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 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.

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]