Thursday, August 9, 2012

Going Wild in Teena Marie's "Emerald City"

LP cover photograph by Laura Rossingol
Teena Marie, born Mary Christine Brockert, was a phenom when she first landed at Motown Records. Her 1979 debut Wild & Peaceful began a chain reaction of albums that would completely realign and restructure the delivery of rhythm and blues by those not of color. Despite Marie being white, her affinity for the African-American experience extended beyond just the music, and in turn made the music that much more rich.

With Marie's passing two years ago, her music and legacy has come into sharper focus. An astonishing truth that materializes when discussing Teena Marie is how atypical said discussions on her music and impact are. Here is the woman who put the previous model of blue-eyed soul singers on their head, pushed R&B past its borders in her prime and remained a force into her veteran days. Yet, a generous search or reading into Teena Marie will find the same responses about her discography and history: Irons in the Fire (1980), It Must Be Magic (1981), Rick James, "Square Biz," "Fire & Desire," and "Lovergirl."

This is not to say these albums, songs, or one individual do not play integral roles in Marie's lore, but that isn't all of her story. Yes, James was Marie's friend, flame, and mentor. Yes Marie took creative control on Irons in the Fire and produced, arranged, wrote, and composed every record that followed. But what about everything else? The narrative of Teena Marie needs exploration and the maligned Emerald City is the perfect starting point.

Teena, Circa 1985/1986
When Marie's seventh long player arrived in August of 1986, she had clocked enough mileage to be considered an established, if not (yet) an iconic force. That appreciation was still a decade or so away. Emerald City itself was the third of five albums released during her tenure at Epic Records.

Marie's Motown exodus hadn't been gentle, though her time there was successful. A misappropriation of trust had made Marie a freedom fighter for artists everywhere and gave us "The Brockert Initiative." Afterwards she hit Epic with her tour de force, 1983's Robbery. The album song cycled her tumultuous on-again-off-again courtship to the late punk-funker Rick James and was equal amounts of heartbreak, funk, and confessional poetry. It also wasn't a hit: (#13 U.S. R&B, #119 U.S. pop). Rather, the accessible Starchild (1984) claimed sales glory with its lead single "Lovergirl," a likable fusion of (then) current rock-R&B-pop-new wave fizziness that gave Marie her first pop hit (#4 U.S. Pop) but kept her firmly entrenched in R&B's good graces (#9 U.S. R&B). Starchild did have other highlights to share ("Help Youngblood Get to the Funky Party," "Starchild," "My Dear Mr. Gaye") but they were obscured by banal numbers like "Jammin'" and "Out on a Limb."

"Emerald City" as depicted in the 1939 film adaption of Wizard of Oz
Emerald City took its name from L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow's classic tale Wizard of Oz, published in 1900 and turned into a Hollywood blockbuster staple in 1939. The city is usually depicted as joyous and full of light. On wax, Marie cast Emerald City as a modern city gripped in perpetual night, its green glow eerie, hypnotic, and dangerous.

There, Marie herself became "Pity," a character created for one of her many poem stories that accompanied each record. Pity became an allegory for Marie's racial frustration of being accepted into black culture, with all its pros and cons when it came to her other musical interests. She revealed via an excerpt from the Emerald City poem, her feelings:

Of course she wanted to be green because she'd been all the other colors before, I mean, with her past lives and all. Now that people were saying she couldn't possibly be white, it seemed to be the natural thing to do. And anyways, since she hadn't seen any green people before, maybe she wouldn't run into any stereotypes and prejudices this time.

While R&B in the '70's and '80's was known for its multi-racial/gender bands, Marie was still a white woman in a predominantly male oriented field. Teena Marie didn't know how not to dare and so she went about assembling the crew to bring Emerald City to life.

Amid Marie's own primary writing, arranging, and producing, the players included: Bendrix (additional songwriting, bass),  Allan McGrier, Stanley Clarke, Abraham Labanel Sr., Bootsy Collins, Gerry Brown (bass), Gary Grant (trumpet), Branford Marsalis (saxophone), Fred Mirza (horn arranger), Maxine and Julia Waters (background vocals), Randy Kerber (keyboards), John Bokowski (acoustic piano), John "JR" Robinson (drums), Brian Kilgore (timbales), James Allen (drum programming), Paulinho Da Costa (percussion), Michael Landau, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Nikki Slikk (guitar).

