Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What If? The Vanessa Williams Dream Compilation

Vanessa Williams, known for her multi-tasking approach as a singer, actress, and model. Yet the versatility of her music makes Williams a fantastic. Not since Diana Ross have we had a singer that could span jazz, pop, and R&B so effortlessly and effectively.

Unfortunately, Williams' music seems to be misplaced in the limbo of a cult following today. Shifting a respectable amount of records has allowed Williams to make music, even if her other entertainment endeavors overshadow it.

Her first official collection The First Ten Years (1998) only skimmed the surface of Williams' work. On that set there are several missing key singles from her first four studio albums. As with most singers from the late 1980's and early 1990's, Williams achieved placement on a variety of musical charts:
Adult Contemporary, Pop, R&B, and Dance.  Excluding her two Christmas records, Williams followed her compilation with her first "standards" record Everlasting Love (2005).

There is plenty of material in Williams' backlog to be covered on a newly minted "best of" collection at this point. Also, with her continually flourishing acting career, a cross-pollination of audiences could introduce her work to an entirely new generation. I've imagined, and hope that her former labels (Wing, Mercury, and Lava) will too eventually, an improved compilation of her major hits and lesser known songs.

Split into two parts: "The Grooves" and "The Slow Jams," everything is showcased properly.
I initially went for chronological order, but figured that mixing it up would strengthen how Williams' work has held up in quality despite the passing of any musical trend or production values. The songs that are included here will be in the single edit forms as played on radio.

The Grooves
"The Comfort Zone" (from The Comfort Zone, 1991)
"The Way That You Love" (Single Edit) (from The Sweetest Days, 1994)
"Everlasting Love" (from Everlasting Love, 2005)
"Work to Do" (from The Comfort Zone, 1991)
"The Right Stuff" (from The Right Stuff, 1988)
"Running Back to You" (from The Comfort Zone, 1991)
"Happiness" (Single Edit) (from Next, 1997)
"(He's Got) The Look" (from The Right Stuff, 1988)
"Who Were You Thinkin' 'Bout?" (from Next, 1997)
"Betcha Never" (from The Sweetest Days, 1994)

The Slow Jams
"Dreamin'" (from The Right Stuff, 1988)
"Just For Tonite" (Single Edit) (from The Comfort Zone, 1991)
"What Do I Tell My Heart?" (from The Comfort Zone, 1991)
"Love Is" with Brian McKnight (from Beverly Hills 90210 Soundtrack, 1993)
"Darlin' I" (from The Right Stuff, 1988)
"You Are Everything" (from Everlasting Love, 2005)
"Where Do We Go From Here?" (from The First Ten Years, 1998)
"You Can't Run" (from The Sweetest Days, 1994)
"Oh, How the Years Go By" (from Next, 1997)
"The Sweetest Days" (from The Sweetest Days, 1994)
"Colors of the Wind" (from Pocahontas Soundtrack, 1995 )
"Save the Best For Last" (from The Comfort Zone, 1991)

Considering how some record labels shamelessly cash in on singers when it is viable, this is project could be awesome if done correctly. With the right amount of care, love, research (liner notes and pictures) a Vanessa Williams retrospective would satisfy her longtime fans and her newly won ones.-QH

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stronger Than Promise: Examining Sade

Who isn't familiar with the international soul of Sade? Gliding into the collective ears of audiophiles with the classic "Smooth Operator" from their debut album Diamond Life
(1984), Sade has maintained a consistent level of sensuality, emotion, and musicality.

The mingling of detached vocals with a smattering of world music and soul styling has made the name Sade synonymous with glamor. Their music also tends to lean toward social commentating. Four individuals make up the Sade experience: Sade Adu on vocals, Andrew Hale on keyboards, Stuart Matthewman on saxophone and guitar, and Paul S. Denman on bass guitar. This particular post is about two albums: Promise (1985) and Stronger Than Pride (1988). Both of these records would spin off the consummate singles that are staples on Quiet Storm, A/C, and "muzak" playlists everywhere, both have a similar thematic feel, yet they elicit different feelings in fans and commentators alike.

Promise (1985)
Home to the "condition of the heart" archetype "The Sweetest Taboo," Promise built on the world-jazz mooring of its predecessor Diamond Life. Unlike the loose, progressive lipstick jams of that record, Promise was slightly overwrought.  The group remained professionally apt in their skills, but the songs lingered too long with music that wasn't as complex as it wished it was.

An example would be "Maureen." It began well before it puddled into indulgence with bloated brass and an arrangement that aimed high and landed low. Sade herself seemed disinterested, more than her usual distance if possible to be fair. All isn't lost however in the lush rush of the Promise singles and the beautiful conflict of "You're Not the Man." It has to be said that a slew of great singles and two album cuts does not a great record make. If anything, the world must have been charmed enough to overlook the flat sounds and slightly recycled lyrical content that shot for more, but stopped at "okay."

Stronger Than Pride
Opening with the delicate stillness of the title track, Stronger Than Pride was the real follow-up to their assured debut. Offering up another run of hit singles and sales, the record drew up complaints interestingly. The criticism was set on the fact that Sade,  known for their live instrumentation, "dared" to use programmed drums on several tracks. Despite this ridiculous claim, Stronger Than Pride is a tighter, focused set of songs.

The sweet and salty desire of "Paradise" and the rending story teller of "Clean Heart" staged how this record had a free form position, but with forward momentum missing on Promise. This momentum is heard on "Turn My Back," a sly song that utilized the "dreaded" drum programming. If anything, the live and electronic elements made a subtle amalgam of sound.

