured the retro '80's vibe of the music. An interesting amalgam of visuals and scene splicing, it featured a (then) blond Bextor. I liked the video due to its fashionable, but slightly weird, and simplistic stance. Plus, while Bextor was always better with her raven tresses, she rocked the blond hair hard at this time.


I knew Sophie Ellis-Bextor by her reputation as a fan of upscale British pop, but heard/saw her two summer's ago via Youtube. I quickly ordered both Read My Lips and Shoot From the Hip and fell madly in love with her. Last year, she released her third album Trip the Light Fantastic and is currently working on her fourth LP due out later this year. Unlike the overrated Amy Winehouse and Duffy, Bextor is something worth exporting to the States from England. Either way, you've all just met Mademoiselle Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Make the most of it.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information on Sophie Ellis-Bextor, visit: www.sophieellisbextor.net.-QH]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

En Vogue: Dawn or Rhona?

On June 24th, 2008, the BET Awards were abuzz when a reformed En Vogue took the stage with their fellow 1990's female R&B compatriots SWV and TLC. Cindy Herron-Braggs, Maxine Jones, Terry Ellis, and Dawn Robinson sashayed into their classic "Hold On" without a hiccup. Unlike many of the people watching that evening, my thoughts immediately drifted to a woman named Rhona Bennett, who has been a working member of En Vogue since 2004.

I thought: "What about the sixth record they've been working on with Bennett?," "What about the July 18th, 2008 show in Detroit I'm going to? Will it be Rhona on that stage, or Dawn?" For the majority, these thoughts didn't enter into the equation. Even those that celebrated Bennett's added chemistry to En Vogue probably preferred Robinson's second return to the fold. Bennett again stepped aside graciously to allow for the original line-up to pique the imagination of 1990's soul fans everywhere. However, as the saying goes, you can't have your cake and eat it too.

In this instance En Vogue recorded with Bennett (Soul Flower, 2004), toured with Bennett, and despite the first Robinson reunion in 2005 for the VH-1 Hip Hop Honors Award ceremony, Bennett remained a dedicated member. Bennett can't keep getting shuffled around when a "nostalgia moment" is aroused. More importantly, how can the group restructure itself seriously when the group continues to not take a position on who is in or out? What are the variables in having Robinson return or Bennett remain?

Classic
Dawn Robinson is a founding member of this group, that alone means there is a chemistry she has with the other members that no one else can. If Robinson, Herron-Braggs, Ellis, and Jones can iron out their financial and creative differences, which typically stalled reunion talks, it'd prove fruitful.

Capturing their particular magic and contemporizing it without losing themselves to overt modernization would show staying power.

However, Robinson is known for her ego making her the musical equivalent of Shannon Doherty. Departures from En Vogue and Lucy Pearl respectively to embark upon half-baked attempts at solo stardom have failed miserably in creative, commercial, and critical quarters. It makes me wonder about Robinson's angle to rejoin En Vogue. Is it out of actual aspiration to be with the group again or a final chance at limelight that being with En Vogue will bring?

Current
Bennett's experienced presence on En Vogue's last LP Soul Flower (2004) was welcome. Initially taking Maxine Jones place Bennett's  vocal  added a different nuance to En Vogue, but  fit into their style equally. When Jones did return Bennett stayed on, bringing En Vogue to quartet status. En Vogue who had spent most of their time as a trio seemed energized as a four-piece again. Their live shows the past three years are known for fans walking away appreciating how Bennett's look and sound factor into En Vogue perfectly.

Bennett also wants to be in En Vogue, not because it serves as a particular platform for her solo advancement, but because she genuinely enjoys being a member. Sadly, Rhona Bennett isn't Dawn Robinson and theirin lies the conflict. Due to this, most will prefer an original line-up to the new and improved one.


I've enjoyed En Vogue's trajectory, despite any commercial setbacks, they've continued to stay creative in their music and reinvent their approach. It's akin to 1970's era Supremes.

I hope that people can see beyond their nostalgia and acknowledge that latter day En Vogue has their own power. One could always hope that they could become a quintet. I can dream can't I?.-QH

 

Friday, June 27, 2008

Jody Watley's "Affection" Toward Independence

Jody Watley's departure from MCA Records in 1994, after seven years of recording there, can be viewed as a blessing in disguise. Watley was free to pursue (without interference) her creative paths into music. Watley set-up her own independent imprint Avitone Records and went about recording her fifth LP, Affection.