The mentioned cityscape of Emerald City's urban sprawl gone mad is compelling when looking at the first side of the long player. Three songs in claim Marie's affinity to black dance: the title track, "Once Is Not Enough," and "Lips to Find You". The title cut, with spoken word introduction by Bootsy Collins, spun in fits like a manic carnival groove. Marie's voice jammed all over the place and  maintained a controlled pace.

Single cover to "Lips to Find You"
On the insistent "Once Is Not Enough," Marie's desire was insatiable soundtracked with gritty beats that melded computerized and organic drums seamlessly. "Once" stayed elevated to keep the B.P.M. hearty for the feet on the floor, while the subject matter of "Lips to Find You" drew a sexual (but always literate) stalker poise.

Marie shattered any competition that lay in wait when it came to her unparalleled lyricism. That lyricism drove home the booming drama of "You So Heavy," dedicated to her longtime muse Rick James in the liner notes, and the arid, Canto-soul of "Shangri-La". The former made analogies to love in withdrawal, while the latter used cuisine and spiritual references to present Marie in her darkest, most sensual moment (still) committed to record. The tropical "Batucada Suite," which upon first visit seemed out of place among the heavier dance and mid-tempo bedroom fare, refreshed. When taken literally from its words ("Mary's into new things, got a brand new bag. Superficial living has made her life a drag...) it played integral to the rediscovery Marie meant for Emerald City. The polished finish of the big ballad "Love Me Down Easy" hummed to be picked up at urban radio, while the closer "Sunny Skies" was a true classic. In the vein of her jazz jewels "You Make Love Like Springtime," "Portuguese Love," and "Shadow Boxing" the mournful track was the last of its kind until her recent jazz boomerang returned on Congo Square (2009).

Emerald City wasn't wholly dissimilar from any of the work she'd cut up to that point. The general public didn't see it that way and the record met a cold reception. The album placed at #20 U.S. R&B, whereas the U.S. Pop  #81 placement professed that pop audiences had returned to their dismissive opinion of Teena Marie. Two singles were pulled from the project: "Lips to Find You" (U.S. R&B #28) and "Love Me Down Easy" (U.S. R&B #76). The dance charts (surprisingly) showed no affection to "Lips," while R&B was stiff to the genuinely appealing "Love."

Promotional Video for "Lips to Find You"

Reasons? There were a few. Though R&B tended to embrace their acts eras aside, the genre still had a youth driven market. At 30, Teena Marie seemed old hat to some new ears. The urban danceability of Emerald City was slightly behind the ball in 1986. Black music had started another of its inexorable turns to broader dance characterized in freestyle, hip-hop, and house pioneered by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Janet Jackson, LL Cool J, etc. Emerald City book ended the mighty Minneapolis sound in its first incarnation. Had it arrived a year after Starchild in 1985, it may have found a wider audience.

Guitar factored into Emerald City more than any other Marie album, but not so much that it earned the stature critic Chuck Eddy bestowed on it in his book, '91's Stairway to Hell. There, it was tagged with ninth place as "The Greatest Heavy Metal Album of All Time." All because of a scorching guitar solo by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn that closed "You So Heavy?" Electric as that solo was, it was tame compared to the heights scaled by the usual suspects in heavy metal.

Backside of "Love Me Down Easy" 45" Single Sleeve
In times like these, what marked the zeitgeist of the period for people to classify or mislabel certain records? As a result of its relative commercial and critical failure, Emerald City is still largely draped in literal shadow. Teena Marie rarely touched on it in interviews and historians write it out.

The follow-up, Naked to the World (1988), delivered the commercial goods to Teena Marie in her first R&B chart topper "Ooo La La La." The album owned a few tricks, but overall it was dreck done up designer. New Jack Swing had hit and Marie acclimated to it, the results varied from good ("Trick Bag") to messy ("Surrealistic Pillow"). The somewhat improved Ivory (1990) fell from the sales perch of Naked to the World and ended Marie's eight year run at Epic. Barring the independently issued Passion Play (1994), Teena Marie remained quiet for majority of the '90's. She returned in the '00's with a stream of safe recordings starting with the blasé La Doña (2004) and Sapphire (2006) on the Cash Money Classics imprint. Later, Marie signed to Stax/Concord for 2009's Congo Square that bore a stronger artistically aware vibe.

