Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Best of Jennifer Lopez-Blend Style

Jennifer Lopez walked into the popular music sphere 10 years ago, consolidating her multi-entertainer platform in the process. Piggy backing on the "Latin Explosion" of 1999, Lopez's well-crafted pop drew detractors and fans.

Lopez's stream of pop perk shared the steamy "Waiting For Tonight," the bounce of "Play," and swagger drenched "Jenny From the Block." There were missteps along the way in the unnecessary hip-hop makeovers of "I'm Real" and "Ain't It Funny," and the faceless "Let's Get Loud." Her first serious stab at credibility on 2002's This is Me...Then was rounded out on 2007's ambitious outings: Como Ama Una Mujer and Brave. Those albums demonstrated Lopez's growing affinity for consistent, mature, but engaging pop. Her voice, subject of criticism, also had marked improvement and allure. This year, Lopez is preparing her first retrospective and presenting that her music will be around for the long haul. It's rumored to premiere some time next month. Best of collections have become diluted marketing efforts in the recent years, but there is a statement made with a "greatest hits." It represents longevity and strength and Jennifer Lopez has managed to earn her keep (hits) to have one for herself.

By picking up the gauntlet fellow dance-pop predecessor Paula Abdul laid down in 1995, Lopez married video and music easily. Even without her videos, her music exhibited pop chameleon tendecies: dance, ballads (Spanish and English), nu-disco, hip-hop-lite, etc. The pacing and selection for this occasion must be just so. No single should be left out, as she has been housed on Epic Records throughout her recording tenure. Her major and minor hits all have audiences, below is what should be considered for inclusion.

1. "Jenny From the Block" w/ Jadakiss and Styles P
2. "If You Had My Love" (Video version)
2. "Play" (Single Edit)
5. "Get Right" (Single Edit)
6. "Love Don't Cost a Thing" (Video version)
7. "Que Hiciste"
8. "I'm Glad" (Video version)
9. "Feelin' So Good" (Video version)
10. "I'm Real" (Video version)
11. "I'm Real" (Murder Inc. Remix) w/ Ja Rule
12. "All I Have" w/ LL Cool J
13. "Hold You Down" w/ Fat Joe
14. "No Me Ames" (Ballad version) w/ Marc Anthony
15. "Me Haces Falta"
16. "Ain't It Funny"
17. "Ain't It Funny" (Murder Inc. Remix) w/ Ja Rule & Cadillac Tah
18. "Alive"
19. "Baby I Love You"
20. "Hold It Don't Drop It"
21. "I'm Gonna Be Alright" (Trackmasters Edit) w/ Nas
22. "Do It Well"
23. "Waiting For Tonight"

Overall, Ms. Lopez's best of should be an affair that will cause conversation, that will favorably discuss a body of work that has held up better than anticipated.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information on Jennifer Lopez visit: http://www.jenniferlopez.com/ -QH]

Monday, January 12, 2009

Carly Simon: '75-'83

Carly Simon has always been unique, even among her fellow folk rockers and poppers. Entering her fourth decade in music, Simon's longevity isn't shocking. Coming to prominence in the early 1970's Simon, with Carole King and Joni Mitchell, upheld the Venus aspect to a normally a male dominated artform.

It became apparent as the decade wore on that Simon's abilities simply couldn't be confined to one genre. Beginning in 1975 with Playing Possum, Simon started a creative pop stretch that lasted until 1983. Simon embraced everything and anything: jazz, R&B-lite, new wave, standards, reggae, and even a little dance too. Allied with some of the best in music, Simon navigated the murky waters of popular music with ease and poise.

Playing Possum (1975)
Produced by: Richard Perry

The last Perry produced record, until Moonlight Serenade (2005), was something of a critical and commercial misfire then. Many felt Simon had lost the energy with Perry that she had on No Secrets (1972) and Hotcakes (1974). This wasn't at all true, Possum had a stronger sense of tasteful eroticism around its sound and execution. The guitar, still present, undercut the softer instrumentation used to highlight Simon's singing.

"After the Storm" made apparent the intentions of Possum to seduce and charm. Whether wanting to "rub limes on my body and smell like the West Indies" on "Look Me in the Eyes" or jumping into the proto-disco of "Attitude Dancing," Possum was dually relaxed and insistent.

Another Passenger (1976)
Produced By: Ted Templeman

The East Coast lady went West on this sunny and slick excursion courtesy of Mr. Ted Templeman. The saloon style rock fashioned on "Riverboat Gambler" and "One Love Stand" gave Passenger a friendly and fun presence. Other stars of Passenger included Simon's brazen rock entry "It Keeps You Runnin'," the afternoon breeze of "He Likes to Roll," and the sonic cinema  of "Libby." A truly "western" pop affair, Passenger delighted in its shape-shifting gifts.