In her 1996 retrospective collection Jody Watley: Greatest Hits, Watley described her inventive passions, commercial frustrations, and possible fan confusion: "(There) had been a major change in my life...it reflected my evolution as a woman, an artist, and a writer who was still growing. Jheryl Busby* was gone, and I lacked someone at the record company who understood my vision, where I was trying to go. Every artist needs that. I was trying to capture the warmth of music from the '70's, to get more into that classic soul vein. The side of me influenced by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye was starting to come out, so it (Affairs of the Heart) wasn't as danceable as the previous two albums. I might have confused some fans."

In addition to pairing with producer Derrick Edmonson, an eclectic assemblage of musical talent gathered for Affection: Angelo Earl (acoustic & electric guitars), Dwight Sills, Morris O'Connor (acoustic guitar, guitar) Glenn "Arthur" McKinney (guitar, keyboards), Tory Ruffin (guitar), Lily Haydn (violin), Keith Crouch (strings, Moog synthesizer, drums), David Jackson (accordion), Rodney Lee (Fender Rhodes, keyboards), Dwight Sills (guitar), Stan Sargent, Felton Cole, Jr. (bass), Brannen Temple (drums), Dirk "Masta C" Brown (vinyl scratches), Yvette Cason and Tammy Sales (background vocals).

Affection had similar aims that Affairs of the Heart and Intimacy did by splicing retro and contemporary black music flairs. However, Affection was very terra firma in its R&B presentation as apparent in the striking sprawl of "The Ways (Parts 1 & 2)." Two movements, the first a sensual narrative, the second an instrumental free-for-all, merged into a conduit of heavy funk. Starting with a steady drum pop, the door was kicked down as Watley painted over the percussive force with the steamy lyric: "It's the way he moves it. Oh, you like the way he...funks."

Treks throughout Affection revealed the hazy and funked up reworking of "Together" from Intimacy as "(We Gotta Be) Together." It retained its Quiet Storm burn, but with the tempo knocked up a few notches. Still present as a songwriter there was "Faithful," its strength left the other ballads on the album as pretty, but ineffective next to Watley's plea of monogamy, understanding, and respect.

 Recorded live in 1994 at the Osaka Blue Note in Japan, a return to her first hit "Looking For a New Love" featured as a bonus track. Sexy and strong still, it was playful when Watley quipped "I kept the ring!" in this rendition. The title track, and lead single, started with Watley leaving a message for producer Derrick Edmonson detailing her ideas for the song: "Make it a little sexy, a little funky, you know a little Sade, a little James Brown, and a little Miss Jody Watley, and fill in the blanks." Watley then began to beatbox where Edmonson segued into sun bathed beat-bursts. Over this spunky R&B fantasy, Watley preached love beyond the physical, something a bit more spiritual, and that it didn't matter if you're "young or old, straight or gay." Watley, a staunch GLBT supporter, later recalled the initial heat served to her when "Affection" was shipped to black radio in 1995: “I encountered complaints because of the word "gay," I didn't write it as a marketing tool, I meant it. A black artist unafraid to promote tolerance. What a concept.”

Watley steadied on releasing the album on July 15th, 1995 with distribution handled by Bellmark Records. The record didn't relieve her prior commercial descent, but got a warm welcome from critics and fans. All Music Guide writer Jose F. Promis described Affection: "This is a fine, quality album, entirely undeserving of the fate it received."
The record landed on the U.S Billboard Top R&B/Hip Hop chart at #59, the title track single hit #28 on the U.S R&B singles side. The record didn't appear on the U.S Billboard 200 at all disappointingly.

 Watley continued to release albums to acclaim post-Affection: Flower (1998), Saturday Night Experience (1999), Midnight Lounge (2003), and The Makeover (2006). Affection offered a collection of stylized R&B thanks to Watley's attention to detail in her craft. It also cemented her status as the only "Lady of Progressive R&B" with another proud addition to her discography. Three and a half stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: *Jheryl Busby was one of the major executives at MCA Records during the mid-to-late 1980's and helped get Watley onto MCA.  Affection isn't in print but can be found at many used  or online music retailers for a decent price. For more current information on Jody Watley visit: Jody Watley Offical.-QH]

Monday, June 23, 2008

Looking Back at "The Love Movement" by A Tribe Called Quest

A Tribe Called Quest are one of the leading groups in hip-hop.. Emerging from the East Coast scene in 1990 with their fellow Native Tongues Collective (De La Soul, Monie Love, Queen Latifah, Prince Paul, Jungle Brothers, etc.) they blended intelligent and forward momentum rhymes with jazz/hip-hop fusion musical backdrops.

