Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Make 'Em Nervous: Macy Gray Reveals "Covered"

When Macy Gray appeared in the popular music sphere, it was at a time when black music was undergoing another of its many changes.

Neo-soul had started to burn in 1999 when Macy Gray's debut On How Life Is connected to a larger audience (read: white). Gray's amoeba-like soul absorbed a range of styles without losing her R&B center. She had the attention of pop and urban listeners.

Her abilities set her immediately apart from her female peers Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, and Jill Scott (who dropped her first LP in 1999). Such traits possessed in abundance proved to be Gray's undoing in the sense that it painted a picture of her as a novelty. Macy Gray as an artist couldn't be any farther from that distortion. It didn't stop her from being boxed by the mainstream, limiting her commercial clout. Undaunted and starting in 2001 with her second, and wild, album The id, Gray continued onward to new musical peaks: The Trouble With Being Myself (2003), BIG (2007), and The Sellout (2010).

All of those records destroyed any notion of "neo-soul" limitation, Gray walked on as a special songwriter, voice, and presence. Here we are in 2012 and have been greeted with Macy Gray's sixth album Covered. As the title implies, it is a covers project. Despite the sneers and sighs of annoyance, covers have been around as long as the popular music empire started erecting its spires in the '40's and '50's. Big business as it is today, covers are often a blow to an artist. The songs are too obvious, the production too sanitized, and often a stop gap for a lack of creative flow. Yet, cover projects often announce that an artist has arrived at a specific plateau in their career. They've earned the right to pay homage to their heroes, so to speak.

Behind the Scenes of Covered

How did Macy Gray avoid the "covers trap" and inherit a time honored tradition? Easy (!), she followed her gut as a listener and shared her musical love with her audience. The cast of characters on Covered include: "Here Comes the Rain Again" (Eurythmics), "Creep" (Radiohead), "Smoke Two Joints" (The Toyes & Sublime), "Teenagers" (My Chemical Romance), "Nothing Else Matters" (Metallica), "Sail" (Awolnation), "Maps" (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), "Lovelockdown/Buck" (Kanye West & Nina Simone), "Bubbly" (Colbie Caillet), and "Wake Up" (Arcade Fire)".

The collection of artists and songs suggest that Covered is not a garden variety of common picks like "Fly Me to the Moon" or "My Cherie Amour." Bart Howard and Stevie Wonder this ain't. No stranger to handling material not her own, Gray has tackled classics by Aerosmith ("Walk This Way") and Prince ("Girls & Boys") deftly. Here on Covered, Gray paired with producer Hal Wilner and got down to formulating the sound of the album.

Said sounds are cool, fun, but pensive seeing Gray's voice still retaining its scratchy veneer. As heard on her previously mentioned albums, Gray's voice has a colorful span for her to play in. The double opener of "Here Comes the Rain Again" and "Creep," presented as electro-dirges, has Gray sketching in muted restraint, but with an obvious yearning. In other areas, Gray turns "Wake Up" into a sunny, but experienced tale of life, love, and pain, and steps into "Maps" and "Teenagers" with gusto. The latter is lyrically re-tweaked and comes from the side of a mother versus the teenagers, her humor comes through her singing style effortlessly.

Elsewhere, Gray's friendly (romantic?) duet on "Bubbly" with actor Idris Elba is clever, but it's her medley mash-up of "Lovelockdown/Buck" that is remarkable. Placing West's words over Simone's '67 jazz arrangement, the swirls of hip-hop and contemporary soul make for a posh treat. Here, Gray's confidence in her coffee colored tone, down to her phrasing and inflection, shows her creating a brand new song out of two separate ones.

Additional praise falls to the clutch of interludes that space out the LP. Three traditional spoken-word breaks ("La, La, La (Teaching the Kids)," "The Power of Love," and "Mel Rap") are included, two featuring Gray's own teenagers. As nice as those are, the three remaining interludes with comedian J.B. Smoove ("You Want Them Nervous"), Nicole Scherzinger ("I Try Is Cool and All, But..."), and M.C. Lyte ("Really?") are hilarious plays on Gray's own fame and lack of accessibility.

Particularly, J.B. Smoove's statement that people need to be scared of Macy (he suggests using a sword to keep her audience in check whilst performing).