Boys in the Trees (1978)
Produced by: Arif Mardin

An intoxicating combination of jazz and folk, Boys in the Trees peered backward to elements of Simon's work preceding Playing Possum. At the same time, Simon didn't stop her musical momentum which epitomized the two records prior to Boys. Known for the spicy Simon classic "You Belong to Me," there were other songs along for the ride: "Back Down to Earth," "Haunting," "Tranquillo (Melt My Heart)," and the evergreen titular track. Boys In the Trees became a triumph thanks to Simon and Mardin's dynamic wizadry.

Spy (1979)
Produced by:  Arif Mardin

Abandoning the partial folk from Boys in the Trees for an adult pop print exclusively, Spy thrilled. Simon's crisp, colorful singing topped the string and piano flourishes, thus the album breathed a decandent air. Mardin returned to assist Simon in her organic, revelatory stories like the desolate "We're So Close," the searing "boys against girls" battle of "Vengenace," and the expansive "Never Been Gone." Barring the lyrically obtuse, if groovy, "Memorial Day" that closed Spy, the rest of the album captivated.

Come Upstairs (1980)
Produced by:  Mike Mainieri

The 1980's were rough for many acts from the 1970's, genres aside. Simon eased through the transition with no problem due to her earlier adapting skills. Sporting an uptempo rock surface, Come Upstairs held Simon's most personal songs at that time. She chose Mike Mainieri for her new wave-lite makeover evident in the title track, a kicking number full of claps and synthesized pops. The sinewy fabric of "Stardust" stood next to the familiar sound treading in "Jesse" well.

The best came in the sharp edges of love betrayed on "James" and "In Pain," the latter quietly exploded into an emotional frenzy.  The release of anthemic urgency in "Take Me As I Am" was a declarative statement of self-love. A bold movement from Simon, proving that her eye was still on the high road in terms of how she viewed her art.

Torch (1981)
Produced by: Mike Mainieri

Released after her divorce from singer/songwriter husband James Taylor, Torch was a study in the fine art of heartbreak. Turning, for the first time, to the American songbook she used past pop gems to channel her experiences. Mainieri dramatically moved out of the new wave kinetics of Come Upstairs to a blanket of orchestral instrumentation to back Simon. Her voice, a bottomless well of frustration, hope, and confusion, made Torch burn on her gentle take of "I'll Be Around," to the sole-original track "From the Heart." Torch ended up the first of many covers projects for Simon, but this LP was the best of the batch.

Hello Big Man (1983)
Produced by: Mike Mainieri

After Torch, and before she completed this project, Simon scored a U.K. Top 10 hit in 1982 with "Why." The song was produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic fame. Possibly wanting to rekindle the pop hues of SpyHello Big Man, like Boys in the Trees before it, combined the best of contemporary pop in 1983 and her past glories.

Mainieri handled the production for a third time, completing another great set for Simon. It opened with the ghostly "You Know What to Do," elsewhere additional production guests (Sly & Robbie of Compass Point fame) worked with Simon on her sublime tackling of Bob Marley's "Is This Love?" "Menemsha" and "It Happens Everyday" were established knock outs for those looking for Simon of old. Recently reissued, first digitally and then on CD in 2008, Hello Big Man capped off Simon's inventive streak on a high.

Looking at the changes followers like Jewel and Sheryl Crow made, one notices the impact Carly Simon has had in terms of genre confined artists aspiring to venture outward. Simon is the best example of where a little curiosity will take you.-QH

[Editor's Note: All of these albums are in print. Check local music retailers and online music outlets for details. For more current information on Miss Simon, visit http://www.carlysimon.com/ -QH]

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Pat Benatar's Pop Exotica: "Tropico"

Grandiosity is the essence of Tropico (1984), Pat Benatar's fifth studio recording. The album signified a departure for the rock vocalist. With In the Heat of the Night (1979), Pat Benatar surged forth with a metallic sex appeal instantly setting her own mold as an early MTV staple in the process. By 1982, the role had become suffocating for Benatar, as she herself would confess many times over. This suffocation showed on the uninspired new wave sputtering of the Get Nervous album. Clearly aspiring for an artistic out, she found it on the classic "Love is A Battlefield," from her Live From Earth LP (1983). The song was tough, but carried a plush pop range heretofore that she'd never shown.

Benatar's beginnings in music were classical, she had to learn how to sing the sharp edges of rock 'n' roll later.  That alone professed Benatar had ambition beyond the Top 40 rock format which had boxed her in. With her guitarist-husband Neil Giraldo and her stalwart band Charlie Giordano (keyboards), Roger Capps and Ronnie Nossov (bass), Myron Grombacher (drums), Tropico was forged. Production duties were split between Giraldo and Peter Coleman, with the songwriting duties handled by Benatar, Giraldo, Coleman, and her band members.