Q-Tip (Kamaal Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), and Ali Shaheed Muhammad released three records from 1990 through 1993 to critical, commercial, and creative acclaim: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991), and Midnight Marauders (1993). Those albums personified the jazz/hip-hop bybrid sound and became classics. In other words, any records coming after this "Tribe Trinity" were doomed to be deemed inferior because they weren't those albums.

Case and point with 1996's bleak, but brilliant Beats, Rhymes, and Life co-produced by the late, prolific J Dilla (James Dewitt Yancey). Trading in their plump, organic hybrids for a slender, sleek sound didn't resonate with everyone. In-fighting amongst the group also became a factor.

Ten years ago, September 29th 1998, Tribe's fifth album The Love Movement arrived to raised eyebrows. Production was handled by "The Ummah," a term for the three Tribesman and J Dilla and the group they had formed. On the first listen, The Love Movement steered the same lean wheel that drove Beats, Rhymes, and Life. Further inspection showed that a basic, skeletal groove acted as the foundation for subtle, but plentiful phonic treats.

Ali, Tribe's D.J., assisted Dilla in layering the razor sharp thump-bumps with an atmospheric membrane of broken dialogue and samples. Once concoted, the creations of Dilla and Ali were woven with care to churn and shift in and out of various song plateaus. The Love Movement functioned as a unified whole, a feast of hip-hop minimalism at its best.

Thematically, the confrontational tone from Beats, Rhymes, and Life was eagerly exchanged for an uplifting topic: love. Affection for the art of the emcee, life, and of course the general beast of love were handled in that classic and handsome Tribe flavor.

Starting with Tribe's love of hip-hop music you had the stuttering, shoulder popping opener "Start It Up" which banged with an attitudinal sneer. "Pad & Pen," a playful exchange of flow mastery between Phife and Tip, verse trade in a pendulum-like fashion swung casually back and forth. "Da Booty," an allusion to both treasure and one's derriere, a clattering party starter.

It was the area of relationships where Tribe shined in handling the matter and conveying another realm of excellence in their lyrical pace. The troubling duality of flirtation was examined on the lead single, the space-age fluidity of "Find a Way." Phife's detached hook, "Now you caught my heart for the evening, kiss my cheek, move in, you confused things. Now should I just sit out or come harder, help me find my way!" jumped into the maddeningly loquacious verbiage of Tip's verse attack. The narrative is nestled in the buoyancy of the track itself, with zig-zagging scratches that moved from one end of the cut to the other.

"Common Ground (Get It Goin' On)" stood out, finding the man as a victim in the claustrophobic confines of a woman who viewed a relationship as a one-way street. An interesting mixture of male sensitivity and swagger, without compromise for either one, was awesome. "Against the World,"  foreplay a la carte, Q-Tip tauntied his lady with an invite to "taste his lips," while he "unlaces his Nike's" to get ready for the deed.


"Find a Way"
Directed By: Paul Hunter



The record ran 15 cuts deep with original material, an additional six remixes of their classic material ("Oh My God," "Scenario," etc.)  placed at the tail of the record. Unneeded, but possibly Tribe's way of bidding their audience "adieu" with their impending break-up on the horizon with the release of this album. Only a few of the original cuts ("Steppin' It Up," "Rock, Rock Y'all") didn't quicken the musical heart. Majority of the songs barely rose over three minutes, hence The Love Movement's pace being smooth and clean.

The Love Movement met mixed critical and commercial attitudes, it managed modest returns it attained gold certification in the States. A Tribe Called Quest's last album is a tour de force of hip-hop artistry, despite any inner or outer turmoil. In this time, when most "dime bag" acts attempts to sport hip-hop minimalism, this Tribe album stands as an example of what hip-hop was and can be. Four stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: The Love Movement is still readily in print and easily found at any music retailer.-QH]

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Gloria Estefan's '98 "Gloria!" is Still Fly in '08

June 2nd, 1998 marked the return of Gloria Estefan as one of the reigning dance floor principals of her time.