This year, via music critic mogul David Nathan's Soul Music label, Emerald City saw life again in remastered form in June. Featuring liner notes, several instrumentals and 12" mixes, it tacked on two soundtrack gems from before and after Emerald City's genesis: "14k" from The Goonies (1985) and "Lead Me On" from Top Gun (1987). With that reissue, Emerald City is finally getting a chance to let listeners journey to a city where skin color didn't shut out the universal themes of unrequited love, unrelenting desire, and freedom. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: The standard version of Emerald City is out of print, but as stated, the reissued version can be purchased from Soul Music Records directly or Amazon. It is also available digitally.-QH]

Monday, August 6, 2012

Happy Birthday Ms. Geri Halliwell

Halliwell today
Hailing from working class Watford, England, Geri Halliwell made up one-fifth of a defining female group in popular music: the Spice Girls. Along with Melanie's Brown and Chisholm, Victoria Beckham, and Emma Bunton, the Spice Girls hit the ground running with their cheeky, whip-smart pop tunes.

The drama that ensued after Halliwell's departure from the group in the spring of 1998 isn't unknown. It all ended up fine, the Spice Girls went on as a four piece, solo careers followed sparked by Halliwell's own solo start in 1999. The Spice Girls formally reunited in late 2007 and wrapped their story on a high note. Today, the Spice Girls music endures in many different forms. Their legacy extends to the varied shapes of career paths each Spice Girl has carved out. Currently, Melanie C remains the sole active group member to continually release new music. Though Geri Halliwell has been inactive on the music front since 2005, her own discography is epic in its own right. Halliwell released three full length recordings: Schizophonic (1999), Scream If You Wanna Go Faster (2001), and Passion (2005). Two of the three long players met with commercial gains, Passion being the only one that was a disappointment sales wise at the time of its release.

Love her or loathe her, Halliwell's pop everywoman stature established her as the glamazon young women aspired to, gay men worshipped, and knowing (if embarrassed) music aficionados (silently) cheered for. Now, in the era of pop death we dwell in, Halliwell's musical potency is being rediscovered. The enduring quality of her artistry, regardless of the limitation of her (pleasurable) husky tones, was that Halliwell knew how to dress her pop songs. Writing nearly everything she sang, her material sported a mixture of intelligence, sexiness, humor, and (good) camp that didn't sound like any other act hustling on the pop scene when she was active.
Halliwell Through the Years

As All Music Guide critic Jose F. Promis once remarked of Halliwell's music, "This set (Scream If You Wanna Go Faster) is diverse, uplifting, and fun through and through, only the most hardened and cynical listener would be incapable of finding a song to tap their foot to."

Rumors have swirled, culminating this year, that Halliwell is considering a return to pop music. It's a different space than it was in 2005, now a mother, Halliwell has nothing to prove as her iconic place is secured. Yet, if Halliwell keeps her wits about her, the sky could be the limit.

Halliwell herself, via her second memoir Just For the Record (2003), humbly summed up her ethos as thus:

"I love doing this (music). It's so cathartic just expressing where I'm at, which (in case you were wondering) is why I do it. Sometimes I get a little scared that I will be judged or criticised for being so honest and going on about myself. But actually, I have nothing to hide and in a way, I hope that when I share my experiences (good or bad), the message I will get across is that we're not alone in this thing called life. It's hard sometimes, it's funny, it's serious, it's ridiculous, but we're all in it together!"

To celebrate Geri's 40th birthday, I've collected the nine singles from the three albums she has released. From "Look At Me" through "Desire," the trajectory of this clutch of pop classics will be examined. Happy Birthday to the one and only, Ms. Geri Halliwell.

