Monday, February 27, 2012

Scary, But Fun: The Music of Grace Jones

The origin of Grace Jones has become a colorful page in the book of Cinderella stories. Born in Jamaica, later she was raised in New York. There her studies fell into acting and fashion focus. Jones strolled into modeling, traipsing around New York City and Paris.

Securing a record contract, Jones became one of the most visual figures in popular music culture. Many associate Jones with her image only and while revolutionary even today, Jones is a singer, a songwriter. At present, she has made her "return" to music with fanfare to spare at the age of 63. The fuel that fires Jones is expression, she dons chameleon tendencies that can only be celebrated and expounded upon.

"Well, I finally got my wish to work in New York City...": 1977-1979

Once Jones procured her record deal by signing with an indie called Beam Junction, acquired by Island Records, she began work on her debut Portfolio. At this time, disco was entrenched in both mainstream and underground culture. In many ways, Jones' sound maintained its affection toward the underground scene. That said, it didn't stop Jones from lending a certain shimmer to Portfolio that gave it even wider acceptance out of the clubs.

Tom Moulton, one of the leading men in production during this era, produced Portfolio and the two subsequent albums: Fame (1978) and Muse (1979). His productions were characterized by instrumentation that highlighed Jones' vocal potency. The swell of "La Vie En Rose," popularized by chanteuse Edith Piaf, saw Jones flexing her rich espresso tones. Softer than her later work in the early '80s, "La Vie En Rose" laid claim to Jones' French pop fetish, which always marched throughout her sound in some form or another. Portfolio was also home to "I Need a Man," considered a drag queen performance staple. It glued Jones to her other platform for an artistic out, live performance. Rubies from Sondheim ("Send in the Clowns") and the 1977 Annie musical ("Tomorrow") filled Portfolio. Jones' second long player Fame was more of the same, albeit stronger. The first side led off with the declaratory "Do or Die." "Autumn Leaves," attributed firstly to French vocalist Cora Vaucaire, appeared and showed that Jones was eager to improve on her vocal craft.

Muse sought to conceptually empower Jones the third go round. Two Jones written compositions materialized, "Repentance (Forgive Me)" and "Don't Mess With the Messer". Before Muse, Jones had one song each appear on Portfolio ("Sorry") and Fame ("Below the Belt"). The first side dealt with notions of sin, redemption, fidelity and the like. Funky, hot, with shades of (tasteful) camp, Jones burned through "Sinning," "Suffer" (a duet with Swede session man Thor Baldursson), the mentioned "Repentance," and "Saved". Elsewhere, Jones bewitched with the beach ready "I'll Find My Way to You" yet foreshadowed the next phase of her sound with "On Your Knees." Jones' first trio of albums presented a brighter Grace Jones than what the public knew of her in the next decade. It's clear that disco-pop was good to Jones and she to it.

Grace @ The Roseland Performing "Autumn Leaves," Circa 1978

"I'm very superficial, I hate everything official...": 1980-1985

Grace Jones completely overhauled her look and sound at the dawn of the '80's. Packing away her disco pastels, Jones was aided by session players/producers Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Chris Blackwell, and (the departed) Alex Sadkin. Recorded in the Compass Point Studios, Warm Leatherette (1980) and Nightclubbing (1981) looked to the songbooks of other artists for Jones to redesign. Fantastic stand outs from both albums included "Warm Leatherette" (The Normal), "Private Life" (The Pretenders), "Use Me" (Bill Withers), and "Nightclubbing" (David Bowie). The stated songs blended caustic guitar, dubby reggae, and synth-pop-cum-punk attitude. Atop these musical amalgams, Jones sat in the driver seat giving off cold, sexy performances that made the songs hers.

Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing brought Jones commercial success (usually on the U.K., U.S. R&B, and U.S. Dance charts) and critical awards. Among the cover laden Nightclubbing Jones contributed her own works in the sweaty "Pull Up to the Bumper" and the weird, Parisian "I've Seen that Face Before (Libertango)." "Libertango" originally was a piece of music by Astor Piazzolla, Jones supplied her own lyrics to accompany the score. Jones turned in an album of her own works after proving herself as an interpreter with Living My Life (1982). The Compass Point team appeared again and the arrangements were loose and funky. The beautiful mess included the gyrating "Nipple to the Bottle" and the island rinsed patois of "My Jamaican Guy." The latter became immortalized in hip-hop forever when it was tapped as the sample basis for LL Cool J's "Doin' It" from Mr. Smith (1994). By now, Grace Jones was a full blown celebrity in music and modeling and took Hollywood by storm: Conan the Destroyer (1984), A View to a Kill (1985), and Vamp (1986).