Ten years ago Gloria! (1998) stormed onto the scene and still trips the light fantastic with its infectious fusion of disco, Latin, and dance styles. Looking back at the Gloria! project, it's apparent that youth is matter of subjectivity in the terms of sound. When youth is blended properly with the sophistication of age, it can make an intoxicating blend for the audiophile.


The History
After the platinum win of the compelling Destiny (1996) LP and its coinciding Evolution World Tour, Estefan wanted to rightfully celebrate what she had accomplished at that time in her career. The 1990's were spent scoring countless creative, critical, and commercial accolades. She would open the decade with her Into the Light (1991) album, born out of her tragic bus accident the year before. Her first retrospective came in 1992 with many platinum returns. In 1993 she broke down another barrier by releasing Mi Tierra ("My Homeland"), her first full-length traditional Spanish language album, and the first to be released on such a large scale platform. It remains one of the most successful tropical albums to date.

A covers project in English followed in 1994 with Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, and spun off two bursting renditions: Vicki Sue Robinson's "Turn the Beat Around" and Carl Carlton's "Everlasting Love." Another Spanish album came in 1995 with Abriendo Puertas ("Opening Doors").

Wielding the blade of the "A/C Ballad" well, Estefan also hadn't completely forsaken her dance floor roots. The single "You'll Be Mine (Party Time)" and the Tony Moran edit of the downtempo "I'm Not Giving You Up" had been dance chart hits and concert favorites. If anything, it showed Estefan that it was time to come home to "the rhythm" she had so coyly warned us about many years before.

The Record
Working in tandem with longtime songwriters/producers from her Miami Sound Machine days, Estefan conceptualized that her eighth record following Destiny would be a retrospective highlighting her best dance cuts with a few remixes added. This idea was dismissed as it seemed more ideal to just make a whole new album instead and so Gloria! was realized. The aforementioned production squad mobilized to begin work: Kike Santader, Tony Moran, Pablos Flores, Lawrence Dermer, Jorge Casas, and Estefan's husband Emilio. These men were key to the chemistry in classics such as "Conga" and "The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" that ranked as some of her finest early work. This time the salsa backbone and touches would be paired with retro disco strokes and current dance-pop alterations that were the rage at that time.

The Gloria! album is segued, lending it a breath-taking effect due to its pace. The record literally lifts the listener up and barely sets them down. Ten original songs were placed on the album along with five custom remixes (all were surprisingly solid), making the album a one-stop party shop.

Swinging open with the bittersweet taste of infidelity and unrequited love on "Heaven's What I Feel," Estefan gave a knock out performance.
The subject matter was sandwiched in a sublime melody and placed over a house-lite beat. Estefan worked the song from its midtempo frame that climaxed into the layered chorus.
Vocally, Estefan continually dazzled in the vivacious and pleading "Don't Let This Moment End." She glided in melancholy and desire over the ornate song structure without a problem. Giddy and enthused on the jubilant urban explosion of "Feelin," she added new dimension and color to the already vibrant arrangement displayed. The bilingual bang in "Oye!" stands as Estefan's spiciest performance to date. Two versions, the sleek chic album version and the raucous carnival of Pablos Flores' remix at the end of LP (in full Spanish), were wonders to behold.

The sumptuous balance between a classic Latin rhythm section and electronic programming took place on "Real Woman." The mesmeric synth stabs operated over a propulsive pound and then alternated with a pre-chorus chunky percussive break accentuated with punchy brass flavor.

Estefan fell under Wyclef Jean's tequila thrall on "Don't Release Me" long before Shakira confessed to him that her hips didn't lie. Jean opened the song as a smooth player who meets Estefan in a swank bar and has to persuade her that he isn't a "dealer from Havana." After a bit of sweet talking and an exchange of liquid seduction, Estefan surrendered to the sweetest "love hangover." As she purrs to not be released, the song grooves along before spilling into an ultimate stepping jam. The remix furthered the cool chemistry between the two.

The Impact
Gloria! was released in America on June 2nd, 1998, while most of the international market had received the LP in May. Estefan showcased the lead single "Heaven's What I Feel" with a backdrop of her other hits on VH-1 Divas Live. The show's maiden voyage featured Estefan as one of the headliners along with Aretha Franklin, Céline Dion, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey.



