Monthly Archives: March 2013

Dido’s Return on “Girl Who Got Away”

Dido in 2013

Dido in 2013

The reserved alterna-pop chanteuse Dido has returned. With her debut No Angel (1999), Dido created a space between singer-songwriter introspection and other ambitious sound-mines (i.e.-trip-hop). However, when Dido’s third LP Safe Trip Home (2008) arrived, she’d been (somewhat) supplanted by similarly restrained vocalists Jem and Lenka.

The four years separating Life For Rent (2003) from Safe Trip Home didn’t wait for Dido to catch up. This isn’t to say that her flooding the market every year, or every other year, would have saved her chart fortunes. But, there was a sense of sameness that politely crept throughout Safe Trip Home; even with its treasures (“Don’t Believe In Love,” “Let’s Do the Things We Normally Do”) a shake-up was required for the British singer.

Here we are in 2013, another four years elapsed since Safe Trip Home. Dido makes it clear that she doesn’t rush projects, if her album incubation periods are any indication.  Thankfully, the long wait is justified with a recharged Dido on the Girl Who Got Away. Her fourth album gently interpolates an electric production lining that enlivens and enhances Dido’s accented flair on the late-night-lights of “End of Night.” The neon orchestral swells and surfs don’t stop there, they propel the title cut and “Let Us Move On” wonderfully. The latter features current hip-hopper Kendrick Lamar dropping in a rhyme.

Now, before anyone assumes that Dido is contradicting her (unspoken) stance on trending for chart appeal, this is the same woman who worked with Eminem on “Stan.” Eminem sampled the Dido ballad evergreen “Thank You” for “Stan”; Dido even had a cameo in the accompanying music video as the girlfriend of the aforementioned song character. Thus, while Lamar’s feature doesn’t add or subtract from “Let Us Move On,” it feels as if the partnership was born out of mutual admiration versus a commercial acquiesce.

“All I See” has a similar problem; decked out in spy film melodrama, Dido still shoehorned an appearance in from Pete Miser. Much like Lamar, his rap isn’t terrible, but is (again) unneeded.

A pair of smooth, summer night festivities are heard on “Love to Blame” and “Go Dreaming”; each dance groovily, supplied with flirtations of horns, percussion, and synth bubbles. The album could have benefitted with more cuts along the lines of “Love to Blame” and Go Dreaming.” As it is, there are other noteworthy nuggets; “No Freedom” has a punctual drum line that rolls in right on time to do the emotional heavy lifting.

The highlight of the recording is “Blackbird,” a magical mixture of lyric, music, and voice that unifies and paints the portrait of Dido’s newest effort beautifully. These productions are courtesy of Rollo Armstrong (Dido’s brother), Greg Kurstin, Rick Nowels, Lester Mendez, Sister Bliss, Brian Eno, and Dido herself (to name some).

“No Freedom”

Directed By: Ethan Lader

Girl Who Got Away excels on its clean, but always genuine persona that builds on tales of love (won and lost) and various life crises that everyone can relate to.  Dido may not be rowdy enough for folks in this decade, but she isn’t any less charming or able.  Ranking: Above Average

[Editor’s Note: Version reviewed is the deluxe edition, both are available digitally and physically. For current information on Dido, visit her official site.-QH]

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Alternative, Pop

Dawn Richard & Her “Goldenheart” Legend

Richard Reinvented

Richard Reinvented

Dawn Richard’s storied path in the mainstream maw of popular music is an epic tale itself.

The New Orleans native went from indie-R&B procurement to big-time stardom when she landed on Sean Combs’ “Making the Band” in 2005; a popular MTV reality-music-making-show.

There, she became one-fifth of Danity Kane, the girl-group fruits of ‘Making the Band.’ Two records, Danity Kane (2006) and Welcome to the Dollhouse (2008), met platinum and gold success before the unit imploded under strain from a variety of outlets.

Afterwards, Richard was absorbed into Combs’ Diddy-Dirty Money collective. Finally ready to stop tap dancing to the predictable two-step of Bad Boy Records, Richard made a timely exodus from the label in 2011. The album birthed from her transition, and preceded by the ambitious digital EP Armor On (2012), was Goldenheart (2013).

Released on 1/15/13 the album, supposedly the first in a trilogy of records due this year, is a larger-than-life fairy tale recasting of modern rhythm and blues. In Richard’s hands, she is the primary songwriter along with co-producer Andrew “Druski” Scott. The woes and highs of love are given a medieval makeover, the album’s scope brings to mind Donna Summer’s rewrite of Cinderella on her Once Upon a Time (1977) LP. Richard’s vocal persona shows she’s studied at the altar of Brandy Norwood, her voice multi-harmonied and nebulous on “Intro (In the Hearts Tonight)” and “[300].”