Before Vamp, Jones underwent another sonic change with Slave to the Rhythm (1985). Her last album of original material for Island Records, Slave was produced by Trevor Horn. They co-created the album which cycled one song, the title track, into several vignettes and set pieces. Whether redrawn as the swift "Operattack" or the laid back "Jones the Fashion Show," Jones knew no barrier. The original "Slave to the Rhythm" is a favorite for Grace Jones today. "The Frog & The Princess" featured Ian McShane reciting from photographer Jean-Paul Goude's book Jungle Fever. The passage read throughout the song refers to Goude meeting Jones, their friendship, subsequent courtship, creation of the iconic One Man Show (1981), their son Paulo's birth and eventual platonic full circle gave Slave further layers of avant garde sensibility. Altered when pressed to CD, the original vinyl version has yet to see a remastered compact disc or digital return.

Capping off her Island Records tenure, Island Life (1985) anthologized Jones' work. Several singles across her seven albums were missing and to date there hasn't been a complete singles collection issued. The album jacket became noted for its Amazonian flavor and influenced hosts of albums covers in the next two decades, specifically Kylie Minogue's Fever (2001). Jones' second era made her a household name, containing her most provocative material (visually and musically). But Jones' travels weren't over just yet.

"Private Life"
Directed By: Mike Mansfield

"This is my voice, my weapon of choice...": 1986-Present Day

After Jones' departure from Island Records, she found a new label home in Manhattan Records. There, work started on her eighth studio product Inside Story (1986). Nile Rodgers, member of the cosmopolitan disco-soul group Chic, oversaw the proceedings. Rodgers had become a popular producer and worked over records for David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, and Deborah Harry (of Blondie) to finger some of the talent. Rumored to be a difficult process for Jones and Rodgers, Inside Story ended up being a refreshing outlet for Jones. Filtering out the darker elements from the last few years, Inside Story was straight ahead R&B and pop. Jones wore these sounds incredibly well as heard on the biggest hit from Inside Story, the sassy "I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect for You)."

Nimble and delicate on "Barefoot in Beverly Hills" or throwing a tantrum on "Hollywood Liar," Jones seemed relaxed. The mentioned cuts, along with the smoky "Victor Should Have Been a Jazz Musician," brought Jones back to the expressive peaks of her disco recordings. The commercial fortune of the record was decent, but Jones relocated to Manhattan Records owner Capitol Records three years later for Bulletproof Heart (1989). Not up to her usual standards, the record did have many songs worth approaching again. A pack of producers had their hands in Heart's pot, Jones herself, Chris Stanley, Jonathan Elias, Robert Clivillés and David Cole. The sounds in '89 had switched toward house and New Jack Swing. Jones acclimatized to it on the slamming "Driving Satisfaction" and club hit "Love on Top of Love."

Jones' cover of "Amado Mio" shone brightest on Heart. Made prominent in the 1949 noir film Gilda, where actress Rita Hayworth mimed to Anita Kert Ellis' voice, the European gem was perfect for Jones. Like many of her French spritzed songs before it, the song opened with a dramatic pose before it spilled into a tropical kamikaze. Listen for the punctuated "Huh!" borrowed from Slave to the Rhythm's "Operattack." The song closed with a giggling Jones asking "Y'all want me to do Sam Cooke now?" Jones segued back into film successfully on the Eddie Murphy vehicle Boomerang in 1992. Its all-star black cast included Halle Berry, Robin Givens, David Alan Grier, Martin Lawrence, the late Eartha Kitt, Lela Rochon, Tisha Campbell, and Chris Rock. In the movie Jones played Helen Strangé, a kooky model not dissimilar from Jones' own exaggerated persona. The union gave Jones a club banger in "7 Day Weekend," written by Jones and Dallas Austin and worked over by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds with L.A. Reid. The song appeared on the hugely successful soundtrack partner to the film.

Despite other movie work and remaining a hot commodity within the model/touring echelon, the remainder of the '90's saw Jones struggling to get her albums released. The two records shelved were Black Marilyn (1994) and Force of Nature (1998). The latter saw a song called "Hurricane (Cradle to the Grave)" become just "Hurricane" and the title cut on her tenth album in 2008. Signing to the Wall of Sound, Jones' Hurricane was a massive success when unleashed. A diverse collection of musicians and producers co-created with Jones on this labor of love: Brian Eno, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Tricky, Ivor Guest.