Gloria! gracefully landed at #23 on the U.S. Billboard 200, in England it placed higher at #16, and in Spain it dominated at #1. Four singles were released commercially from the album: "Heaven's What I Feel," "Oye!," "Don't Let This Moment End," and "Cuba Libre." Of the four in America, "Heaven" was the biggest hit, as it came in at #27 Pop. The remaining singles didn't impact on the U.S. Hot 100, but raged throughout the various U.S. and international dance charts in terms of airplay and singles sales. Overall, the Gloria! album would sell close to the near platinum end of gold with 500,000 copies. In America it marked Estefan's first non-platinum album but was considered a massive success critically and within its targeted dance music scene. In Spain, one of Estefan's major markets, the record reached platinum four times with 400,000 copies sold. In its last certification Gloria! (Spring 2001), it had shifted 2.2 million copies worldwide.

"Oye!"
Directed By: Gustavo Garzón


Estefan also secured several Grammy nominations: "Don't Let This Moment End" 1999 for "Best Dance Recording" and "Best Music Video Long Format" in 1999 for the DVD release of the videos from Gloria! entitled Don't Stop!. This album predated the American "Latin Explosion" by several months and was definitely of a higher caliber than the albums of that movement. It has been 10 years since Gloria Estefan donned her dance threads, she followed up with two more Spanish language albums and an organic English album, all were of course fantastic. Gloria! looked back and forward in equal measure and continues to shine and shimmer as a milestone for Gloria Estefan. Five stars out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: This album is still readily in print and was re-issued in 2007 with slightly altered packaging.-QH]

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Summer Season: Donna Summer's Pop Perfection

Disco diva. Black female vocalist. Pop figurehead. These titles are elements to a larger whole of an indomitable talent that is Donna Summer as a singer, songwriter, and performer.

Summer released her last full-length studio album in 1991; the muddled metropolitan groove set Mistaken Identity. Since then, Summer has rested on her laurels and released several nuggets of excellence such as “Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)” (1994), “I Will Go With You” (Con Te Partiro)” (1999), and “I’ve Got Your Love” (2005).  Each of these songs showed a fraction of the potential that a new Summer set could possess, though nothing materialized. Summer’s new album, Crayons, her 15th record to date, is a host to phonic reinvention while solidifying her uncanny skill in the realm of pop music.

The eclectic title was explained by Summer: “You take two colors and create other colors and you add a third color and there’s another color too. That’s how we are in life and that, to me, is a good indication for this album: feeling free to draw between the lines. Everybody gets crayons at some point in their lives, everybody can relate to the basics. It comes down to that child in us; I think there’s a commonality in the concept of Crayons.”

Summer handled her writing and vocal arranging with fellow collaborators JR Rotem (Jennifer Lopez), Lester Mendez (Jewel, Dido, Shakira), Greg Kurstin (Kylie Minogue, P!nk, Lily Allen), Danielle Brisebois (Kelly Clarkson), and Evan Bogart (son of Neil Bogart). These contemporary tunesmiths worked in tandem with Summer to construct vibrant exercises for her to work out.

The lead single and recent U.S.Dance Music/Club Play #1 “I’m A Fire” is a slice of arcane aural erotica. Unbridled rhythms and melodic flourishes bubble and swivel atop another, building a solid mid-tempo masterpiece. Summer’s voice brings across clever allusions to light and heat, making the song reach a fever pitch. By and large, it's classic Summer. Not since “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” has there been such a work of sensual genius from her. The flavorful burst of “Stamp Your Feet” wins for its insanely catchy chorus which buries itself into the listener subconscious without much effort.

That voice, which can truly sing anything, shows its versatility in the juicy tropicalia of “Drivin’ Down Brazil.” “Slide Over Backwards” takes a page from the Tina Turner “Nutbush City Limits” manual, as Summer works an almost unrecognizable take complete with gutter bucket harmonica and hand claps. Again, this vocal flexing found on Crayons is on par with the vocal menagerie heard on her The Wanderer LP (1980). In addition, “It’s Only Love” (a Circuit City exclusive featured only on their copy of Crayons) shimmers in its cool chrome finish, functioning solely as dance floor adrenaline to the system of any club kids in the vicinity of this song.

