Monthly Archives: February 2013

Playing Catch-Up w/ New Releases From Solange & Austin Brown

Solange

Solange

2013 marks the 10 year anniversary of Solange’s first long player, Solo Star (2003). When released, it preceded her older sister Beyoncé’s landmark solo debut Dangerously In Love by a few months. However, it felt and played, as an after-thought to the success Beyoncé was on the cusp of. Out of nowhere, Solange unleashed her second album in 2008, Sol-Angel & the Hadley Street Dreams. With one record Solange immediately endeared herself to the freaks and geeks of retro R&B and indie-pop. She also made her older sister’s music look a little worked over. Departing her major label confines (Geffen Records), Solange ended up calling Terrible Records home. The indie imprint was perfect for the patient pace that produced True; an extended play that serves as a taster for Solange’s forthcoming third album.

Co-conceived with producer Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Lightspeed Champion or Blood Orange), for all intents and purposes it’s Solange’s next big reveal musically, and what a reveal. Continuing in the futuristic veins of Sol-Angel’s “I Told You So,” “Cosmic Journey,” and “This Bird,” Solange sews in additional ethereal electro-sheen with tasteful patches of varying ’80’s urban textures. The lead single “Losing You,” is one part Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983) emoto-synths and perky sampled dialogue beat spikes. Tying it all together is Solange, with a vocal presence that is assertive, emotional, and authoritative. Her lyrical prowess continues to improve as heard on the claustrophobic “Locked In Closets.”

Elsewhere, Solange builds upon the mentioned sonic template with different heart-worn narratives and layered vocal swathes that will bring to mind Brandy and Janet Jackson on the interlude “Look Good With Trouble.” She even finds time to bring along a veteran, Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire, to play with her on “Bad Girls.” All-in-all, Solange’s EP makes for a great listen and promises that her junior affair will be nothing short of a masterpiece. Ranking: Classic

[Watch: “Losing You“]

[Solange: Official Site]

Austin Brown

Austin Brown

Another member of the Jackson clan that wants to sing? It may seem like a tired proposition, but the son of Rebbie Jackson makes a strong case for his own legacy with the EP Highway ’85. At 11 cuts deep the EP, currently free on Brown’s website, plays like a full-length record. Regardless, the platter features Brown pulling from a wealth of influences that include The Brothers Johnson, Chris Brown, Lenny Kravitz, and his late uncle, Michael Jackson. Whether channeling his uncles, the Jackson 5, on the Motown paean “What Did I Lose to Love You?” or getting suave with David Banner on the hip-hop soul of “All I Need,” Brown evidences that he has his own goods to peddle. Brown acquits himself decently in writing and arranging on the ambitious “Stargazer.” Listen closely for a pleasantly placed sample within the fabric of “Stargazer” that elevates its catchiness.

Melodies play a big part in the hooks of Highway ’85 and they’re plentiful on the kooky groove of “Volcano” and first single “Menage A Trois.” Sincere (“City of Angels”) and sexy (“Groove 92”) in ample amounts, Brown looks to be another Jackson to court a lasting legacy if this project is any indication. Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Watch: “Menage A Trois“]

[Austin Brown: Official Site]

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Mighty Fine: Dannii Minogue’s “Neon Nights” Turns 10

Shot from the "Put the Needle On It" single

Shot from the “Put the Needle On It” single

Neon Nights is one of the seminal dance recordings of the last 10 years. Its mixture of club culture and pop accessibility allowed audiences to have the best of both worlds.

The album was the product of Minogue’s unconventional musical journey for over a decade, one that she was clued in on from the outset.

The History

Minogue first appeared with her debut Love & Kisses (1991). While the album showed that Minogue had a bit to learn, it more than made up for its shortcomings with its infectious enthusiasm. As such, songs like “$ucce$$” (U.K. #11, AU #28) and “Jump to the Beat” (U.K. #8, AU #48) became hits in Minogue’s native Australia and Britain. Specifically, Minogue courted a black-pop aesthetic that portrayed a Paula Abdul spin moreso than Madonna (that influence came later) behind the gritty flavor of “$ucce$$.” Further, “Jump to the Beat,” a U.S. Dance and U.K. hit for teen dream Stacy Lattisaw in 1980, helped Minogue differentiate herself from her successful sister. Though by this time Kylie had started her own urban flirtations with 1991’s Let’s Get to It.