 Scherzinger's suggestions that Gray change her vocal styles to that of Britney Spears, Alanis Morissette, and Shakira (complete with imitations) is belly ache inducing, as is her play-feud with MC Lyte. Gray's new album completes her cycle and moves her music forward. She remains one of, if not, the leading lady removed from the neo-soul cache, as a bonafide progressive R&B superstar. Five out of five stars.-QH

 [Editor's Note: Covered is available now, current news can be located at Macy Gray Official.-QH]

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The "MDNA" of Pop Returns: Madonna's Latest

The reception of Madonna's 13th long player MDNA will depend on the type of Madonna fan that's listening: "the drone" whom will salivate over anything she releases, "the ironic one" that is "knowing" of Madonna's (supposed) "thrift" qualities, and "the discerning." The last fan tends to understand what the core of Madonna's artistic premise is. Here is a woman who piloted her career by precipitating (or tastefully acclimating) to trends without sacrificing her personal muse. Walking the line of creativity and commercialism isn't easy, but Madonna did it for a lengthy period. Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) promised an entertaining level of veteran security and for awhile all seemed to right. Hard Candy appeared in 2008 and things weren't the same afterwards. Madonna was pandering, she'd lost her confidence, her awareness of self and subsequent greatness. Hard Candy's need to please, to conform, had proven every critic that had lambasted Madonna as a pop music icon correct. To make it worse, the album's need to bow hadn't even given it the sales streak it desired.

With MDNA, Madonna seems to acknowledge, for the first time, that she may have made a mistake musically. With the depth of desolation defining the popular music landscape, Madonna can neither lead or follow in 2012, so instead MDNA is both a defensive and offensive album.

A cross section of the talent working alongside Ms. Ciccone on MDNA include (but are not limited to): Benny Benassi, William Orbit, Martin Solveig, Klas Ã…hlund, The Demolition Crew, Free School, Jimmy Harry, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A. Orbit has the most history with Madonna, he assisted on 1998's Ray of Light and singles "Beautiful Stranger" and "American Pie." Benassi has been making rounds for sometime in the popular music spheres with works for Kelis ("Brave") and Chris Brown ("Beautiful People"). Jimmy Harry has collaborated in pop with a range of women: RuPaul, Lisa Loeb, P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, Vitamin C, and Kylie Minogue.

Somewhere between abandon and introspection, MDNA spins its sonic tales. The disturbing, if slightly self-serving "Gang Bang" is dark, smoldering, and abrasive. "Gang Bang" brings to mind the dim dimensions of Erotica (1992) and for the discerning, ironic, and the drone, this will elicit cheers. The lyrical content of "Gang Bang," concerns of a jilted lover, informs the bulk of MDNA.

Frustration (credited to her divorce from Guy Ritchie perhaps?) can be heard throughout songs such as "I'm a Sinner," "I Fucked Up," and "I Don't Give A..." (featuring Nicki Minaj). As a lyricist, Madonna has had upward mobility with each project. Here, two of the three mentioned cuts find their respective words collapsing under the weight of the idea.

With a pass issued to the sapid "I'm a Sinner," it's a shame that Madonna's former ability to deal with heavier ideas was lost on MDNA. Had she tapped into the fearlessness that characterized American Life (2003), these songs would have stung instead of chafed.  There are reasons to cheer. Lead single "Give Me All Your Luvin'" is amazing, a reappraisal highlights its needling new wave guitar spunk. The spunk of "Luvin'" is a much better musical catch than the mindless synth surge of the second single "Girl Gone Wild". Features from Minaj and M.I.A., while placed just so, don't add anything to "Luvin'," Madonna herself could have carried the track. When did Madonna require a feature, two times over, to lead off her own record? (A rhetorical statement.) Pleasant oddities "B-Day Song" (featuring M.I.A.), "Best Friend," and "I'm Addicted" melodically curve, skip not stomp, and magnetize. They make a case that Madonna is not quite ready to go into that good night as her detractors surmise.

"Masterpiece," the Golden Globe winning theme from Madonna's directorial debut film W.E., is an aromatic ballad throwback. Songs like these act as proof that Madonna is as compelling on refined pop emotions as much as she is at dance music moods. "Love Spent" and "Falling Free" further Madonna's ballad bank, an element (excusing Hard Candy's "Miles Away") missing from her work of late. "Falling Free," a clean number brings the focus back to the richness Madonna's voice has accrued through the years.

