Reviews

EN VOGUE; Electric Cafe (Eone)

Wednesday, 11 April 2018 13:37 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altWell, it's been a long time coming, but at last we have a new album from the new look En Vogue. I think it was almost twelve months ago that we were treated to a new single from the trio.... 'I'm Good'. We were told back then that the release heralded a new long player and isn't it a good job that fans are a patient bunch?

Whatever, the collection 'Electric Cafe' is now available and the trio Cindy Heron-Braggs, Terry Ellis and Rhona Bennett deliver what long-time devotees have come to expect - good-time, pop-flavoured contemporary R&B garnished with sweet harmonies and, when required, a soulful delivery.

Sadly, that soul delivery is all too often swamped by electro gimmickry, instrumentation and effects. Apologists would, of course, argue that the album is called 'Electric Cafe' so that's what we should expect. Yes, OK, and that's what we get. Cuts like 'Oceans Deep', 'Live' and the title cut are just a wee bit synthetic to hit the soul spot, while 'Love The Way' is dire Euro pop.... so bad it could win the Eurovision!

On the plus side that 'I'm Good' still sounds good but the best soul cut is the unprepossessing 'Déjà Vu'. This is a proper song with a an old school feel about it but I've noticed on En Vogue fan sites that this is the one most of the trio's devotees don't dig. Shows you what I know! I think, though, that we'd agree that the Snoop Dogg collaboration, 'Have A Seat' is a good 'un.... a contemporary R&B rumble, tight harmonies and a bit of typically, tongue in cheek humour from Mr. Broadus.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 April 2018 13:47

 

THE TEMPTATIONS: 'Puzzle People,' 'Psychedelic Shack,' 'Sky's The Limit,' 'Solid Rock,' 'Masterpiece' (Elemental/Motown)

Saturday, 07 April 2018 12:33 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

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1968 was a pivotal year for both The Temptations and their label, Motown Records. When the group fired charismatic and popular frontman David Ruffin - whose sense of self-importance and ego-driven demands threatened to rip the vocal quintet apart - it seemed like a suicidal move in commercial terms, but the acquisition of replacement, ex-Contours singer, Dennis Edwards, eventually proved inspirational, and the group enjoyed even more success than they had before. But Edwards arrived at a time when the group's producer, Norman Whitfield, who had begun tuning into the psychedelic movement and the late-'60s counterculture revolution, was in the process of rejecting the traditional upbeat Motown sound, and giving them a radical stylistic makeover  that would alienate some of their fans who adored the group for their romantic balladry. 

Grainy-voiced Edwards debuted on the single (and subsequent parent album with the same title),  'Cloud Nine,' in 1968, which officially marked a juncture in the group's history denoted as their 'Psychedelic Soul' era. Sonically, it was tough, funky, fiercely contemporary, and uncompromising, and as the '60s became the '70s, Whitfield's songs were more like socio-political sermons while his production was more grandiose and cinematic, defined by elongated grooves. The group's 'Psychedelic Soul' period is vividly brought to life by the reissue of five Temptations' albums (all remastered and served up in gatefold mini-LP replica sleeves) that followed in the wake of 'Cloud Nine.'

1969's 'Puzzle People' continued where 'Cloud Nine' left off, showcasing the group's more pugnacious style. The driving 'I Can't Get Next To You' - with all five Tempts sharing lead vocals, a Whitfield production trait - was the killer single from an album that mixed potent original material - 'Don't Let The Joneses Get You Down,' 'Message From A Black Man,' and the 7-minute-long 'Slave' - with covers of The Beatles' 'Hey Jude,' the Isley Brothers' 'It's Your Thing,' and Bobby Russell's pop tune, 'Little Green Apples.' Even the inclusion of the latter song - one of only two ballads on the 11-track album - didn't dilute the raw power of the Tempts' new sound, whose righteous militancy struck a chord with African-American record buyers.

1970's 'Psychedelic Shack' was arguably an even stronger, more ambitious, album, kicking off with a long version of the hit single of the same name, and including the politically-charged 'War' (a hit for Edwin Starr later the same year), the existentialist meditation, 'You Make Your Own Heaven & Hell Right Here On Earth,' and the filmic funk workout, 'Hum & Along And Dance,' where Whitfield's production work eclipses the group's vocals. Whitfield was also fond of having different acts under his command recording the same songs, so here, the Tempts serve up two songs that the producer had written with Barrett Strong and had cut first with Gladys Knight & The Pips - 'You Need Love Like I Do (Don't You),' and 'Friendship Train.'