Look At Me
Release Date: May 10th, 1999
B-Sides: Remixes only
U.K. Position: #2
Writers: Geri Halliwell, Andy Watkins, Paul Wilson
Parent LP: Schizophonic
Single Synopsis: Halliwell's first single on her own was a sneering, jazzy, manic slice of runway attitude. On top of snapping horns, sampled bossa nova groove, Halliwell gave an aerobic vocal. The words of the track divided between clever commentary on opposite pairings and tearing down superficial perceptions. The middle eight contains a wacky funeral marching break that lends to the pop majesty of "Look At Me" which is all at once ridiculous, winning, and thoroughly Geri Halliwell.

Directed By: Vaughn Arnell

Mi Chico Latino
Release Date: August 16th, 1999
B-Sides: "G.A.Y.," "Summertime"
U.K. Position: #1
Writers: Geri Halliwell, Andy Watkins, Paul Wilson
Parent LP: Schizophonic
Single Synopsis: Adding her own take to the Latin pop craze that had taken the globe by storm in 1999, Halliwell contributed "Mi Chico Latino." The saucy cut brought to mind her self-confessed idol Madonna's own "La Isla Bonita". Whereas Madonna's cut relied on pathos that led to sensuality, Halliwell's cut dealt strictly in humid sexuality, tastefully.
B-Side Synopsis:
"G.A.Y.": A slick, disco-pop anthem for her gay fan base that turned the simple acronym "good as you" into a rallying cry for independence and individuality.
"Summertime": One of her strongest efforts, this psycho-sexual outcast played on analogies. Halliwell literally caught fire when she sang the line "So dry your tears in the sun, burn your skin, we've just begun". Dark and mysterious in equal doses.

Directed By: Doug Nichol

Lift Me Up
Release Date: November 1st, 1999
B-Sides: "Live & Let Die," "Very Slowly"
U.K. Position: #1
Writers: Geri Halliwell, Andy Watkins, Paul Wilson, Tracey Ackerman
Parent LP: Schizophonic
Single Synopsis: A demonstration of Halliwell's penchant for slower fare and her pen's ability to craft genuinely moving works, "Lift Me Up" was plush. At this point, Halliwell's voice was still coming into its own, but she didn't lack for conviction. Much was made of the only "Solo Spice" chart battle between Halliwell and Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton's "What I Am," a pleasant cover of the Edie Brickel & The New Bohemians hit. Halliwell stole the pole position, while Emma received (graciously) the second place slot. Ms. Bunton would be rewarded with her own number one record in 2001, with "What Took You So Long?"
B-Side Synopsis:
"Live & Let Die": Halliwell's love of older pop was proven with her cover of Sir Paul McCartney and Wing's '73 James Bond film hit "Live & Let Die". Busy and dramatic, the track got away from Halliwell slightly, but her enthusiasm was no less contagious.
"Very Slowly": A modish, urban growler, Halliwell vocally slinked and crept through the cut convincingly.

Directed By: Howard Greenhalgh

Bag It Up
Release Date: March 13th, 2000
B-Sides: "These Boots Are Made for Walking," "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps"
U.K. Position: #1
Writers: Geri Halliwell, Andy Watkins, Paul Wilson
Parent LP: Schizophonic
Single Synopsis: The fourth and final single from Schizophonic was the best of the litter. The rhythmic, horn laced, glittery treat boasted some of Halliwell's best lyrics. The song, built for her seductive and sly vocal, presented the worn the "battle of the sexes" idea in a fresh and imaginative way.
B-Side Synopsis:
"These Boots Are Made for Walking": Returning back to the pop songbook of yore, Halliwell struck gold on this Nancy Sinatra hit. The arrangement stayed true to the original, which suited Halliwell's spiced approach perfectly.
"Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps": Reaching back (again) to Doris Day, Halliwell's delivery was spot on. Vintage and lively, she gave the cha-cha-cha backdrop of "Perhaps" an additional helping of salsa and made it her own. Of note, her former group mate Emma Bunton would also cover this Doris Day diamond on her third LP Life In Mono (2006).