As a whole, MDNA is Madonna reaching back to the peaks of Confessions (see the thick pop-funk of "Turn Up the Radio"), but in other areas Madonna is perfunctory. To be fair, sameness is a hallmark of an icon because even in the changing sands of pop, people want reliability. For Madonna, the stakes are high because instead of sticking to her guns, she (briefly) relinquished her art. Never let them see you sweat is a mantra embraced in the last six years by her contemporaries. Gloria Estefan (90 Millas 2007 & Miss Little Havana 2011), Cyndi Lauper (Bring Ya to the Brink 2008 & Memphis Blues 2010), and Kylie Minogue (X 2007 & Aphrodite 2010) have been enjoying their age without being limited by it.

"Give Me All Your Luvin'" featuring Nicki Minaj & M.I.A.
Directed By: MegaForce

If Madonna can get comfortable in her skin again, the better sides of MDNA's energy will encompass her next record. Even at half strength, Madonna reigns as the Queen of Pop. Three stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: The edition of MDNA reviewed was the two-disc deluxe version. See for current information on Madonna.-QH]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The 16 Blue-Eyed Soul Paladins

R&B is “cred,” musically speaking. Next to rock music, the offspring of R&B, rhythm and blues is taken very seriously among its fans and performers. It's the aural-blood of blacks, passed down for its people, by its people. Skepticism runs amok when one who isn't black attempts to don the form of R&B. There are a select few of the Caucasian persuasion that have pulled off the major R&B coup.

Every singer listed here has either given homage to, or integrated, black music into their sound. These artists shine above the rest in executing this merger of sounds and cultures, transcending the messy color lines still present in popular music. The list is presented in chronological order as to when the artist, as they're known, entered the popular music sphere. It's not based on the importance or superiority of one over the other. This piece, in its entirety, is dedicated to the memories of Dusty Springfield, Teena Marie, Maurice & Robin Gibb.

#1. Dusty Springfield
First Album Released in 1964
Mary O'Brien, later Dusty Springfield, stepped out of the frilly family folk act of The Springfields to become the first of her kind, a blue-eyed soul singer. She sojourned to Memphis, Tennessee, the capitol of Stax, to record the legendary Dusty in Memphis (1969). That album cemented Springfield's legacy of importance in the movement of white singers authentically singing black music. Springfield burned brightest in the mid-'60's toward the early half of the '70's. With a voice that was gutsy or pensive, Springfield could sing anything. She recorded infrequently in the remainder of the '70's and '80's before returning with Reputation (1990) and A Very Fine Love (1995). While breast cancer claimed the vocalist in 1999, her music lives on.

"Bring Him Back" from Where Am I Going? (1967)

Recommended Listening: Where Am I Going? (1967)

#2. The Bee Gees
First Album Released in 1965
Brothers Maurice, Barry, and Robin Gibb emerged from Australia to become one of the biggest recording acts in popular music history. Before that, they had humble beginnings as a tasteful Beatles inspired vocal harmony group in the early '60's. After procuring several pop hits with "New York Mining Disaster 1941" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," 1975 became a watermark year. It was then that the group charted new waters: R&B. From 1975 through 1979 The Bee Gees released Main Course (1975), Children of the World (1976), Spirits Having Flown (1979), and the soundtrack companion to the film Saturday Night Fever (1977). These records were crowned for their creamy, authentic grooves. Scoring many R&B hits, The Bee Gees became one of the groups to usher disco into mainstream music periphery. After the '70's wrapped, The Bee Gees continued to record hit records into the next three decades and became producers for others. With the recent passing of Robin Gibb in May and Maurice in 2003, Barry is all that remains of the Gibb empire. The Bee Gees reign has a multitude of treasures, their foray into R&B being a highlight.

"Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)" from Main Course (1975)

Recommended Listening: Spirits Having Flown (1979)

#3. Hall & Oates
First Album Released in 1972
Daryl Hall and John Oates hailed from another famous hotbed of black music, Philadelphia. Coming together as partners in writing, singing, and later producing, they followed behind the soft shift in R&B informed by The Delfonics and The Stylistics. What made their material powerful was its daredevil blends of other genres with the “Philly Sound.” When they took control by producing their own work, they continued to even more astounding victories. Later to be named "the most successful recording duo" by Billboard, Hall & Oates’ career has spanned four decades and counting.