Summer stumbles on the awkward “The Queen Is Back” a bragging blunder that is unnecessary, even if its intentions were started with the tongue planted firmly in the cheek. The clumsy electro outfit of “Fame (The Game)” uses way too much of the swanky vocoder. It does sport an operatic bridge and breakdown, but by the time this is reached the listener will be questioning why Summer is even applying the vocoder to herself anyway.

Such is the double-edged sword of pop art; experimentation with faddish textures can sometimes go amiss. However, in this instance the sound Summer applied on this song is one she helped create, which can be easily forgiven even if she didn’t hit the intended mark. Her aptitude to dare regardless is brave.

How interesting that Donna Summer’s direct musical follower, Madonna, was nominated along with Summer for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year and released her album Hard Candy a month before Crayons. One could argue that Summer should’ve been placed into the Hall based on her musical impact alone, not to dispel Madonna’s worthiness of admission. But when comparing the pop qualities of both records, it becomes clear which one may have a catalog that will age better. While Madonna may have come close previously, she loses the battle due to the pop mistakes found within Hard Candy.

Summer’s confidence and time tested understanding of pop is that one must navigate trends, create them, adorn them shortly, but never be dominated by them. They are only musical sketches waiting to be finished by the more musically ambitious coloring of a virtuoso. Crayons holds true to these rules of the pop music genre, and by respecting them, the charismatic Summer will always be in season. Four out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: This article originally printed in the May 27th, 2008-June 4th, 2008 issue of the Dayton City Paper. For more information on Donna Summer, visit www.donnasummer.com-QH]

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Carly Simon's "This Kind of Love" Examined

Carly Simon's evocative pose on the front cover of her new album is the physical manifestation of her flirtacious thoughts on love and life. After four decades of recording, she's sure to have something on her mind. Her newest outing and 21st album thus far, This Kind of Love is Simon's first project of original material since The Bedroom Tapes (2000).

Self-indulgence has sometimes plagued Simon's best work and as the 1990's closed that self-indulgence peaked on The Bedroom Tapes. Startingly flat, the lyrics wanted to paint stories, but felt half finished. Two covers records, Moonlight Serenade (2005) and Into White (2007), came before This Kind of Love. Any worried of a Bedroom Tapes repeat or that Simon may have dulled will be surprised with this album colored in light, playful Latin-jazz rhythms.

Headed by the legendary Jimmy Webb and Frank Filipetti, This Kind of Love benefits from loose song structures and Simon's spiced voice. The title track starts the record on an earthy-erotic tip, Simon's voice strums the words as easily as a finger would grace a guitar. "Island," written by Simon's son Ben Taylor, is quiet with interlocking vocals between mother and son over a lulling rhythm.

The samba element comes in silkily on the celebratory "Hola Soleil" (complete with a choir backed chorus), "Sangre Dolche" smolders, and the soul-lite stance of "So Many People to Love" is a winner. The latter finds Simon's voice sincere over the contemporary track without feeling forced like "People Say A Lot," which would've been at home on the previously mentioned Bedroom Tapes.

A mixture of musical and emotional moods make this Simon's best entry since Letters Never Sent (1994) or Film Noir (1998), versus the All Music Guide comparison to the underrated gem Spy (1979).

However, one can see how and why Spy would be mentioned. Love employs the same jazz elements of Simon's post-folk, general pop embrace that made her records sonically intriguing during her brazen 1975-1983 period. Now, Simon's a bit older at 62 and her sound is lived in (i.e.-Letters Never Sent) unlike the experimental flavor characterized on Spy. Either way, Love fits right where it needs to, proving Simon an experienced expert on love and all its intricate difficulties. Four out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Visit www.carlysimon.com for more current information on Carly Simon.-QH]

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Creative Light of ABBA's "The Album"

By the time ABBA (Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad) reached their fifth LP, The Album (1977) these Swedes were already global phenoms. In 1974, they would win the hugely popular Eurovision Music Contest with their smash hit "Waterloo" from their second record of the same name, securing a skeptical British music audience and a U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 hit.

They'd continue to roll out creative and commercially acclaimed records with Abba (1975) and Arrival (1976) which were successful globally. The latter album really broke ABBA Stateside with the sparkling classic, "Dancing Queen." Andersson and Ulvaeus were the musical minds behind ABBA, but their works never would have shone as brightly without the melodic appeal of Agnetha and Frida's vocals. Until this point, ABBA had never been so adventurous on a single album.

