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]


S. Flemming said...

I'm sure I will pick this up eventually. I like what I've heard so far. I was actually playing her the other day and thought about this.

RhythmicSoul said...

i listened to the entire record and u kno my feelings on it, i love it and pretty much ditto everything uve said...Im nowhere near a fan or even a follower of her work like u are, but i dug the album..may have to add it tot he collection