"Wait For Me" from X-Static (1979)

Recommended Listening: Bigger than Both of Us (1976)

#4. Teena Marie
First Album Released in 1979
Mary Christine Brockert, later Teena Marie, subverted Dusty Springfield's iconic position by becoming the first white R&B artist. Under the tutelage of funk pioneer Rick James, Marie  graduated to arranging, producing, and composing all her own work in 1981. Marie enjoyed success with her literate works and an unmistakable voice until she passed away just a day after Christmas in 2010. Her last offering Congo Square (2009), showed her undiminished talent, one that is missed.

"Behind the Groove" from Lady T (1980)

Recommended Listening: Robbery (1983)

#5. Culture Club
First Album Released in 1981
Out of all the New Romantic groups that swarmed from England in the early '80's, Culture Club possessed an altogether organic ebb that set them apart. Boy George (vocals), Roy Hay (guitar), Jon Moss (drums), and Mikey Craig (bass) created the warm weight that defined the chart classics "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" and "Karma Chameleon." Reggae was a prominent fixture alongside dance minerals on their saucy debut Kissing to be Clever (1981), but 1982's Colour By Numbers was tempered with jazz and soul. Visit the Motown shiner "Church of the Poison Mind" or the bleak "Black Money" for proof. With a second reunion rumor on the wind for Culture Club's 30th anniversary, one can be sure to hear the same commitment to soul-pop quality that characterized Culture Club's finest moments.

"Mistake No.3" from Waking Up with the House on Fire (1984)

Recommended Listening: Colour By Numbers (1982)

#6. Eurythmics
First Album Released in 1981
Another of the giants to emerge in the Second British Invasion of the early '80's, the Eurythmics (Dave Stewart, Annie Lennox) were glass sharp. Stewart's icy arrangements hung on Lennox's voice with perfection. Based on the work of their first four records, their eligibility for this list could be questioned. In a twitchy move of musical retooling, the Eurythmics completely transformed from an electro-synth duo into a rocking R&B duo on their fifth outing Be Yourself Tonight (1985). This album makes the Eurythmics inclusion to this list a must. Putting what many already suspected was a soulful Lennox into searing soul-pop like "Would I Lie to You?" was epic. Even the collaborations boasted gold with Stevie Wonder on "There Must Be An Angel (Playing with My Heart)" and Lennox doing a duet with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin on "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves." Such a dramatic transformation, not at all expected, was a wonder. The Eurythmics moved further into rock/soul with Revenge (1986) before returning to the computer cool of old on Savage (1987). Not direct users of blue-eyed soul in the obvious sense, Be Yourself Tonight refuted that for a moment.

"It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back) from Be Yourself Tonight (1985)

Recommended Listening: Be Yourself Tonight (1985)

#7. Simply Red
First Album Released in 1985
Like many of the acts here, Mick Hucknall's outfit was from the United Kingdom. Unlike any of the prior New Romantics talked about, Simply Red’s sound was completely based in jazz and adult pop. Gems from their debut record Picture Book (1985) included "Holding Back the Years" and Money'$ Too Tight to Mention." Simply Red went through several line-up changes before becoming a talented, if revolving door of session musicians to Hucknall's dynamo voice. In 1989, Simply Red turned in a hit cover of the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes "If You Don't Know Me By Now" on A New Flame. In the '90's, Simply Red's successes were kept to European, British, and Asian shores for recordings like Stars (1991), Life (1995), and Blue (1998). Recently disbanding, they leave behind pop records washed in refined R&B.

"Home" from Home (2003)

Recommended Listening: Blue (1998)

#8. George Michael
First Album Released in 1987
Along with Andrew Ridgeley, George Michael had humble beginnings in the twee pop duo Wham! Hinting at a mature direction with "Careless Whisper," Michael began assembling his solo effort for a 1987 release. Faith, a global sensation evidenced Michael’s ear for writing, arranging, and producing his own work. Steeped in a fair amount of R&B aesthetic, Faith crossed chart borders with "Father Figure" and "Hard Day." Michael continued to use R&B within each album that followed, maintaining an iron hold on his native Britain when his U.S. audience waned in 1996. Michael's strength lies in his natural affinity to capture the ideas of rhythm and blues and keep them accessible to a pop audience. More than any other artist featured on this list, Michael blurs the line between pop and R&B music with an uncanny ease.