Despite the toughness, anger, and virility of The Temptations' music during this period, it's ironic that the second biggest single of their psychedelic soul period was a wistful romantic ballad from 1971 called 'Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),' spotlighting Eddie Kendricks' seraphic falsetto.  Its parent album was 'Sky's The Limit,' an underrated gem in the Tempts' canon, which also included  the message song 'Unzenga Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)' and an epic 12-minute version of 'Smiling Faces Sometimes,' an ode to paranoia that Whitfield later re-cut for his protégés, the Undisputed Truth.

By the time that The Temptations released their next Motown album, 1972's 'Solid Rock,'  Eddie Kendricks had left and Paul Williams had retired due to ill health. In their places came falsetto specialist, Damon Harris, and Richard Street. There were still socially-aware pieces - exemplified by the slow-building anti-Vietnam diatribe, 'Stop The War Now' and more strident 'What It Is' - but overall, the mood was less intense than previous albums. Highlights included the upbeat 'Smooth Sailing (From Now On),'  'Take A Look Around,' and the Dennis Edwards-led ballad, 'It's Summer,' which reprised the sweet soul balladry of 'Just My Imagination.' The album's most successful single was  the funkafied 'Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are),' a stinging riposte to ex-Temptations, Ruffin and Kendricks, who had purportedly been critical of the group after leaving.

After 'Solid Rock,' The Temptations' next album (1972's 'All Directions,' not reissued here) yielded one of their most iconic Whitfield-era songs in the shape of 'Papa Was A Rollin' Stone.' Their next hit was 'Masterpiece,' whose parent album is the final CD in this set of reissues.  The album version is an immersive, widescreen soundscape arranged by Paul Riser that is  built on a simple bass line and last 13-minutes (the vocals don't enter until almost four minutes into the track but are only heard for three minutes). It's undoubtedly one of the best songs that they cut with Whitfield at the helm though some of the fans decried the group's minimal involvement and apparently The Temptations, themselves, weren't totally happy with their reduced role in the producer's grand scheme. Other great cuts here include 'Law Of The Land,' and 'Plastic Man,' while controversially, the dreamy closer, 'Hurry Tomorrow,' featuring Damon Harris' sweet falsetto, seems to condone the taking of hallucinogenic drugs.

While some of the key singles from the Norman Whitfield epoch are familiar to many soul fans, some of the albums they came from are not and so this clutch of well-produced reissues from Elemental is well worth investing in, especially for those wanting to explore the Temptation's psychedelic soul period in more depth.

(CW) 4/5

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 07 April 2018 13:07

 

MARION MEADOWS; Soul City (Shanachie)

Wednesday, 04 April 2018 19:22 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altSax man Marion Meadows has been in the business longer than even he'd care to remember and in that time he's played with and supported many of the biggest names in smooth soul and jazz lite and for this, his latest album, some of those "names" have pitched in to help Marion deliver what is without doubt his most soulful set to date. The intention to create an album – 'Soul City' - built on soul grooves is announced from the start with the ten tracker's title track. 'Soul City' (the track) is a solid, soulful beater that features punchy horn work from Joey Somerville and classic smooth jazz guitar courtesy of Norman Brown. There's more of the same on 'You' which is driven along by Will Gaines' insistent bass and intermittent vocals.

Speaking of which, for an album with a saxophonist's name on the marquee, there are plenty of vocal cuts and with people like Maysa, Will Downing and Peabo Bryson taking to the mic for Meadows it's hard to know where to start. So let's stick with that ordering. Ms Maysa Leak fronts a Latino-flavoured 'Dreamin''. In truth Meadows' use of the soprano sax and guest Peter White's acoustic guitar take the tune dangerously near the middle of the road, but anything fronted by Maysa could never be MOR! Will Downing fronts 'Samba De Playa' and again it's a lighter moment but the (ad-libbed?) vocal/sax interplay is a delight. More substantial is the cover of Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time' on which maestro Peabo Bryson shows his pedigree and class ... how sad that we rarely hear him these days.

Elsewhere, Dana Lauren is a convincing voice on 'No Wind No Rain' while the Latrese Bush-vocalised 'Merry Go Round' will transport you back to the R&B grooves of the 90s. This is the unheralded album highlight and adds weight to the album's overall titling..... 'Soul City' indeed!