While "Corporate Cannibal" and "Devil in My Life" confirmed that her mid-Island Records snarl hadn't lost its bite, it was the autobiographical contents of Hurricane that critics and fans hurrah-ed over. Jones' lyrics on her family ancestry and romantic endeavors hit hard on the bass boom of "This Is" or the gospel strain of "Williams' Blood." The stretching of Hurricane found that Jones had only gotten better with age. Embarking on a tour to support Hurricane, Jones was met with sold out venues and piles of rave reviews in 2009. 2011 saw a repackaged Hurricane unfurled with an additional "dub mix" companion to the original disc. The weird science of Grace Jones is her multifaceted appeal. Why it's unmistakable that her steel rending mask of '80 through '85 captivates, Jones' music reveals broader discoveries. Whether imparting the joie de vivre that encapsulated her first three albums or the sensitive, searching modes heard on Inside Story and Hurricane, Jones is a living canvas of art.

Grace @ The Jonathan Ross Show Performing "Love You to Life," Circa 2009

That voice, almost more than any other in the last three decades, set flame to the idea of conventional singing. Jones' approach to music is invested and real, sometimes moreso than a "true" singer. Enslaved to the rhythm of transforming music into something different, new, and (at times) frightening, Grace Jones is a heart quickening experience no music listener should be without. Ever.-QH

[Editor's Note: As of this writing, eight of Jones' ten albums are in print, with Warm Leatherette and Living My Life currently out of circulation. The used costs are fair however, and it's sure that these won't be out of print long, as her second and third albums (Fame and Muse) were just reissued via Gold Legion. Ironically, there is not an official Grace Jones website, but a (possibly) officially endorsed Grace Jones Facebook page. A very special thanks to Andrew Bird for the lovely & stunning artwork created just for this piece.-QH]

Monday, February 20, 2012

Madonna's Coverage

It's a bizarre time for Madonna fans. Depending on the perspective one possesses, Madonna is either in the midst of a creative drought or cleverly navigating the post-millennium pop wasteland. The reality is that Madonna's music has changed since 2008 and hasn't been the same. With MDNA, her newest offering, just several weeks away everyone is flooding the print and cyber mediums with their opinions on it and past releases. As an eternal enthusiast of Madonna (the artist), I found myself listening to her backlog.

Five songs in her discography caught my attention. Epitomizing the (once) constant presence of (marketable) quality, Madonna's covers sang out beautifully to my ears.  All of the songs were, at various points, singles for Madonna throughout her decades long career. And what covers. Rose Royce. Marvin Gaye. Peggy Lee (via Little Willie John). Andrew Lloyd Webber. Don McLean. Songbooks that sparkle in the eyes and ears of their fans, the songs prove Madonna's love of music as not only a singer, but a listener too. Covers are dangerous. They can showcase the interpretive side of the singer or ring out as a death knell to creativity. Since everyone else is stumbling over themselves to critique what Madonna has done since her return earlier this year, I decided to take a different road.

Love Don't Live Here Anymore
Featured On: Like a Virgin (1984), Something to Remember (1995)
Release Date: March 19, 1996
Chart Positions: U.S. Billboard Hot 100: #78, U.S. Hot Adult Contemporary Charts: #29
Original Performing Artist: Rose Royce in 1978
Synopsis: '70's R&B outfit Rose Royce made their version a hit a decade prior to Madonna's. Appearing on her second album Like a Virgin, it was a lofty step to broadening her sound outside of just "dance-pop." Much like "Borderline" before it and "Crazy for You" afterwards, it showed Madonna's penchant for slower fare that gifted gravitas to an otherwise cutesy set of tempo elevated pop on Like a Virgin. Madonna gave a loving return to the song on her ballads summation Something to Remember in 1995 and even released it as a single, its R&B flavor heightened. It showed that the musical thread of R&B was one she had, and would continue to, touch on at different intervals in her musical spans.

"Love Don't Live Here Anymore (Something to Remember Version)"
Directed By: Jean-Baptise Mondino

Featured On: Erotica (1992)
Release Date: March 22, 1993
Chart Positions: U.K. Singles Chart: #6
Original Performing Artist: Little Willie John in 1956 (See notes below for information on the popular Peggy Lee version and how it relates to Madonna.)
Synopsis: The first version of "Fever," recorded by R&B singer Little Willie John, is revered as a great song of its era. However, it was pop singer Peggy Lee's rendition in 1958 that became the emblematic statement for repressed sensuality coming to term. While many have gone on to do the song, Lee's remains the definitive version. Madonna's cover of it appeared on her sixth album Erotica. An album and single edit bore a polished house presence, but it was Madonna's dry ice vocal that gave it a shade of palpable desire. "Fever" is a song that one could envision Madonna covering. She handled it with restraint and an evocative pull that made it one of truly "sexy" tracks on the over-ambitious Erotica.