"Amazing" from Patience (2004)

Recommended Listening: Older (1996)

#9. Swing Out Sister
First Album Released in 1987
Partners in pop, Andy Connell and Corinne Drewery shared the sassy "Breakout" in '87. A beloved treasure from its period, most associate Swing Out Sister with one-hit wonderhood. In reality, Swing Out Sister have been creating the kind of pop many only hope to make in a lifetime. From their Jimmy Webb and John Barry inspired works, to the fusion of hip-hop with Brit-beatnik acid jazz, Swing Out Sister have always been experimental. Importantly, they segued into a period where they explored '70's funk. Their third offering Get In Touch With Yourself (1992), a loose and bass heavy affair, boasted a cover of the Young-Holt Unlimited/Barbara Acklin's hit "Am I the Same Girl." They took it further with 1994's The Living Return. Still active, their last record Beautiful Mess (2008/2009) showcased sticky R&B in spots, Swing Out Sister's retroactive soul-pop isn't slowing down


"Notgonnachange"* from Get In Touch With Yourself (1992)

*Denotes single version versus album edit featured in video.
Recommended Listening: Get In Touch With Yourself (1992)

#10. Lisa Stansfield
First Album Released in 1989
"The Rochdale Diva," Lisa Stansfield, is one of the leading ladies of the movement this list details. Blasting into existence with "All Around the World," Stansfield's forceful plea reverberated from radios the world over. Moving into a classic soul-pop vein with efforts Real Love (1991) and So Natural (1993), Stansfield remained a household name throughout Europe and England. Record label politicking caused So Natural to lose a Stateside release, so when her fourth (third in the U.S.) effort Lisa Stansfield (1997) dropped, its U.S. reception was lukewarm. Her last two releases Face Up (2001) and The Moment (2004) were contemporaneous, level crafts receiving a British release only. Stansfield has temporarily retired from singing, though it'd be advantageous for today's new crop of Brit-blue-eyed brats to see a master at work.

"Let's Just Call It Love" from Face Up (2001)

Recommended Listening: Real Love (1991)

#11. Texas
First Album Released in 1989
The center of this Scottish pop unit revolves around vocalist Sharleen Spiteri (center), bassist Johnny McElhone (far left), guitarist Ally McErlaine (between McElhone and Spiteri), and keyboardist Eddie Campbell (second to right) with varying musicians shifting in and out throughout their 20 year span. Additionally seen here, circa '97, is Richard Hynd (far right) who was Texas' drummer until departing in 1999. Texas' debut Southside (1989) was influenced by general rock (think Joshua Tree era U2). Later, a mix of alternative with blue-eyed soul seemed an unlikely victory, but that's just what happened as Texas enjoyed a second burst of popularity with White On Blonde (1997) and The Hush (1999). Two additional album releases in 2003 and 2006 followed. Texas paused as a group while Spiteri recorded and released two solo records. Texas' reformation seems to be on the horizon, but they've earned their spot here with Blonde and Hush.

"In Our Lifetime" from The Hush (1999)

Recommended Listening: White on Blonde (1997)

#12. Jamiroquai
First Album Released in 1993
In the mold of the previously mentioned Simply Red revolving door staff, Jason Kay (Jay Kay) does the same as Hucknall in his funk conglomerate Jamiroquai. Jamiroquai's socially conscious funk and jazz stormed the world charts. As they progressed, their work evolved into a sleeker, soulful disco form. In demand today, Jamiroquai is the best funk anyone has heard since, well the '70's.

"Runaway" from High Times: Singles 1992-2006 (2006)

Recommended Listening: Return of the Space Cowboy (1994)

#13. Nikka Costa
First Album Released in 2001
Daughter of Don Costa, a notable music producer, Costa had several "starter" records to her name before she officially entered the fray with Everybody Got Their Something (2001). Produced by Mark Ronson, who played a hand in the career of Amy Winehouse, Everybody was hot. It owed to an obvious blue-eyed sheen but with a tougher, black rock rooted grit indebted to Ike & Tina Turner. Her second outing Can'tneverdidnothin' (2005) received no push from her (then) label home Virgin Records and she moved to Stax to release the dusty, feel-good Pebble to a Pearl (2008). Although she has never achieved anything more than merely modest commercial returns, Costa shines not just as a singer, but a sensitive songsmith and visceral live performer. The digital EP PRO★WHOA! (2011), held her trademark blue-eyed rock, but included pop too.