Richard veiled

Richard veiled

However, Richard’s voice isn’t as mahogany-spiced as Brandy’s. Instead, Richard’s chilly sensibility cuts to the center of tracks like the European-Black fever of “Gleaux” and the adventurous, dim clubber “Northern Lights.”

“Northern Lights” held an enunciated chant of “Let me take you to the northern lights,” is a hypnotic call-to-arms to visit that faraway place, likely a discothèque, on the horizon. Richard’s ability to make the mundane extraordinary is uncanny, as heard on the sublime and stark title cut. The piano keys and Richard are all that adorn the track; the piano’s pristine presence recalls the crisp heights of George Gershwin’s jazz opus “Rhapsody in Blue.” In truth, the sample is pulled from Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune.”

For lazy listeners, Goldenheart may seem a trifle boring in the sense that the atmosphere is valued above immediate gratification. Further, there is a distance kept between Richard and the listener when it comes to her delivery at times; it’s like the story songs are being revisited versus lived.

Such a Sade-esque disconnect vocally, barring the titular track and several other nuggets (“Goliath”), may also give some the cold shoulder. Standard R&B formula is not necessarily the mission here, but patience (and an open-mind) will reward as Goldenheart grows addictive with each return.

“86”

Directed By: Eugene Lee Yang

Preference will determine the affinity factor for most, but the sheer genius of Goldenheart is undeniable. Like many of the young black women of the last several years in pop (V.V. Brown), hip-hop (Azaelia Banks), and R&B (Janelle Monáe, Solange), Richard is making herself known in the new alternative fields of those just-mentioned genres. From a former Bad Boy Records kewpie doll, being a revolution starter is nothing short of amazing. Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: Goldenheart is available digitally and physically in retailers. The Armor On EP is available at most digital retailers. For current information on Dawn Richard, visit her official site.-QH]

Leave a comment

Filed under R&B

Love’s Divine: Seal’s “Seal IV” Turns 10

Seal, Circa 2003

Seal, Circa 2003

Seal was never an ordinary force. With a voice spun equally from sugar and grit, his vocals on DJ Adamski’s “Killer” placed him directly into the British (nu) soul revolution that was gripping the world in the early 1990’s.

Later, he confounded and thrilled when he slid into “Kiss From a Rose”; it made Seal an adult contemporary darling as much as a dancefloor principal.

The release of Seal’s fourth album, third to bear his name, Seal IV (2003) marked a beginning and end. For Seal, his fourth album was about consolidation and exploration. The question then, which lingers even now, is whether Seal and his music was in step with the period or drastically misunderstood and out of time.

The History
Seal’s grip, assured in the first half of the 1990’s, had started to lose its hold by the end of that decade. His third album, the maligned masterpiece Human Being (1998), was greeted by commercial and critical indifference. Thankfully, the record found its calling as one of, if not, his best work at that time with his fans.

Temporarily parting with longtime producer-partner Trevor Horn, Horn handled his first three records, Seal collaborated with Henry Jackman. The album, entitled Togetherland,  was canned by Warner Bros. in 2001. Only one cut survived the vaulting, “Heaven” (retitled “This Could Be Heaven”); it appeared on the motion picture soundtrack to ‘Family Man’.

To pass time between the shelving of Togetherland and the recording of what would become Seal IV, Seal recorded two high-profile features with Mylène Farmer (“Les Mots,” 2001 France #2) and Jakatta (“My Vision,” 2002 U.K. #6). The former made a cameo on the French pressing of Seal IV, while the latter appeared on every version of Seal IV. Both songs somewhat suggested the direction Seal walked toward for his fourth album; to realize it, he returned to Horn.

The Record

Single Cover to "Love's Divine"

Single Cover to “Love’s Divine”

In a way, the abortion of Togetherland lended a sense of rediscovery to Seal IV. Seal, along with Horn (producing) and Mark Batson (co-writing) sewed a taut record that played to Seal’s strength as a songwriter and vocalist.

The musical canvas was pieced together from tasteful pop (electronic, orchestral) and vintage rhythm and blues flavors.  What made Seal IV strike hard was its mode of duality when it came to its modernity and antiquity. Songs like “Waiting For You” and “Don’t Make Me Wait” reveled in their “old school soul” twang; the tracks were R&B reduplication perfection. The future remained focal for Seal on “Heavenly (Good Feeling…)” and “My Vision,” both offered hearty, if synthetic arrangements.

Drawing spotlight to “Loneliest Star,” its backbone was a snug, melancholy acoustic rhythm that Seal rode vocally and lyrically to heartbreaking effect. Elsewhere, Seal’s pen prominently shone on the plush reggae sway of “Where There’s Gold,” or he made romantic fantasy flesh on “Touch.” His voice, never lacking pathos or joy,  resounded on the mentioned “Waiting For You” and slow build-up of “Love’s Divine”; “Divine” stands arguably one of his finest forms occupied in his entire recording career.