"Fever" (Single Edit)
Directed By: Stéphane Sednaoui

I Want You
Featured On: Something to Remember (1995)
Release Date: Withdrawn as a single
Chart Positions: Withdrawn as a single
Original Performing Artist: Marvin Gaye in 1976
Synopsis: Another magnificent cut from Madonna's artistic renaissance, this Marvin Gaye standard was no easy feat. Many have tried their best to recast Gaye's songs, but to no avail. Madonna paired with Massive Attack, who'd just come off their album Protection the year prior to her LP Something to Remember being released. Together, they produced a cover of Gaye's "I Want You" featured as a new recording on Something to Remember. Madonna turned the sensual jam into an urban, symphonic tapestry. Opening on a pounding riff, Madonna strummed the beat with a steady "I, yi, yi, yi..." in her cobalt tinted lower tones. Throughout, Madonna's voice strolled through the maze-like construct with respect, but ease befitting a singer of her stature. Madonna achieved the goods of covering a Gaye classic and paying homage, but making it wholly hers. Her cover was also included on the covers tribute to Marvin Gaye, Inner City Blues: The Music of Marvin Gaye (1995).

"I Want You"
Directed By: Earl Sebastian

Don't Cry For Me Argentina
Featured On: Evita Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996)
Release Date: February 11, 1997
Chart Positions: U.S. Billboard Hot 100: #7, U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary: #21, U.S. Billboard Adult Top 40: #14, U.K. Singles Chart: #3
Original Performing Artist (s): Too many to list.
Synopsis: The impeccable "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, came from the 1978 play Evita. The play was based upon the life of the Argentinian figure Eva Perón. When the film adaption was made, later gaining Madonna a Golden Globe Award, many wondered if she could pull off the singing. Couple that with enduring entries by Karen Carpenter and Donna Summer, Madonna had much to live up to. Not only did she live up to the expectations, she shattered them completely. The song ended up becoming especially autobiographical and continued her maturation started with Bedtime Stories (1994). Robust and rousing, Madonna had never sounded so confident or powerful. Madonna's singing tactics parlayed here echoed through her next few albums, notably Ray of Light (1998).

"Don't Cry For Me Argentina"
Directed By: Alan Parker

American Pie
Featured On: The Next Best Thing Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2000), Music (2000) (International Pressings Only)
Release Date: March 3, 2000
Chart Positions: U.K. Singles Chart: #1
Original Performing Artist: Don McLean in 1971
Synopsis: "And I knew that if I had my chance, I could make those people dance. And maybe they'd be happy, for awhile." With one line Madonna took Don McLean's "American Pie," a song about the loss of youth and turned it into a reflective tale of musical escape. She also summarized her artistic ethos in the process. Considering by this time Madonna's bounty as a singer in her own respect had increased, that line was even more prophetic. Tacked onto the international pressings of the cold cool of Music (2000), Madonna brought back in Ray of Light player William Orbit to capture the warmth of Music's predecessor. Madonna's voice was seasoned with not only her life experiences, but that technical skill many detractors stated she initially lacked upon her inception in 1983. Sailing through her edited rendition, a few verses are omitted, the song wasn't released as a single in the American market, but abroad. Available on The Next Best Thing film soundtrack (in which she starred) for her U.S. fans, the song topped the British chart giving Madonna her ninth number one single there.

"American Pie"
Directed By: Philipp Stölzl

Madonna - American Pie

[Editor's Note: All of Madonna's mentioned albums and soundtrack are in print. For current information on Madonna visit]

Friday, February 17, 2012

Remembering Whitney Houston

Ms. Houston's untimely passing came exactly at the same time I hit my exhaustion wall from school, The QH Blend, and my gigs for Big Break Records. I felt awful that I didn't have anything to contribute, initially, to honor her memory when I received the news last weekend. Honestly, I was sad and without words, and compounded with my minor flame out, I couldn't muster the strength to form anything coherent. That said, it seems my career retrospective on her from 2009 here, that proceeded my review in the Dayton City Paper of I Look to You (2009) has found a new audience, and I'm glad I could in that way honor this woman.

Often, in the realm of writing, especially about music, politics gets in the way of integrity and compassion. Ms. Houston's death has brought out some of the worst in those I'd call peers in our field. It also has, thankfully, brought out the best in others. I am honored to share three pieces that I feel, summed up Ms. Houston, capturing her complexity and artistry, and embraced it all with respect and love.