"Like a Feather" from Everybody Got Their Something (2001)

Recommended Listening: Can'tneverdidnothin' (2005)

#14. Joss Stone
First Album Released in 2003
Leading the new wave of British blue-eyed female singers at the start of the last decade, Joss Stone outshone them all. Her debut The Soul Sessions (2003), a collection of R&B classics and one sexy White Stripes cover placed Stone in the veritable eye of a hurricane of attention. She followed that recording with the (over) mature Mind, Body, & Soul (2004) before settling into her youthful junior long player Introducing...Joss Stone (2007). On each effort, Stone’s voice platformed a rich and full spirit. After a nasty battle with Stone's label EMI Records, they released her. She dropped LP1 last year, her fifth album, produced by Dave Stewart (yes, of the previously mentioned Eurythmics fame). The record appeared on her own indie imprint label Stone'd Records.

"Tell Me 'Bout It" from Introducing...Joss Stone (2007)

Recommended Listening: Colour Me Free! (2009)

#15. Robin Thicke
First Album Released in 2003
Thicke began as an unassuming, if talented songwriter for various pop and R&B stars before his own debut Thicke (2003). Thicke's earthy atmosphere didn't clue to the leap he'd take with The Evolution of Robin Thicke (2006). Led by the single "Lost Without U," the record placed Thicke as the first to revolve around Teena Marie's throne of being a white artist with a legitimate black audience from the outset. Thicke's mixture of "old" and "new" school vibes have endeared Thicke to a variety of ears. Love After War (2011), Thicke's fifth recording was a marked return to his "classic" vibe, showcasing his milk and honey voice with all the trimmings.

"Magic" from Something Else (2008)

Recommended Listening: Something Else (2008)

#16. Sam Sparro
First Album Released in 2008
This Aussie, the son of a gospel minister was destined to become a vocalist. After darting back and forth between Sydney and Los Angeles for a few years, Sparro finally unleashed his eponymous LP in 2008 to rave reviews and decent commercial fanfare. An obvious student to Prince's sounds, Sparro's penmanship and acrobatic vocals kept him from being another Prince copycat. Return to Paradise, his anticipated second player, is due in the late spring or early summer of 2012.

"21st Century Life" from Sam Sparro (2008)

Recommended Listening: Sam Sparro (2008)

[Editor's Note: Originally posted April 9th, 2011. Amendments made on 3/20/12 & 5/28/12.-QH]

Monday, March 5, 2012

Beginning Again: Ace of Base's "Da Capo" Turns 10

Euro-pop is a dirty word to the (supposedly) discerning music aficionado. Disposable, camp, and lacking any sort of message are usual suspects of its derision. These stereotypes are shortsighted and often incorrect. 

Euro-pop is a changing, uninhibited embrace of styles. Melodically fortified, lyrically abstract, joyful and smart, its shield and sword have been wielded by many. In the last two decades, Ace of Base was one of the best warriors of the form. Arriving on the global stage with the song "Wheel of Fortune" 20 years ago last month, Ace of Base became one of the biggest groups to bounce out of the pop capitol of the world, Sweden. The original quartet consisted of Ulf Ekberg and siblings Malin (Linn), Jenny, and Jonas (Joker) Berggren. Recall for a few may stop at their feel-good pop slice "The Sign." That's only one side of Ace of Base's story. Ten years back Ace of Base unleashed Da Capo, their fourth long player, and last to feature the initial line-up. Da Capo symbolized a new path and the end of an era, yet it remains eager to reveal its secrets.

The History
Happy Nation, later presented as The Sign, propelled Ace of Base from 1992 through 1994. One of the few albums to hold the record title of "best-selling debut," Happy Nation/The Sign's multi-platinum shadow cast long over Ace of Base's subsequent material. Standing as the flashpoint for the ongoing obsession of club culture and its music, Happy Nation/The Sign's blend of reggae-dub with harsh beats was the epitome of freshness at that junction. Their follow-up, 1995's The Bridge, removed the sophomore jinx creatively with a multitude of world music flavor. Sales were respectable, but not as astronomical as their debut. Unfettered, Ace of Base moved onward to their third set, the diverse and aptly titled Flowers (1998).