A cornucopia of lyrics, vocal readings, and song arrangements, Tropico was designed to bring across "shades" rather than "blasts." Said "blasting" had been a characteristic of Benatar's prior work. The "shading" placed emphasis on the intricacy of the song, versus its power, meaning everything was situated perfectly. At this period for Benatar, it was a step forward into musical maturity.

Epic aural movements such as "Painted Desert" and "Outlaw Blues" were deep, folkloric tales with diverse productions that looked to warm, gypsy-like guitar-pop not heard in the traditional power ballads of the day. Benatar gave solid performances throughout, alive and aware of the material. She walked through echoing sonic hallways and soothed any appearance of a frantic guitar cry. It was not all demure water colors though, Benatar managed the uptempo "Temporary Heroes" with its interesting use of drum loops. The dark and winding "Diamond Field" was a production fascination with is multi-dimensional vocal splicing. The swing blues explosion in the "Ooh Ooh Song" kicked ass in the classic Benatar vein. The "Ooh Ooh Song" sported a meaty guitar lick that segued into a cutesy keyboard riff, Benatar then dressed the song with tangy, but authoritative charm.onsidered the first blue-print for her blues experiment a decade later with her True Love (1991) record, it somehow worked. "We Belong," in its shimmering glory, calls this record home, but Tropico's best moments are the lesser known singles and album cuts.

"Painted Desert"
Directed By: Chris Gabrin

The record returned modest platinum sales and did well with critics, but it divided fans. Pat Benatar gained a creative threshold that many of her contemporaries did not with this long player. Over 20 years later Tropico's exotic refreshment quenches the thirst for those looking for a different kind of excitement. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Tropico has long since been out of print and goes for a fair, if at times overpriced amount on Amazon used. eBay or a local used or indepedent record store would be the best place to find a copy. For more current information on Pat Benatar, visit http://www.benatar.com -QH]

Monday, January 5, 2009

Diana Ross Revisited in '08 (and '09?)

Hip-O-Select is reaching back and reaching out to touch on Diana Ross' work.
Initially, this resurrection began two years earlier with Motown unearthing the Blue LP in 2006. Recorded during the Lady Sings the Blues era of Ross' career, the collection of intimate Billie Holiday readings laid unreleased. Upon being unveiled, praise by critics and fans alike ensued. Hip-O-Select took it to the next level in 2007 with Ross' seventh LP Last Time I Saw Him (1973), which was the first time the record had been issued on disc in America.

This year, both her second and third LPs respectively, Everything Is Everything (1970) and Surrender (1971) were reissued. As before with Last Time I Saw Him, this was the first time her second and third solo LPs would be issued on CD in the States. Only several other key Motown LPs by Ross are left to be reapproached, among them Diana Ross (1976) and Baby, It's Me, (1977). Hip-O-Select will hopefully breathe life into them as well. With this milestone for Ross, it made me think of a particular review by Ron Wynn of All Music Guide. Wynn made an often inaccurate, but popular sentiment of Ross' recorded output on his review of Surrender:

A nice early-'70s date from Diana Ross, who at that time was unaffected by her diva/show business persona and was sticking to singing. She turned in effective, unadorned, soulful leads on several songs, with the title tune cracking the R&B Top 20 and pop Top 40. Ross would later turn to a more exaggerated, self-conscious, mock-sophisticate style, but on her early Motown albums, she retained the mix of innocence, anguish, and sexiness that made her a legendary vocalist.

Diana Ross has always had a level of showy schmaltz, clearly enjoyable enough during her Supremes days. Evidence of this can be seen and heard in The Supremes' performance of "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" on The Andy Williams Show dated January 22nd, 1967.* Included are the sequins, coif, and spoken word ethos that would string throughout Ross' entire career. Her sincerity has always shone through, and no gown or glitz could deny her emotional relevance or depth.

The point is that Ross' overall discography is just beginning to get its due now, despite such unfortunate assumptions like those of Mr. Wynn.Not unlike her contemporaries Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Donna Summer, and Chaka Khan, Ross' discography tends to be dissected in clusters or periods, from there it is stated that Ross' records lose something after 1973 or 1980. Clearly erroneous, this overview must be remedied through immersion in her entire recorded output versus select entries.

Upon initial release, despite a few commercial bright spots in the singles, the recently reissued batch from her early years were deemed commercial disappointments. Yet, the obvious jazz oriented soul-pop fare from Everything Is Everything cannot be resisted. Her first U.K. chart topper "I'm Still Waiting" is a study in Ross' interpretative elegance, only perfected with time. The smooth, effortless flirtation of "Baby, It's Love" is sexy. She's funky on The Beatles classic "Come Together," guiding the musical hurricane of funk with ease. The definitely more soul steeped Surrender yielded its treasures in the showstopping title track. She brought angst and life to the moody of "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel For You," or the underappreciated "Reach Out, I'll Be There." The twinkling innocence of "I'll Settle For You," the type of song that only Diana Ross could express, none of her previously mentioned contemporaries could manifest the same magic.