They are...

Jennifer of The Adventures of an Audio Diva: 20 Whitney Houston Singles I Love (and Will Always Sing Badly To)

Steve Flemming Jr. of Aural Examination: Find Your Strength in Love: Revisiting Whitney's Debut

On a "housekeeping" note, watch this space. New work, despite my school & work schedule being heavy, may appear here in the coming week. Otherwise, Godspeed Whitney, I will miss you, and hope you found the peace that seemed difficult for you to attain in life.-QH

Monday, February 6, 2012

traveling: The Journey of Hikaru Utada

"Why are you trying to classify it? This is music for all humanity from me..."

Hikaru Utada has sold over 52 million records worldwide and her first LP is ranked as the biggest selling record in Japan ever. These are just two of Utada’s sales accomplishments alone, she isn’t even 30 yet. The daughter of two musician parents, a traditional “enka” (ballad) singer mother and producer father (who works alongside his daughter), Utada emerged in 1999 with her debut First Love at 16. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

The Manhattan born, Tokyo reared singer-songwriter, arranger, and producer went on to become the global ambassador for the popular, if misunderstood Japanese music genre of J-Pop. Utada’s music cross pollinates Western sounds into the fluid soundways of said J-Pop, bringing a varied approach. Her embrace of visual propulsion with her mentioned musicianship places Hikaru Utada as a leading talent to rise in the last decade.

Utada’s success in Japan, and worldwide cult following, poses a real question. Why are English speaking acts permitted to maintain appeal in foreign countries alongside their finest singers, but non-English speaking singers don't receive reciprocation outside their native land? That Utada recorded two albums, out of her seven, in English that received little coverage in the Western music media answers the question. Currently on hiatus, Utada’s reprieve allows for consideration of her abilities.

First Love
Label: Toshiba EMI
Release: 3/10/99
Singles: "automatic,” “time will tell,” “Movin’ On Without You,” “First Love”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions*: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: Savvy, pensive, and pretty are adjectives that aptly describe the energy of Utada’s first long player. Only 16 when the record released in early 1999, First Love’s dual appeal is blatant. Between the house cool of “Movin’ On Without You” to the slamming “甘いワナ ~Paint It, Black” (“Sweet Trap~Paint It, Black”)," both knocked on all cylinders to groove listeners. The urban edge of the mentioned cuts, along with the classic singles “time will tell” and “automatic,” portrayed a playful, behind-the-curve acknowledgement of contemporary black music. The jazzy, hip-hop beats bounced as if they could have been culled from any prime-era U.S. R&B affair between 1995 through 1997. Such style swapping is what set First Love ahead of the pack of her contemporaries and predecessors in J-Pop. A staple for Hikaru Utada, First Love was a snapshot of a young woman just starting off.


Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 3/28/01
Singles: "Addicted to You,” “Wait & See (Risk),” “For You/タイム・リミット” (“Time Limit”), “Can You Keep a Secret?”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada, Rodney Jerkins, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: Utada (again) slammed into the Japanese music consciousness with Distance. The singles preceded the album by two years, the first one (“Addicted to You”) appeared in late 1999. The album itself surfaced in the first half of 2001. As such, the sound of the record (still) traced her neo-retro R&B-pop trademarked on First Love; the classic vibe was heard on the silky “サングラス” (“Sunglasses”). Utada also had production assistance from big names like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson) and Rodney Jerkins (Brandy), but she stayed in the lyrical seat, giving Distance her stamp. “ドラマ” (“Drama”) glanced off of Garbage’s industrial rock with authority, a new flavor Utada played in skillfully. Transitional, but fulfilling, Distance gave more of the same but with a few surprises to keep Utada ahead of the game.

"Can You Keep a Secret?"

Deep River
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 6/19/02
Singles: "Final Distance,” “traveling,” “Hikari” ("Light"), “Sakura Drops/Letters,” “Deep River”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada (Teruzane Sking)
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: Deep River was the career compass to the next phase of Utada's career. Her wordplay continued to dance on the jagged edge of analogy and allegory on “プレイ・ボール”("Play Ball”) and “Letters.” From the blast of glittering dance-pop on “traveling,” to the wandering "Sakura Drops” Utada’s music had entered a new decade lively and matured. Two songs in were noteworthy for their appearance on Deep River. First “Distance,” the title track from her previous record, was reworked into the mournful “Final Distance.” The song was a memorial to Rena Yamashita, a young schoolgirl victim of the Osaka School Massacres in June of 2001. Yamashita was an outspoken fan of Hikaru Utada. Utada saddened by the story of her death wanted to contribute her own dedication to Yamashita. Secondly, “Hikari” (“Light”), one of the hit singles from Deep River, became the theme for the Square Enix/Walt Disney video game Kingdom Hearts. In its English incarnation it was called “Simple & Clean” and brought Hikaru Utada her first taste of American interest. Deep River is where one could hear Utada’s music contract and expand in new ways.

