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]


Moanerplicity said...

Shockingly, I don't own everything she ever recorded. However I DO aim to someday. I was a huge fan, and remain a fan of Lady T, & what she could do, not only vocally (which was damned extraordinary), but also her skills as a songwriter. She was without equal. Musically, the female Shakespeare of her time (next to Syreeta Wright)... & I do not exaggerate much.

But as funky as she proved herself to be, time & again, nothing beat a Teena Marie ballad. From "Now That I Have You (Feeling Things I Never Felt Before)" to "Irons in The Fire," & of course, "Fire & Desire," Teena Marie was The Truth!

This was a very nice & most fitting tribute to her musical gifts, Q.
Well done!


QH said...

Glad you liked it!-QH

Rob Spiegel said...

No one else could have written a better piece on this underrated work. Mr. Harrison, you've done it again!

Jennifer said...

Absolutely my all-time favorite Teena Marie album. It's a masterpiece to me. This just distanced herself further from the pack---in a good way! But sadly I hate that it's one of her most underrated efforts and is always forgotten whenever we do talk about Lady T classics.

Had no idea it was being remastered though! Love that they added in those long-sought after soundtrack songs from 'The Goonies' and 'Top Gun'. Now that completes the Emerald City era!

Wonderful write-up QH as always :)

LaMusicLovr said...

Damn, and I thought I loved Teena Marie. You have written yet another insightful tribute!!!

Anonymous said...

What a great review of "Emerald City." Teena was ahead of her time. She had an amazing skill set, singing, scatting, rapping, playing intruments, writng, producing.

I don't agree on "La Dona" being written off as "blase." This CD re-established Teena in the R&B/Hip/Hop world. "Still In Love," "A Rose By Any Other Name" with the late, great Gerald Levert, the autobiographical duet "I Got You" with the late great, Rick James. It's well worth another listen, as is "Sapphire," which I feel is some of the best romantic music Teena ever produced--playful, sexy, light-hearted, intense, mournful.

Anonymous said...

i am a late Teena Marie fan but after listening to some of her 70's hits in a spotify playlist, i started to research her bodies of work and wow. i feel like i uncovered treasure and won the music lottery.
after listening digesting LOVING & studying & trying to understand her esoteric music for a few years ..i find myself completely obsessed with Emerald City. i truly believe Teena Marie was an angel god sent to do lead the way , she just had so much passion and amazing talent that you dont get from artists now in 2014.
she is a true trailblazer and emerald city , even though on a first listen i wasn't sure about some of the songs, i now realise how damn cool and trailblazing our beloved lady t is. Emerald City is THE FLYEST DOPEST BADDEST COOLEST MUSIC ever from a female singer I'm so glad i discovered this rare gem!! x

Anonymous said...

I love Teena Marie. I miss her. I'm so glad she left us so much of herself. You So Heavy is one of my all time favorite songs. PURE JOY to me. Her voice and the guitar lift me and take me high. Even now over 25 years after I first heard it.

Anonymous said...

Nice defense of Emerald City. I can understand why it was commercial failure but it was an artistic triumph. I'd say Emerald City is Teena's 'Sign O' The Times', rather than being simple R&B at this point Teena had more in common, musically, with Prince. Both albums were criticized for being self indulgent but which art isn't? Emerald City is Teena at her best.

Steven Duncan said...

This album deserves so much more recognition than it has gotten. This album is a musical masterpiece. It was just misunderstood at the time. Whenever an album is labeled as a failure, it can easily be passed over by casual fans who believe whatever they read without checking it out for themselves. It's a real shame to call an album a failure simply because of sales. Just because an album doesn't sale doesn't mean it's garbage. I'm so glad it's getting a second chance for people to take a look at it.

Steven Duncan said...

I couldn't agree with you more on all points!

rumpledillskin said...

Can I just say this was an incredibly insightful article/commentary. I LIVED TEENA, not only loved her but LIVED her! I remember the summer of 86 SO clearly as I had graduated high school that year and had my first car and moved to the big bright lights of the city of Washington DC and there were two cassettes I blasted any time I was in my car, Janet's Control and Teena's Emerald City. Listening to this cd today not only transforms me back to being 18 and fresh meat on the mean streets of future crack capital DC but all of the great memories of such an exciting time for me. The fun times of clubbing to Lips To Find You to the lonely latenight tears with Sunny Skies. The beauty and brilliance of this album were the mix of genres that Teena could glide in & out of so effortlessly. Just a complete masterpiece, a pre-cursor to Congo Square in my opinion. GREAT article, very informative. At that time in 86, I always wondered exactly why this particular album didn't catch on publicly, because it sure did catch on with me!! And I STILL blast it!