Regardless, the wins of the initial singles from Love & Kisses allowed for the album to be reissued in 1992 and another single in “Baby Love” (U.K. #14) appeared. A cover of Regina’s minor 1986 hit, in its “70’s Silky” single edit courtesy of remix icon Steve “Silk” Hurley, had Minogue working over a revitalized “Baby Love” that sampled Barry White & Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme.” It showcased an adroit Minogue, closer to what she’d sound like later.

Minogue lost her footing on the generic Get Into You (1993) that followed. Her love of classic R&B Americana remained undiminished in a (whitewashed) cover of Melba Moore’s 1976 cut “This Is It” (U.K. #10). The remainder of Get Into You didn’t yield any forward movement. Work for her third album began in 1994 and abruptly concluded in 1995; the material had Minogue returning to her urban palette, albeit with an emphasis on dance played up. Label wrangling shelved the project; it later saw the light of day with Minogue’s blessing as The 1995 Sessions (2007). It was integral to understanding the shift into the trance sounds of 1997’s Girl, Minogue’s first declarative statement as an artist.

While commercial victory alluded her, barring the hit of the lead single “All I Wanna Do” (U.K. #4, U.K. Upfront* #1, AU #11). Girl received rave reviews for Minogue’s use of against-the-grain 90’s dance motifs with a pop touch. Five years separated Girl from Neon Nights. In the interim, Minogue stayed busy as a popular television and theatre personality. But music quickly beckoned again in 2001, and Minogue heeded its call.

The Record

Shot from the "Neon Nights" album shoot

Shot from the Neon Nights album session

A collaboration with John Riva and Victoria Horn, collectively known as the duo Riva, birthed “Who Do You Love Now?” in late 2001. “Who Do You Love Now?” kick-started the recording of Neon Nights immediately and secured Minogue a deal with London Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. International.

Partnered again with Ian Masterson, who worked with Minogue on Girl, they were joined by a troupe of up-and-coming talent and established heavy weights in production and writing: Korpi & Blackcell, Karen Poole, Jean-Claude Ades, Thriller Jill, Sebastian Krieg, Gil Cang, Jewels & Stone, Jock-E, Neïmo, Dacia Bridges, Olaf Kramolowsky, Hannah Robinson, Terry Ronald, Bruno Alexandre, Camille Troillord, Matthieu Joly, Sekou, Savan Kotecha and E. Winstanley. Minogue herself had writing credits on nine of the total 14 tracks completed for Neon Nights.

For her fourth outing, Minogue set her compass to the rich arenas of primary 80’s pop and dance music. Early Madonna (“Everybody,” “Into the Groove”) and Dead or Alive (“Misty Circles,” “You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record)”) were evoked in “Don’t Wanna Lose This Feeling” and “I Begin to Wonder” respectively. Sparkling and stormy entries equally, when they were later officially mashed up (“Don’t Wanna” w/ “Into the Groove,” “Begin” w/ “You Spin Me Right Round”) it played to the strength of these two cuts authentically, recalling the period.

Elsewhere, whether snaking or stabbing, the beats were rounded, sharp and ferocious on the digitized brown sugar stutter of “Creep” and the casual sex of “Put the Needle On It.” “Needle” sat alongside some of the best American urban dance-pop of the early 2000’s  (Spears’ “Boys,” Aguilera’s “Dirrty”), with its baked-in electro-glitch twitches and a fully turned-on Minogue alternating between the sensual and the sleaze vocally. That sensual/sleaze button received additional pushes on “Vibe On” and the deep-dish disco polish of “Mighty Fine.”

“It Won’t Work Out,” a stirring ballad, was the closer of the LP and echoed the reflection of Girl. Hidden several minutes past the conclusion of “It Won’t Work Out” was “Come & Get It,” another dancefloor popper that elevated pulses and made a case for the additional work recorded for Neon Nights that didn’t make the cut. The Middle Eastern cranker “Hide & Seek” and adrenaline rush “Nervous” were both flipsides to “I Begin to Wonder.” The matte frost kiss-off of “Goodbye Song” was featured as the flipside to “Don’t Wanna Lose This Feeling” as well.