Not that Diana Ross' work is without failure, it has its spotty moments, the mark of an interpreter.   2009 should bring more Ross remasters for the remainder of the few Motown records she has left. Another CD issue of her classic debut wouldn't hurt either, as it is becoming scarce on CD just seven years after its 2002 issue. Acquaint yourselves to the stylish, but affirming sounds of Diana Ross.-QH

[Editor's Note: *That performance is available on the domestic DVD release of "The Supremes: Reflections: The Definitive Performances 1964-1969," Everything Is Everything and Surrender available via http://www.hiposelect.com/, Amazon, iTunes, and your local indepedent record retailers.-QH]

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sex Cymbal: Sheila E.'s Sound Examined

 Sheila Escovedo tore into her first drum solo at five years old as a last minute substitute for Azteca's Pete "Coke" Escovedo, her father. Pulled by her calling, Ms. Escovedo adorned records as a percussionist for acts like Lionel Ritchie, Diana Ross, George Duke, and Stevie Wonder. It was in 1978 where she met the enigmatic funk force, Prince. Sheila Escovedo would become "Sheila E." and release her first solo LP, Sheila E. in the Glamorous Life in 1984 under Warner Brothers Records.

The lead single "The Glamorous Life" is a classic. This portion of the lore people know and aren't aware of anything else about Ms. Escovedo. Like that Escovedo is not only a singer and percussionist, but an arranger, songwriter, dancer and all around entertainer.

Here at The Blend, I've always enjoyed Sheila E., and have started pouring through her musical works to discover a range of sounds. It's my pleasure to share my three favorite Sheila E. LPs, of the overall six, that she has released from 1984 through 2001.

Sheila E. 1986
Ms. Escovedo's third album with Warner Brothers, and second under Prince's own minor label Paisley Park, was a voracious variety. Written, produced, and arranged by Escovedo, in conjunction with David Z. (brother of Revolution drummer Bobby Z.), the self-titled junior set mixed Minneapolis funk and other intriguing edges.

The opening explosion "One Day (I'm Gonna Make You Mine)" was full of dippy percussive work. Escovedo sang through the labyrinthine groove with kittenish aplomb. The dance steam rose higher with the Sign 'O' the Times flavored "Koo Koo" and  instrumental flair on "Soul Salsa." Excursions outside of the atypical Minneapolis field included the adult prettiness of "Hold Me" and the rock rave-up "Faded Photographs."  Escovedo was one of the few acts associated with Prince who was an artist in her own right. Taking to his sound didn't stop her from bringing her style to the fore.

Sex Cymbal 1991
After touring with Prince extensively throughout 1987 and 1988, Sheila E.'s fourth LP, the aptly titled Sex Cymbal was symbolic for two reasons. First, it saw her bringing in her brother Peter Michael to produce. This was Escovedo's first album that struck away from any Minneapolis dalliance.

Second, Escovedo moved to Warner Brothers exclusively leaving the Paisley Park imprint behind. Without hesitation, Escovedo acknowledged the indomitable, if suffocating success of "The Glamorous Life." Escovedo began the album with that classic jam, before comically letting the audience know it wasn't that song but the groovy cool of the title track. A statement of independence by not allowing her biggest hit to stifle her creativity. Escovedo's Latin-jazz elements were at attention alongside the (then) contemporary sounds of New Jack Swing, house music, and rock-pop.  The girl power jam "Funky Attitude" was timeless in its lyrics and she presented her best ballad, "Cry Baby." Peppered with a spicy LaBelle cover "Lady Marmalade" and a pleasant drum solo or two, Sex Cymbal was Sheila E. reinvented.

Writes of Passage 2000
Escovedo took several years away from the popular music, but maintained a presence behind the scenes. Esvocedo's fifth album was her rebirth and a return to jazz music with an assemblage of excellent musicians, The E-Train: Eric Leeds (sax & flute), brother Peter Michael (vocals, drum, percussion), Renato Neto (keyboards), Marc Van Wageningen (bass), and Ray Obiedo (guitars). Escovedo brought her own drumming, percussion, and voice to the pot of talent.

Writes of Passage boasted the sensuous "Paragon," its playing meticulous and handsome courtesy of The E-Train. Additional sonics found throughout included Peter Michael's vocal solo on "Rite to Paradise" and the melancholic "Passing Through." Escovedo had evolved and come home with Writes of Passage, an assertion of her multi-expressive approach.

"Sex Cymbal"
Directed By: Matthew Rolston

[Editor's Note: For a comprehensive view of Sheila E.'s career and collaborations, please visit http://www.sheilae.com . Sheila E.'s six LPs are all in print, and available at your local independent record retailer, Amazon, and iTunes.-QH]