The record was released on December 17th, 1977, conceived as a joint companion piece with the Lasse Halstrom directed mock-documentary ABBA the Movie. It also served as a springboard for Ulvaeus and Andersson to engage in their goal to make a musical. Three songs made it onto The Album that were made for "he Girl With the Golden Hair musical that detailed the successes and pitfalls of a young woman journeying to fame: "Thank You For the Music," "I Wonder (Departure)," and "I'm a Marionette.""Thank Your For the Music" originally not issued as a single, quickly became an ABBA mantra and a firm fan favorite. Agnetha's colorful, engaged vocalizing gave the song a sentimental disposition.

ABBA were also influenced by the sounds of American rock-pop groups Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles and went about mixing U.S. and European musical sensibilities to come up with something interesting. The results yieleded some of ABBA's strongest songs. The frolicsome punch of "Hole In Your Soul" was contagious with its juicy guitar licks and bouncy percussion. Agnetha and Frida joined together and worked in succession with the melody. Lyrically, the "music can solve your woes" perspective was taken as ABBA sang: "It's got to be rock 'n' roll to fill the hole in your soul." Rock purists surely guffawed at this notion coming from pop purveyors like ABBA, but the sentiment wasn't any less true.

On what could only be described as "Euro-R&B," "The Name of the Game," a strutting groove full of melancholy holds a special place in ABBA's history as one of two songs ABBA allowed to be sampled. ABBA has a strict "no sampling" rule, but when the (now-defunct) New York hip-hop outfit The Fugee's wanted to use the rhythm track from "Name," Ulvaeus and Anderrson were impressed by their knowledge of the song. They granted them permission making them, along with Madonna who tapped "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" for her international hit "Hung Up," the only two artists cleared to sample ABBA.

Additional highlights included the coquette charm of "Take a Chance on Me," a clever blend of American guitar and bass rhythms married with European melodies. The probing mystique of the opener "Eagle." an intense, dizzying affair, lifted listeners from their perch with strange charm.

The Album gained platinum returns in its intended international market, the record placed at either number one or within the Top 10 regions in many European countries including England, Sweden, Canada, and Australia amongst others.

Both singles "Take a Chance On Me" and "The Name of the Game" added to ABBA's already growing string of British number one singles. The Album achieved gold status in the States, with "Take a Chance on Me" becoming their most popular selling single there. To date, the record has been re-released twice: in 2001 with the rest of the ABBA discography, and 2007 with an additional disc of outtakes and non-album tracks.

"Take a Chance on Me"
Directed by: Lasse Halstrom


The Album was the last overtly "light hearted" record they'd create, something critics often used against ABBA. They pushed forward as pop artisans with sexier, starker, at times desolate themes with albums such as Voulez-Vous (1979), Super Trouper (1980), and The Visitors (1981). The shift in mood owed to the paired off couples within the group divorcing, making the songwriting poignant and the recording sessions tenser. Yet, the music evolved into a richer pop tapestry.

On the whole, The Album was the perfect ABBA record at that junction. Their brand of story telling and (at times) quirky Swede pop appeal had finally been honed to near perfection. Five out of five stars.-QH

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

"Victoria Beckham": Looking Back

In October of 2001, Victoria Beckham was released. It was the last of three solo Spice Girl records to come forth that year, a collection of pop dusted in sophisticated, urban-lite diamante. It proved that Victoria Beckham was more than a pouting glamour puss and beneath her cool gaze was musical potential.

While it never reached the successes of her former band mates solo endeavors, Victoria Beckham has held up seven years later as a proper pop album. It also is a portrait of an avenue that wasn't truly taken, it showed Beckham doing what brought her to fame initially: being a fantastic pop star.

The History
Beckham first embarked on her solo journey with Dane Bowers and The Truesteppers on "Out of Your Mind" (U.K. #2) the year prior. The hectic two-step cut was released a few months before the third (and final) Spice Girls LP, Forever (2000). Forever demonstrated that Beckham's range as a pop singer had expanded. Her congenial champagne vocals were more potent, strengthened by the two previous years of live touring with the Spice Girls. After the diminutive triumph of Forever and a quiet dismantling of the group, Beckham began writing for her soon to be self-titled record.