As a whole, genres excused, Neon Nights was one of the first records of the early 2000’s to not consciously try to sound current. It naturally possessed an up-to-date air that clashed (tastefully) to some of the post-disco period pieces that galloped on the LP.

The Impact

“Who Do You Love Now?” undeniably ushered in the Neon Nights era; its 11/19/01 release saw it land at decent positions in three of Minogue’s largest markets: U.K. # 3, U.K. Upfront #3, AU #15. However, it was a Riva track featuring Minogue as the vocalist; therefore “Put the Needle On It” was selected as the first single from Neon Nights on 11/4/02. “Needle” was an instant hit (U.K. #7, U.K. Upfront #7, AU #11), fitting into the British climate that was at a dance-friendly height in the early 00’s. The second single “I Begin to Wonder” released two weeks prior to its parent album on 3/3/03. “Wonder” scored Minogue the largest hit of her career: U.K. #2, U.K. Upfront #1, AU #14, U.S Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales #14.

Minogue Circa 2003

Minogue, Circa 2003

Neon Nights opened to praise and sales stature in the United Kingdom (U.K. Album #8) on 3/17/03; it became Minogue’s best-selling album of her career there as a gold-seller with over 100,000+ copies moved.

Interestingly, the album stalled in many international charts, including her native Australia: ARIA** #25, France #49, Germany #68, and Japan #134. America didn’t receive the album, via the dance-indie label Ultra Records, until 10/7/03.

There, held aloft by the club-conquering streak she’d had with the Neon Nights singles, the album reached the U.S. Billboard Top Electric Album Chart at a respectable #17.

Critically, as stated, the long player was lauded from a variety of outlets.

All Music Guide’s John Lucas opined:

Dannii has never quite achieved the level of superstardom that sister Kylie has attained, but she has shown equal tenacity. Neon Nights is a varied collection, a veritable pick and mix of the European dance scene at the turn of the century. Songs such as the sleazy “Put the Needle on It” and the pulsating “A Piece of Time” are pure electro-clash, whereas the bouncy “For the Record” and “Mystified” caught on at the beginning of the major 80’s revival that took off in a big way over the next few years.

Minogue is no faceless vocalist either; she infuses the tracks with her persona, sexually charged but smart and slightly aloof. There is a revelatory performance on the album’s closing track and only ballad, “It Won’t Work Out.”

Jack Smith of BBC Music enthusiastically cheered the aesthetic blends of Neon Nights:

Typically a pleasant cocktail of pop sophistication, club culture and accessibility, “Neon Nights” goes a long way, none moreso than on the P-Funker “Mighty Fine” and “Push.” Oh, and there’s even a hidden track “Come & Get It,” a chunky and highly credible club track mixed by Sebastian Kreig.

A playful, if fictional sibling rivalry spawned by the reviewing realm, was hinted at comically by MusicOMH writer Alexis Kirke:

Kylie Minogue has become a cultural treasure. She is a hot-butted Vera Lynn, a good-boy’s Calendar girl. Yet…there is another. There’s a Dark Willow in Buffy, a Dark Phoenix in the X-Men, and there is also a “Dark Kylie.” Dark Kylie exudes more of a night-time sexuality than Kylie herself. Dark Kylie has greater dancefloor credibility. Dark Kylie is a brunette that wears black. Like Willow and Phoenix, Kylie is in danger of being overcome by her darker side, her sultry sibling Dannii Minogue.

The third, and final, single pulled from the album was “Don’t Wanna Lose This Feeling” (U.K. #5, U.K. Upfront #1, AU #22) on 6/9/03. “Don’t” was unveiled as Minogue was winding her way through a profitable promo tour for Neon Nights that hit the United Kingdom, Ireland, America, Greece, Canada and Turkey from April of 2003 through October of 2004. With three U.K. Top 10 hits (four if one includes the Riva partnership), Minogue had finally made her claim as her own woman separate from her big sister. 