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 April 2018 19:29

 

GIZELLE SMITH: Ruthless Day (Jalepeno)

Monday, 02 April 2018 15:19 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altGizelle Smith is a Manchester song bird with credible soul DNA... her father was long-time guitarist with the 4 Tops. Gizelle cut her own teeth in the biz fronting the Mighty Mocambos. The inevitable "musical differences" led to a split from the band but after 2 solo singles Ms Smith faded off the musical radar. That was something like eight years ago – much of that time Gizelle spent caring for an ailing mother and dealing with her own depression, brought on, she says, by her fear that her career had ended. So, enter producer Steffen 'Def Stef' Wagner with whom Gizelle had worked with the Mocambos; he suggested that the best therapy was a proper musical comeback... and here we have it ... the 11 track long player that is 'Ruthless Day'.

The album is named for a tune that faces depression and related mental issues head on. Sonically 'Ruthless Day' ( the track) is a lazy, jazzy meander with expressive punchy horns helping hammer the message home that no one really knows when or if depression will affect them. It's a heavy piece echoed later down the track listing by '12'.

Happily the set is not all heavily didactic. Indeed 'S.T.A.Y'' is a one this year's finest up-tempo Brit soul moments. It's a kind of hybrid of Northern soul and the sort of stuff Paul Weller did with the Style Council... you might remember it as a single from last year. The track is a duet with Eric Boss and Eric is also featured on the cut that has already gained huge favour.... the chinking, smouldering, R&B grove that is 'Hero'... a good little tune, sort of a William Bell/Judy Clay thing for the 21st century.

Amongst the other highlights is a gentle, sweet ballad 'Love Song'. The premise here is "everyone loves a song about love" and if you do, you'll love this one.

Find out more about Gizelle Smith and 'Ruthless Day' by visiting our interview archive.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Monday, 02 April 2018 15:25

 

ROBIN McKELLE: Melodic Canvas (Doxie/Membran)

Monday, 26 March 2018 15:21 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

alt2018 is only three short months long and already we've been treated to some fabulous music from the distaff side of the soul scene.... I mean Kathy Kosins' 'Uncovered Soul', Diane Shaw's 'Second Chance', Lisa Stansfield's 'Deeper' and Lindsey Webster's 'Love Inside'. There's enough there to satisfy each and every soul glutton but now to add to the sumptuousness of that banquet songstress Robin McKelle is all set to release this brand new collection.

The soul world first got to know and love Ms McKelle back in 2013 via her still relevant 'Soul Flower' album. The set boasted the evergreen 'Fairytale Ending' (picked up by Expansion as one of THE tunes of that year) and the lovely 'Love's Work' – a duet which helped introduce a relatively unknown Gregory Porter to a wider audience. Since then Robin's consolidated her position as a major leaguer with the album's 'Heart Of Memphis' and 'Looking Glass'.

This new long player, 'Melodic Canvas', sees Robin make a subtle change of musical direction – just as she did in 2013 with 'Soul Flower'. Before that Ms McK had released three albums –all in the jazz idiom and for 'Melodic Canvas' she revisits those jazzier roots. She says that after 'Looking Glass' (her 2016 album) she worked a lot with jazz musicians on the European circuit (Robin is a major name in France in particular) and decided that the time was right to reconnect with jazz and she focused on crafting new songs that would allow her that extra degree of freedom of expression that jazz brings.

And of those songs, there's none finer than 'Lyla'. This is a stark yet beautifully sympathetic look at the difficulties facing young people in the flim/flam, superficial world of social media and digital messaging; it's about dreaming; it's about the passion of reality and  a whole lot more.... if it doesn't move you, nothing will.

'Simple Man' is also set to become one of the best tunes of 2018. This one is about the difficulties and prejudices that face immigrants every day and though from that description it might sound heavy; it isn't... it's light and lithe with a hint of optimism; a delight.

Elsewhere, well the most interesting track, I guess, is 'Il Est Mort Le Soleil'. Yep, that's right a French song.... Robin, as we said is "big in France" and this, her first recording in French, is her thank you to her loyal French fans. It's a melancholic meander that befits the title with more beautiful piano from Shedrick Mitchell. Interestingly the song is a French original. It was introduced to US jazz audiences when Ray Charles recorded an English version; Robin offers an English version too.

Other covers include a take on the spiritual 'Swing Low' (Robin's mother sang gospel) and a look at Allen Toussaint's 'Yes We Can' with some funky sax from Chris Potter. So, yes –'Melodic Canvas' is ostensibly a jazz album but be sure the soul is never far away. Whatever, it will be remembered as one of 2018's best.

Find out more about Robin McKelle and 'Melodic Canvas' by visiting our interview archive.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Monday, 26 March 2018 15:32

 

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