"Sakura Drops"

Single Collection, Volume 1
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 3/31/04
Singles: "COLORS”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada, (Teruzane Sking), Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Rodney Jerkins
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: Ending the first half of Utada’s career, Single Collection earmarked almost every single Utada had released from 1999 through 2002. Only “Deep River” wasn't represented from this epoch. The anthology captured her early precocious charm and changing musical tastes. The one new recording featured, “COLORS,” was an epic ballad that pointed to the prolific shift about to take place. Any kind of summation package will act as a portal into a time a singer once operated within. In Utada's case, the Single Collection was a goodbye to a simpler period and a hello to her artistic second half.


Label: Island/Def Jam
Release: 9/8/04
Singles: "Easy Breezy,” “Devil Inside,” “You Make Me Want to be a Man”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Teruzane Utada (Sking U), Tim Mosley (Timbaland), Danja
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#6)
U.S. Billboard Hot 200 Position: #160
Synopsis: Utada's first concentrated move to breach the American music consciousness ran along the arc of experimentation embodied on Deep River and “COLORS,” but in a bolder light. Exodus, immersed in writhing electronica, was garnished with odd hip-hop and Eastern flourishes. Utada just as unconventionally examined identity with “Devil Inside” and "You Make Me Want to Be a Man." Not everything on Exodus existed through heavy lenses, Utada's movement was wild on “The Workout” and innuendo percolated on the arcade romance of “Easy Breezy.” Timbaland and Danja, prominent producers in American circles, contributed only a small, cloying group of songs. Utada and her father (under the nom de plume “Sking U”) did a better job with the majority of Exodus. Not the friendliest crossover attempt, Exodus continued the dabbling Utada started. It just happened to be in English this go around.

"Easy Breezy"

Ultra Blue
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 6/14/06
Singles: "Dareka no Negai ga Kanau Koro” ("When Someone's Wish Comes True"), “Be My Last,” “Passion,” “Keep Tryin’,” “This Is Love”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: After the frenzied Exodus, Ultra Blue positioned itself to be just as arresting. On her past albums, Utada ran her styles (musically) parallel to each other, later blending them. Ultra Blue sought to weave versus mix to see what results they'd illicit. The woven backdrops eyed Utada’s voice at its full range of power. The album, including the Single Collection song “COLORS,” jumped between the organic and inorganic. The bubbly pulse of “This Is Love” clashed tastefully to the sophisticated instrumentation of “Be My Last.” “Keep Tryin’,” a savory triumph of lyric informed music, remains a career best for Utada. “Passion,” tapped as the theme for the second installment of Kingdom Hearts, was more symphonic than “Simple & Clean.” Utada was alive and active on Ultra Blue.

"Keep Tryin'"

Heart Station
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 3/19/08
Singles: “Bowa wa Kuma” ("I Am a Bear"), “Flavor of Life,” “Beautiful World/Kiss & Cry,” “HEART STATION/Stay Gold,” “Fight the Blues,” “Prisoner of Love”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#5)
Synopsis: Where else could Hikaru Utada venture after the double fantasy of Exodus and Ultra Blue? Heart Station looked into this question by keeping her creative center focal, but stripping away the heavier motifs of the past two recordings. With her divorce from Kazuaki Kiriya behind her, Utada Hikaru had plenty to share. Heart Station ended up being an apt title to a long player that stationed nearly every phonic space Utada had passed through on her past five albums. Distance-era sensibilities in “Prisoner of Love” and “虹色バス” (“Rainbow-Colored Bus”) rubbed shoulders against the modish “Kiss & Cry” and “Gentle Beast Interlude”/“Celebrate.” Listen closely to “Kiss & Cry” for the wink to “Hotel Lobby” from Exodus sampled within the track. Awareness gripped “Stay Gold,” “HEART STATION,” and “Fight the Blues” and each addressed the myriad facets of love, no doubt spirited by her recent separation from Kiriya. Heart Station triumphed as a testament to an artist no longer searching for herself, but finally as one secure in her craft.