Stronger Than Pride succeeded where Promise didn't by not equating long, jazz tinted bores with actual innovation and emotion. Stronger Than Pride stepped (slightly) out of Sade's comfort zone and kept enough of their own classic approach to have dual appeal.

"Nothing Can Come Between Us" from Stronger Than Pride
Directed By: Sophie Muller

Both of these records have their place and were resounding successes commercially, even if one unfortunately received larger critical praise than the other. Sade continued to deliver more evocative music on the following records Love Deluxe (1992) and Lovers Rock (2000). Hopefully, we'll be hearing from Sade sooner than later.-QH

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Under Common's Spell

Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., better known as hip-hop intelli-hunk Common, is quite the spellcaster when it comes to his music. Common's fluid verbal cascade and jazz/soul backdrops mean Common is for the flavorful ear.

Unlike some of the brutish sounds of modern rap, Common's music is a portrait to his struggle with himself and the world around him. This journey has allowed others to empathize with him and capture a loyal following in and out of hip-hop music.

Common appeals to me due to his unique cerebral groove and how it stimulates in its subtle, but constant progression. I've currently gathered the following LP's from Common's discography: One Day It'll All Make Sense (1997), Like Water For Chocolate (2000), Electric Circus (2002), Be (2005), Finding Forever (2007). I am currently still digging through Be, and that leaves Can I Borrow a Dollar? (1992) and Resurrection (1994) to complete my collection. Here are my thoughts about these records.

One Day It'll All Make Sense (1997): Brushed with the rugged charm that is said to characterize much of his earlier work, this record has a lean, and spiky funk tone. The samples here are used well, but emphasis is placed on the beat and the lyrical dexterity is at the forefront.

This allowed Common's urban folklore to come to life vividly. Referencing his own, at that time, impending fatherhood there is a slight vulnerability that rounds off some of the abrasiveness. Random Favorite Cut: "Real Nigga Quotes"

Like Water for Chocolate (2000): This record was the bridge between the polished hoodlum wit of Common's Relativity Records work and his signing with MCA Records. The loose "Questions" sits well with the familiar hardened bite of "Doonit," and "The Light" has since become a Common classic.

Jazzy, almost ambient at times, this record foreshadowed the lyrical and compositional stance taken on the following three albums. Random Favorite Cut: "Questions"

Electric Circus (2002): This record was the experimental detour that either was praised or panned. It is significant that it saw Common incorporating other genre elements (rock, electronica, etc.) into his jazzy-hip-hop hybrids. The visceral "Electric Wire Hustler Flower" is hypnotizing in its strike, "Soul Power" skitters along the ears quickly and almost creepily.

 For me, Common hit the mark on this album with three songs in particular: "Come Close (with Mary J. Blige) a hip-hop valentine, "Star 69" a sensuous erotica piece, and "Between Me, You, & Liberation" the stunning story piece of three completely different people. In one of the stories, Common's friend's revealed to him that he is gay. Common not only managed to embrace his best friend, but actually is honest about his own homophobia and dealt with it. This showed that hip-hop has far more heart than given credit for. Random Favorite Cut: "Between Me, You, & Liberation"

Finding Forever (2007): Coming after the success of Be (2005), Finding Forever is Common's finest album to date. There is a calm confidence that permeated this record, from the dramatic opening of "Start the Show" to the staccato head nod inducing "Break My Heart."

The production is mostly handled by Kanye West who helps ground some of Common's most intriguing lyrical tales in smartly guided and sampled hooks. This was the first Common record I bought and still remains my personal favorite of all the albums mentioned. Random Favorite Cut: "Break My Heart"

Common represents at its heart what hip-hop music is meant to represent to the world: intelligence, musicality, expression, honesty, and growth.-QH

Saturday, April 5, 2008

"Surprise, Surprise," Céline Dion is All Heart on New LP

After three decades in song (English and French), Dion's album Taking Chances (2007) showed that Dion couldn't be hampered by any change in the musical landscape. That change being that the diva friendly skies of the 1990's, ruled by the triumvirate of Dion, Houston, and Carey, was no longer as fair to singers of that ilk.

Dion's voice, a precise tool that could cut through the coldest hearts and drove home a slew of classic pop, could sometimes be her worst enemy. It finally slips into adventurous territory on Taking Chances by marrying her technique with more subtle emotional texture.

Dion worked with a range of producers on this effort: Peer Astrom and Anders Bagge (Janet Jackson, Madonna), Christopher "Tricky" Stewart (Mary J. Blige), John Shanks (Alanis Morrisette, Sheryl Crow), Linda Perry (P!nk, Christina Aguilera), Ben Moody (formerly of Evanescence), and Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame). I'm sure some of the folks mentioned have eyebrows raised, fear not. This is still Dion's adult contemporary pop trade, but it steps out a bit more, without the cloying after effects from previous sonic experiments.

Dion rode the urgency of "Shadow of Love" with bite and passion, while the snake-like "Eyes On Me" dealt a smokier, Middle Eastern hand. Dion on the title track is brisk, her nuance and inflection in great form. "Right Next to the Right One" and "Skies of L.A." stand as the two achievements on Taking Chances by being grounded in vulnerability and restraint.

But what of vintage Dion you ask? Look no further than the diva posture of "That's Just the Woman in Me" or the confidant swell of "Surprise, Surprise" where Dion offers herself to the adult contemporary firestorm in the latter mentioned track. Thematically, it is all affirmation, conflicted evenings without the one you love, and self-love musings. By this point Dion has her lyrical niche, that shouldn't change, if anything it has truly become believable.

"Taking Chances"
Directed By: Paul Boyd

Dion taking a "less is more" position helped her make a record that was interesting without compromising what a Céline Dion record is. Four out of five stars.-QH