Single Cover to "Don't Wanna Lose This Feeling"

Single cover to “Don’t Wanna Lose This Feeling”

The sky was the limit for Minogue and London Records.  However, appearances were deceiving and the follow-up to Neon Nights proved to be an impossible task.

Initially, “It Won’t Work Out” was tapped as a fourth single for Neon Nights, with an additional new song to add as its b-side. That idea was scrapped in favor of instantaneously recording Minogue’s fifth album. Looking to turn back to her urban-pop roots, apparent in parts of Neon Nights, it was rumored that notion didn’t sit well with London Records.

The abrupt end to what started as a promising partnership was stated to be a “financial” hiccup on London Records end. That hiccup handed Minogue the mandate that she’d have to wait a year to release her semi-completed album or take the project elsewhere. Already contracted to the boutique label All Around the World for a recasting of the dance instrumental “Flower Power” (later to become her U.K. #7  hit “You Won’t Forget About Me”), Minogue departed to All Around the World for more creative movements. The deal proved to be just as perilous as her London Records one.

Instituting a “test single” model, starting with the mentioned “You Won’t Forget About Me” in 2004, Minogue released a single almost every year until 2007. This was to see if Minogue had enough commercial clout to warrant a full-album treatment, though she had the blessing to start recording a new project for All Around the World despite their machinations. While “Perfection,” “So Under Pressure,” “I Can’t Sleep At Night,” “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “Touch Me Like That” enjoyed cross-chart victories, it didn’t convince the label to fully support an album.

Neon Nights era outtake

Neon Nights era outtake

As a compromise, The Hits & Beyond (2006) collected majority of Minogue’s singles across her varying labels, including music released and vaulted for the All Around the World imprint. After two labels, two aborted fifth albums, Minogue was tired.

Her chart statistics suggested she hadn’t lost all of her magic, but the dance-friendliness of the first four years of the 00’s was thinning. Minogue’s other contemporaries like Holly Valance, Lisa Scott-Lee (of Steps fame) and Rachel Stevens were all struggling to achieve more than modest chart impact.

Minogue returned to television with a lengthy judging tenure on the British edition of ‘X-Factor’. Additionally, she wrote a hit memoir (Dannii) and became a mother in the last five years. Ironically, reissue label Rhino Records showed major love to Minogue by giving lush treatment to all four of her studio LPs. The reissue of Neon Nights was cause for celebration as it collected sought-after remixes, b-sides, the mentioned mash-ups and unreleased Neon Nights leftovers.

A compilation titled Unleashed (2009) featured a gathering of the work for her London Records follow-up to Neon Nights. The superior Unleashed came after the strange Club Disco (2007) effort that captured her Sister Sledge cover and last single to date (“Touch Me Like That”) with a few other All Around the World oddities.

“Put the Needle On It”

Directed By: Mikka Lomm

For me, this album is like a whole new beginning. Which is good, I love that. I’m a daredevil.

Mingoue’s sentiment in Interview (from 3/1/03) captured this period of her redefinition and modus operandi of dance-pop perfection. In hearing Neon Nights now, it’s clear that Minogue’s platter plays as one of the absolute game-changers of its day. A rich and enlivened synthesis of underground dance music and pop approachability, Neon Nights is rarely matched today by predecessors or followers. The album connected the R&B sensibilities heard in Love & Kisses cuts like “I Don’t Wanna Take This Pain” and paired them with the full-on pop of Girl’s “All I Wanna Do.”

Minogue’s dance market reign is furthered by her rank as the most successful act on the U.K. Upfront Chart (seven number ones as of this writing). Whether or not Neon Nights will ever be matched, or properly trailed by another album, remains to be seen. Either way, the dancefloor still belongs to Dannii Minogue. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: *-Denotes the term used for the British dance charts. **-Name of the Australian singles and albums chart.  Neon Nights is available in its original and reissued formats as imports, readily available in finer physical and online music retailers. For current information on Dannii Minogue, visit her official site.  Special thanks to Gordon Ashenhurst, founder of Diva Incarnate, for filling in the gaps for the post-Neon Nights history. Additional well wishes and praises sent to Steve Flemming, Jr. (of Aural Examination) and K. Thomas Oglesby for their undying assistance in the nuts and bolts of this inaugural entry.-QH]

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