This is the One
Label: Island/Def Jam
Release: 3/13/09
Singles: "Come Back to Me,” “Sanctuary,” “Dirty Desire”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Teruzane Utada, Stargate, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Weekly (#3), International (#1)*
U.S. Billboard Hot 200 Position: #69
Synopsis: Dropped directly a year behind Heart Station, This is the One, Utada’s second English album (seventh overall) grasped the same concept of its predecessor, simplicity. Whereas Heart Station sought to maintain the integrity of her experimental efforts with a relaxed feel, This is the One was eager to please as her most commercial record. Utada courted Stargate and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, both recent U.S. hitmakers, to pilot the album. This is the One dealt in clubby, flirty notions, but did they translate in execution was another matter. Highlights included “Me Muero” ("I'm Dying") and “Poppin’,” excellent modern twists to ‘60’s spy lounge-pop. “Automatic Part II” while funky enough plainly pointed to the main weakness of This is the One, its songs. Utada’s words had always guided her and here they sounded no different from other “girls night out” frivolity that clouded the U.S. airwaves. Weak songwriting matched to flat arrangements ("Come Back to Me") made the recipe for disappointment. Excusing the mentioned highlights, the rest of This is the One sank into its muddy take on U.S. urban-pop, an aesthetic Utada navigated so well previously.

"Come Back to Me"

Single Collection, Volume 2
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 11/24/10
Singles: “Hymne à l'amour ~愛のアンセム” ("Hymn of Love~Anthem of Love"), "Goodbye Happiness,” “Show Me Love (Not a Dream)”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#20)
Synopsis: Utada’s second hits collection gathered all the singles from her fifth and sixth albums. Immediately (and sadly) apparent is that none of the singles from Exodus or This is the One were included. The amount of singles lifted from Ultra Blue and Heart Station, the most from any albums of her career, tell the other side of Utada's musical story. The emotional works are all represented in semi-counter-chronological order. A bonus EP of new songs were added with the hits. Featured on it was the teary goodbye to youth “Goodbye Happiness” and a daring cover of the Edith Piaf tune “Hymne à l'amour.”

"Goodbye Happiness"

After the release of her second best-of, and its supporting tour Wild Life, Utada took an idefinite hiatus. No doubt exhausted from the non-stop activity of recording, touring, promoting, etc., it's understandable that a recharge was needed. The line featured at the start of this piece from the Exodus song "Animato" is an accurate summation of Utada's drive. Despite any language gulf, Utada proves music can touch beyond nationality and race to stir hearts and minds.-QH

[Editor's Note: *The most popular and enduring chart in Japan is known as the Oricon chart. It breaks the sales statistics into daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly categories. I researched, to the best of my ability, the daily, weekly, and yearly positions for all of Utada's works. There were some where I could only locate the "monthly" or "international" showings. The capital or lower case stylizing of certain songs is indicative to the Japanese culture. All of Utada's records are in print, and barring her two English albums, all are imports readily available via Amazon or CDJapan. For recent information on Hikaru Utada visit her here where the option for English or Japanese translations are open to the reader. She also has Twitter account linked to this page.-QH]

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Completing the Cycle: Brandy's "Full Moon" Turns 10

Ever since Brandy Norwood hit the ground running in 1994 with Brandy, she stood apart. With a maturity and presence older women lacked in modern R&B, Brandy's voice charged hits like "Baby," "Almost Doesn't Count," and "Have You Ever" with experience that resonated. That her equally successful forays into acting, both in television and film, never cheapened her commitment to her musical explorations solidified her as a singer first.

When Full Moon (Atlantic) appeared in February 2002, it arrived when Norwood needed to make a declaratory position on what her music could accomplish in a new decade. Looking back to this album, Norwood stood at a crossroads, translating her adulthood journey for the willing to partake in.

The History
Norwood stayed occupied between her multi-platinum winner Never Say Never (1998) and Full Moon. The wake of Never Say Never was wide and stretched well into 1999 with its singles. Additionally, Norwood wrapped her longtime television series Moesha in 2000. Movie roles also beckoned in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (alongside Jennifer Love-Hewitt) and Double Platinum (alongside Diana Ross). Amid Norwood's acting scores, it was late 2000 when the stirrings of Full Moon began to form.

The Record
Norwood's studio stalwart Rodney Jerkins, alias Darkchild, returned with his collective to redefine and restructure her sound. The production/writing roster wouldn't stop with Darkchild, Norwood was joined by Keith Crouch (a prominent fixture on her debut), Mike City, Jason Derlatka, Stuart Brawley, and Warryn Campbell. Norwood herself co-penned six of the cuts that appeared on the album, a continuation of her hands-on approach from Never Say Never.