The world smash "Life is a Flower" allowed its parent album Flowers to repeat the sales success of The Bridge and kept Ace of Base in the public eye. Behind the curtain there was tension stirring within their many label homes. Distributed by Mega Records in Europe proper, Ace of Base also had representation by Polydor (England) and Arista Records (U.S.A.). The labels saw The Bridge's diminutive commercial presence as an issue and pressure mounted to "rework" Ace of Base's appeal. Self-contained, with occasional collaborative producer/songwriter partnerships, Ace of Base handled majority of their output. The record labels didn't see this as a good thing and Stateside Clive Davis (then Arista chief) usurped control. Despite its success, Davis viewed "Life is a Flower" and its album Flowers as "too European." Flowers appeared altered in the American market as Cruel Summer in 1998. Its title came from Bananarama's '83/'84 hit that Ace of Base covered for Flowers.

"Life is a Flower" was recast lyrically as "Whenever You're Near Me," musically the same, but its songwriting rendered a generic confection. Davis was partially rewarded: "Cruel Summer" gave Ace of Base their final U.S. Top 10 pop hit. Overall, the U.S. version of the album didn't meet the same commercial goals it did abroad in its original format.

Amid the label politics, the band itself faced internal strife. Malin Berggren's personal struggle with her agoraphobia was fast becoming an issue. Throughout it all, Ace of Base continued to be one of the loudest voices of European pop in the late '90's. Singles of the '90's globally, and The Greatest Hits in the American territory, dropped in 1999. Soon afterwards, work started in late October of 2000 on "Album V," what became Da Capo, Ace of Base's fourth long player. Sadly, label interference delayed the record until 2002.

The Record
"Da capo" is an Italian phrase that when translated means "from the beginning." For Ace of Base, they'd made it a point to distance themselves from the specific sound slope of Happy Nation/The Sign. Da Capo's mission was to connect back to the reggae-dub/euro-dance of yore without undoing the growth of their second and third albums.

The seeds of Da Capo were first planted back during the creation of The Bridge. Before the gleaming "Goldeneye" from Tina Turner's Wildest Dreams LP (1995), Ace of Base were on board to record the theme for the Pierce Bronsnan led James Bond flick of the same name. Jonas Berggren had written the dark song "The Goldeneye" for the film, a pinnacle for him.

For reasons still unknown, Ace of Base's U.S. label Arista that initiated the idea for Ace of Base to join an elite group that included a-ha, Duran Duran, Gladys Knight, Shirley Bassey, and later Garbage and Madonna, pulled Ace of Base from the project. Placed on the shelf, "The Goldeneye" was touched up as "The Juvenile." The stormy ballad didn't feel out of time, or place, on the remainder of Da CapoMalin, Ulf, and Jenny joined Jonas (in a songwriting capacity) with fellow producers/songwriters Jonas Von Der Burg and Nice Sommerdahl (to name some) to craft their fourth vehicle. Instead of just aping the previously stated debut vibe, Ace of Base focused on pulling out and applying the "beat buoyancy" that gave that record edge.

"Unspeakable," "Beautiful Morning," and "Change With the Light" were bright grooves that echoed Ace of Base's initial inertia, but with the grace and polish that personified their post debut material. The beats rolled with tricks, tweaks, and twists. "Beautiful Morning" in particular benefited from a gospel choir charge, and Ulf's trademark rap breakdown popped on "Change With the Light." "Da Capo" zinged full of energy, Ulf and Jenny's harmonies piloted into the instant hook of the title track's chorus. It, along with sonic sunbeams "Hey Darling" and "Show Me Love," made no bones about their optimistic airs, countering some of the darker sides of Da Capo.

Ambition remained Ace of Base's best drive for exceptional work, see "Remember the Words" as an example. "Remember the Words" wore an "Old World glamour" that sprawled convincinglyThe percussive clatter of "What's the Name of the Game" and the lyrical duality of "World Down Under" were aural field trips to foreign shores only dreamed of. "Ordinary Day," its A.M. The Album (1977)-era ABBA romanticism soothed like an afternoon chamomile. Ace of Base's desire to rekindle old flames, but burn with modernity had been realized on Da Capo's lean palette.

The Impact
Label wise, Da Capo had been caught in a maelstrom of changes. In addition to the hold-up by Mega Records, said company had merged with Edel Records. The union wouldn't prove fruitful. Regardless, when the moratorium had been lifted from Da Capo, the album was preceded by its lead single "Beautiful Morning" in August of 2002. The single made modest rounds in Sweden (#14), Denmark (#18), Switzerland (#32), Germany (#38), and Australia (#47).

