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]

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 BeyoncĂ© 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.