During Full Moon's formative years, the Darkchild style coined with Norwood progressed and became popular with other artists. Later, this became a point of contention with Norwood. Regardless, major hits with the Spice Girls ("Holler") and Michael Jackson ("You Rock My World") were indebted to a "tech-savvy" line of thought rather than Darkchild's open ended work during the late' 90's. Darkchild's (then) new sound crystallized with his vocal muse (Brandy) on her junior affair. The stated "tech-savvy" approach, a hybrid of hip-hop, R&B, and pop wrapped in a glitchy electronic sheen, drove the cyclical concept of Full Moon. Based on love's phases, the thematic stages employed combinations of floorfillers and lowlit ballads. Norwood's vocal blossoming on Full Moon portrayed a rich, cocoa tone with wild adaptability to any song situation.

Whether imparting the intimate organics of "When You Touch Me" or "Like This," Norwood bridged authenticity and artistry. Said transformative skill stormed in the impressive "I Thought," an angry attack that shifted into a harder gear and utilized Norwood's lower register. The songs themselves acted as amazing crafts that hopscotched between mecha-R&B and plush soundscapes.

The grinding experimentation of the lead-off single "What About Us?" gave harsh walls of distorted sound. Adventurous forays into British two-step ("All In Me"), urban exotica ("Apart"), and "sounds like a sample" perfection ("It's Not Worth It") exemplified artist/producer unity honed to a killing point. Drawing attention back to "It's Not Worth It," the longing, background voice on the song is indeed not sampled. Rather, they were featured ad-libs from the King of Pop himself, the late Michael Jackson.

At 18 tracks, the record did become a victim of the "CD era" filler. The notion of giving the consumer "bang for their buck" sacrificed the inherent cohesion and flow of the album in the execution. As such, songs like "Anybody," "He Is," "Love Wouldn't Count Me Out" were decent, if unneeded additions to a plentiful recording. Length issues aside, Full Moon announced Brandy Norwood as an adult woman controlling how her personal narratives reached her audiences.

The Impact
The first single lifted from Full Moon was the aggressive "What About Us?” The feminist manifesto proved to be the right choice as it sailed into Top 10 placements on both the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Chart (#7) and U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Chart (#3). The parent album appeared a month later on the U.S. Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Album Chart (#1) and the U.S. Billboard 200 Album Chart (#2). Commercially, Full Moon did not usurp Never Say Never, but wasn’t a failure by any means. The complete sales impressions in the United States rank at 1.05 million copies and awarded platinum certification to the LP.

Internationally, Full Moon opened new doors for Norwood. The United Kingdom saw her junior effort become her first U.K. Top 10 landing (#9), the British Phonographic Industry gifted Full Moon gold status. Full Moon procured gold units in Canada and Japan as well.

"Full Moon" and "He Is" were selected as follow-up singles later in 2002. The title song charted U.S. Pop (#18) and U.S. R&B (#16), and was a sizable U.S. dance hit (#2). Promotion for Full Moon halted when Norwood disclosed her pregnancy and liaison to Robert "Big Bert" Smith, the father of her child. Smith a member of the Darkchild production outfit was kin to Jerkins himself. This connection between Smith and Norwood gave Full Moon's tender sides blatant poignancy, their relationship born out of the creation of the record.

Critically, Full Moon received a warm welcome. Sal Cinquemani, of Slant Magazine, commented:

Full Moon is certainly a forward-minded album, lifting Brandy's typically schmaltzy brand of pop-R&B to a new, edgier plateau. With tracks like "I Thought" and the offbeat lead single "What About Us," an assessment of post-break-up collateral damage, Rodney Jerkins dresses up his signature bass-heavy production in gritty, oft-sadistic outfits.

Craig Seymour of Entertainment Weekly heaped praise on Norwood's voice expansion:

Her deep, warm voice now has a scratchy, evocative edge that suggests maturity and the high price that often comes with it.

"What About Us?"
Directed By: Dave Meyers

Full Moon marked a beginning and end in Norwood's musical pathways. Norwood separated from music partner Rodney Jerkins to seek new avenues in her sound advancement, see Afrodisiac (2004), Norwood's last outing for Atlantic Records. Splitting from Robert Smith after the birth of their daughter may have placed friction on her relationship with Jerkins too. Jerkins and Norwood wouldn’t work in each other's artistic spheres until 2008's Human (Epic).

The legacy of Full Moon is the portrait of Brandy Norwood finding herself as a young adult woman. Brandy's recasting of the "B-Rocka" legend helped it go from good, graduating to great. Four and a half out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Full Moon is readily in print. For current information on Brandy, visit: 4Ever Brandy.-QH]