Directed By: Dawn Shadforth

It's Raining Men
Release Date: April 30th, 2001
B-Sides: "Brave New World"
U.K. Position: #1
Writers: Paul Jabara, Paul Schaffer
Parent LP: Scream If You Wanna Go Faster
Single Synopsis: According to Halliwell, the recording of The Weather Girls camp classic "It's Raining Men," was done on the fly. It shows, in a good way. The vitality, immediacy, and accuracy of Halliwell's on target delivery made the song a surefire hit and relevant once more. "Raining" was included on the soundtrack to the film adaption of the Helen Fielding novel Bridget Jones' Diary (starring Renée Zellweger) and Halliwell's (then) upcoming second effort, Scream If You Wanna Go Faster.
B-Side Synopsis"Brave New World": On top of a rushing stream of lyrical psychology ("Ego! Bliss!") and electro cool, Halliwell unveiled the next phase of her musical travels on this nitro-fueled nugget.

Directed By: Jim Canty & Jake Sebastian-Wynne

Scream If You Wanna Go Faster
Release Date: July 30th, 2001
B-Sides: "New Religion," "Breaking Glass"
U.K. Position: #8
Writers: Geri Halliwell, Rick Nowels
Parent LP: Scream If You Wanna Go Faster
Single Synopsis: A stunning display of pop power the title track, and second single, from Halliwell's sophomore long player payed homage to fiesty '60's rock keyboards and trappings.
Lyrically, the song alluded to spiritual freedom, rebirth, and escape, her peppery vocals front and center. It's one of the truly underrated pop songs of the last decade.
B-Sides Synopsis:
"New Religion": Halliwell's '60's pop fetish didn't let up on this adventuring non-LP cut. Full of Beach Boys inspired guitar licks, hand claps, and pummeling percussion, Halliwell sparkled on this flirt of a song.
"Breaking Glass": A mournful, tender opposite to "New Religion," Halliwell's introspective colors shone as brightly as her fluffier ones.

Directed By: Jim Canty & Jake Sebastian-Wynn

Release Date: November 26th, 2001
B-Sides: "Getting Better," "Destiny"
U.K. Position: #7
Writers: Geri Halliwell, Peter-John Vettesse
Parent LP: Scream If You Wanna Go Faster
Single Synopsis: Autumnal and European, "Calling" stood as Halliwell's definitive moment as an artist. The song exemplified when Halliwell was left to her own devices, she produced the goods repeatedly.
B-Side Synopsis:
"Getting Better": "I want attention, but not correction." That line solidified Halliwell as the mistress of the stream-of-consciousness pop lyric on this thrift-groove b-side. Funny and touching all at once, Halliwell doled out advice and cheer with her spoon full o' pop sugar.
"Destiny": Pert and perky in its disco-pop dolly lane, "Destiny" and its appeal rested solely on the easy vocal and quick hook it displayed.

Directed By: Pierluca DeCario

Ride It
Release Date: November 22nd, 2004
B-Sides: Remixes only
U.K. Position: #4
Writers: Ian Masterston, Josef Larossi, Andreas Romdhane, Geri Halliwell
Parent LP: Passion
Single Synopsis: Two years after her last single and album, Halliwell hit the U.K. charts with "Ride It," a commercial surrender or restructuring? The unique acordion introduction, over which Halliwell harmonized beautifully, spilled into a general U.K. dance-pop romp. Not boring, nor exciting, it operated somewhere in the middle considering Halliwell's pop precision on past music.

Directed By: Luca Tommassini

Release Date: May 30th, 2005
B-Sides: "True Love Never Dies"
U.K. Position: #22
Writers: Mathias Wollo, Terry Ronald, Henrik Korpi, Geri Halliwell
Parent LP: Passion
Single Synopsis: "Desire," the second single from Passion, arrived in the late spring of 2005 and deserved a better fate than it received. It became her lowest charting affair to date. A daring mixture of an orchestral strike-up and a deep sea diving mechanism ping, Halliwell worked out the kinks in the layered seduction of "Desire".
B-Side Synopsis: "True Love Never Dies": A throwback to her '60's pop songbook musings, "True Love Never Dies" was an endearing ballad that was lovable, knowing adult schmaltz and sincerity.

Directed By: Andy Marahan

[Editor's Note: Geri Halliwell's discography is in print physically & digitally, and the prices for the physical discs are reasonable. For official & current information on Ms. Halliwell, visit Geri Halliwell Official. Thanks to Andrew Bird for creating the Geri Halliwell montage art.-QH]