The Record
Beckham often stated that she was more influenced by the soul sounds of Toni Braxton and Janet Jackson. The producers and writers collected to work with Beckham sought to bring her sensible, English pop perspective to a level urban mode.

Steve Kipner and Andrew Frampton (collectively Sonic Graffiti), Harvey Mason Jr. (from the Darkchild fold), Soulshock & Karlin, and Dane Bowers were the individuals who worked over the Victoria Beckham project. Beckham herself wrote, or co-wrote,11 of the 12 tracks found on the LP. Lyrically, the songs painted Beckham as a stylish maven from "round the way." Whether or not this was believable was a matter of musical taste, but she pulled it off without any hitches mostly.

The album, with the exception of the drab "Unconditional Love" and "Watcha Talkin' Bout," was a superb vision of musical clarity in bringing across the sound and feel Beckham and said collaborators wished for. Stately attitude was exacted keenly on the lead single "Not Such An Innocent Girl." Vocally, it came off as a strong, not overwrought, nimble slice of pop.

The coruscating swiftness of "Midnight Fantasy" revealed further phonic layers upon each subsequent listen. Metropolitan pop jabs in the form of the spry "Like That" and fresh flashiness in "I Wish" held the listeners attention. The smooth-spoken love token of "A Mind of Its Own" flowed into the grandeur of "I.O.U." beautifully, Beckham's balladeer abilities proved capable. As a whole, the album had many more hits than misses.

The Impact
Released through Virgin Records, Beckham's home as a Spice Girl, the album was met with mixed to positive reviews in the U.K. music press. If anything, it seemed that critics didn't care for Beckham as a celebrity and took that bias to the record. Spice Girls fans were generally pleased with the outcome of the final product, the record placed at #10 on the U.K. Album Chart. It went on to move 52,016 copies in Britain overall, a commercial roadblock to be sure. More would be made over the supposed "chart battle" between Beckham and fellow Blend favorite, Kylie Minogue. Minogue herself was enjoying a commercial resurgence with her Light Years (2000) album and gained additional ground with the release of the modern pop classic, "Can't Get You Out of My Head." Both "Head" and "Girl" would go toe to toe as Minogue and Beckham blazed through huge promotional shows and appearances. Despite Beckham's best efforts, Minogue's "Head" took the pole position (#1) while "Girl" slinked into the tasteful Top 10 realm (#6) on the U.K. Singles Chart.


The second, and final, single came with the soft "A Mind of Its Own" in early 2002. Even with the critically lauded acoustic performances Beckham did for promotion, it placed at the exact same position her previous single did. While the album secured two successful Top 10 hits, Virgin felt Victoria Beckham hadn't moved enough copies. Retained as a Spice Girl, Victoria was released as a solo artist from her contract.

 Her impending, second pregnancy also hastened her exit. Signing to the Universal Records subsidiary Telstar Records, her comeback single, the double A-Side "Let Your Head Go" and "This Groove" dropped in at #3 on the U.K. Singles Chart. "This Groove" had a chorus sampled from the System classic, "Don't Disturb This Groove." One song continued in the same sound direction of her solo record, while "Let Your Head Go" mined a general  dance formula. The single gave Beckham the distinction of being the only Spice Girl solo without a number one single, but the only one with all her singles placing within the Top 10 in the U.K.

Likely crestfallen with the lack of sales success with her debut, her second album was shelved indefinitely. Some of the songs have leaked, making their way onto other Victoria Beckham related projects (The Real Beckhams DVD), or have been covered by another artist. Beyoncé landed the song "Resentment," an outtake from Beckham's aborted second player, for her album B-Day (2006).

"Not Such An Innocent Girl"
Directed By: Jake Nava



Known for being a singer first than a fashionista or model, Beckham donned her poppy stilettos for The Return of the Spice Girls Tour and greatest hits record, which I saw February 6th, 2008 in New York City. Beckham displayed her vocal and dance skills, but when her solo turn came during the show, she choose to work the runway instead of the mic. As a longtime U.S. Spice Girls enthusiast, I experienced Victoria Beckham, pre-Youtube, through digital and imported means. I've seen her offer her best musically, and while doubtful now, I hope she may show others this side of herself more in the not too distant future. Three and a half stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: This is an import record which is still in print. It retails between $16-22. It is also available now through the American iTunes website.-QH]