On September 30th, 2002 Da Capo received its partial worldwide release, backed by a muted promotional campaign from Mega/Edel Records. The album placed in various countries: Sweden (#25), Japan (#40), Japanese International Artist Album Chart (#10), and Germany (#48) notably. Da Capo only locked in 500,000 copies worldwide as of this writing. There were several parameters to the commercial failure of Da Capo. The climate had changed considerably between Flowers and Da Capo and while European pop wasn't lacking in popularity, undoubtedly general audiences were moving on to "fresher" sounds. However, weak promotion played a large role. Specifically, during the recording of Da Capo, Ace of Base lost their U.S. contract with Arista unexpectedly. Polydor chose to only give it a "soft release" in Britain with no muscle placed behind advancing the album.

Two more singles were lifted from Da Capo internationally: "Unspeakable" and "The Juvenile." The former touched on charts in Sweden (#45) and Germany (#97), while the latter was a German release only (#97). Critically, Da Capo was received warmly. All Music Guide writer Jon O'Brien didn't hear the modern flourishes abounding on Da Capo, but opined:

Named after the musical term for "back to the beginning," Swedish pop outfit Ace of Base's fourth studio album, Da Capo, stays faithful to its title, thanks to a sound that harks back to the lilting Euro reggae-pop of their mid-'90s heyday.

This old-school approach may explain why the follow-up to 1998's more eclectic Flowers was only given a soft release in the U.K. and failed to see the light of day at all in the U.S.A. (both previously two of their biggest territories), with record company executives, who were already responsible for its two-year delay, claiming the band's output was no longer relevant. But while most of its 12 tracks are unashamedly stuck in the previous decade, particularly the bouncy lead single "Unspeakable," their ska-pop cover of Black's "Wonderful Life," and the flamenco-tinged "Show Me Love," their Anglo-American fans are missing out on some of the best work of their career.

"Beautiful Morning" is a Max Martin-esque polished pop anthem, complete with rousing gospel finale, dedicated to the three Berggren siblings' late father; the title track is a pulsing fusion of techno beats, chugging guitars, and twinkling synths; and, best of all, "The Juvenile" is a reworking of their intended James Bond theme for 1995's Goldeneye, whose sinister John Barry-esque strings and haunting melodies are more than a match for the Tina Turner number that was chosen ahead of it. Da Capo was to be the final swan song for original vocalists Linn and Jenny, but while it undeniably sounds like it's stuck in a mid-'90s time warp, it's a consistently feel-good affair ensuring that the pair went out on a high

Shell-shocked by the cold reception of Da Capo, Ace of Base went on hiatus. During the span between Da Capo and their next album The Golden Ratio (2010), Malin Berggren removed herself from the group permanently. Down to a trio, Ulf, and siblings Jenny and Jonas slowly began working on their fifth record, while keeping a high profile within Europe's confines.

An exceptional performance at the ever-popular Night of the Proms in 2005 showed promise for the trio. Yet, record labels scarcely had interest in signing the group without a fourth member. Jenny Berggren split from Ulf and her brother to release her first solo recording My Story in 2010. The work started with Jenny continued with Ulf and Jonas and two new female singers: Julia Williamson and Swedish Idol 2009 semi-finalist Clara Hagman. Ace of Base, now rechristened ace.of.base, found a new home for Ratio on Playground/UniversalThe Golden Ratio received mixed reviews and sales. There remains no word if Ulf and Jonas will eventually attempt a reunion with Jenny and Malin.

Directed By: Daniel Borjesson

Victims of label scrutiny and a debut almost too big to top commercially, Ace of Base managed to pull together and stay true to their vision. Their impact is still muddled in slight critical misrepresentation and that's unfortunate. Their music, despite recent line-up debacles, rings true as fine Euro-pop. Adhering to the mentioned principals earlier in the entry, Da Capo's distillation of Ace of Base's pop purity remains distinct, unaffected, and contagious. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: For current information on Ace of Base, visit their official page here. Da Capo, along with all of Ace of Base's work is still in print, however certain albums (i.e.-Da Capo, Flowers, etc.) are physically only available as imports. Digitally, the albums are all domestically available via iTunes, or Amazon offers the physical ones at decent prices. Thanks to Ultimate Ace of Base for the data used in this entry.-QH]