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]

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 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]