Opening, and closing, with the (mock) Philly soul groover “Get It Together,” Seal IV tracked as Seal’s leanest effort, one where every song hung together and worked as a unit to tell Seal’s musical narrative anew.

The Impact
Seal IV hit the streets on 9/9/03, during its run it spun off three singles from late 2003 to early 2004: “Get It Together,” “Love’s Divine” and “Waiting For You.” The global chart statistics for each single were fair: “Get It Together” (U.K. #25, Austria #38, Switzerland #22, Sweden #23, Germany #41), “Love’s Divine” (U.K. #68, Austria #11, Switzerland #4, Sweden #43, Germany #4) and “Waiting For You” (U.K. #80). Stateside, all three songs made major strides on a variety of the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary and Dance charts; the best performances being “Get It Together” and “Love’s Divine” which topped the U.S. Billboard Dance charts respectively.

As an album, Seal IV made decent dents in various places: U.K. #4, U.S. #3 (his highest chart debut Stateside), Switzerland #1, Austria #7, Germany #14, Sweden #19.

Critically, Seal had his share of opposition and praise. David Medsker, of PopMatters, shared his thoughts on the long player:

Single cover to "Waiting For You"

Single cover to “Waiting For You”

The soulful Seal IV is actually much better than one would expect from an artist whose last decent album is now nine years old. At the same time, something about it is off; for the first time, Seal is not merely outside his time (good), but behind it (bad). If only someone had introduced him to the Neptunes. He tries to get the party started with “Get It Together”, a soul-inspired disco number with a good hook but no real high-energy payoff. It may be catchy, but it can’t fill a dance floor, coming off like dance music for people who don’t dance anymore.

The same thing happens with “Waiting For You”, a horn drenched R&B nugget with a far too passive rhythm track. The combination of pop music getting harder while Seal gets softer makes Seal IV sound more antiquated than it should. What some enterprising mixmaster out there should do is take these songs and mash them with the beats from Kenna’s album New Sacred Cow (produced, natch, by one of the Neptunes). Those beats, with these songs, would have created something otherworldly. Maybe next time, and hopefully not four-years-from-now next time.

Other times, Seal was caught in the shadow of Seal (1991), but had fair compliments bestowed upon him by Beth Massa of Amazon.com:

After five years and one do-over later, Seal presents a fourth album that finds the singer growing with his audience. The disc’s opener, “Get It Together,” melds a quiet “live” moment into a horn-and-string disco number, setting the stage for the rest of the disc, which is largely a nod to Detroit-and-Philly-R&B. The British-born musician pulls it off. His rasp and emotive, positive vocals are well suited for the retro stylings he attempts.

“Waiting for You” will flood the dance floor, and he’s unafraid to dig deep for the ballads, Marvin Gaye would approve. The funk is real, but saddled with a pop safety net, and the upbeat tracks need a helping hand from a good remixer before they are as compelling as his seminal singles “Killer” and “Crazy.” Seal never goes all out in any direction and this coolness, combined with Trevor Horn’s perfectionist production, plants the album inescapably in the realm of adult contemporary (although this is as good as adult contemporary gets).

After all was said and settled, Seal IV moved 658,000 copies worldwide; certifications were balanced in gold (U.S.) and platinum (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland). Seal’s ability to divide between the austerity of adult contemporary and edgier pop had become “old hat” to some.

Or, as the previously mentioned PopMatters critic David Medsker observed, “Now he has to deal with Justin/Britney/Xtina, thug rap, whiner metal, ClearChannel and the RIAA suing its own customers. There isn’t a chance in hell anyone is going to hear this record.”

Seal became the victim of the entire landscape of music changing in the second decade of his career. Seal’s gifts seemed out of tune with the more cynical and harsh environs of the early 2000’s.

“Love’s Divine”
Directed By: Sanji

Seal and Horn did part ways after Seal IV and didn’t return to one another until Seal’s Soul 2 (2012) project, for select cuts. Seal followed Seal IV with a customary “best-of” package in 2004 before releasing System (2007), Soul (2008), Seal 6: Commitment (2010) and the already stated Soul 2. Of the batch, System was the underdog, a return to the grinding dance that was heard on his eponymous debut.

The sales of each following record were either strong, or weak, depending on the territories of the world they operated in. Seal’s appeal as a live artist remains undiminished today; though he may seem nothing short of an enigma to younger ears and “lost” to his die-hards due to his stately covers recordings.

What is sure is that Seal, as a songwriter and interpreter, is one of the best from the last two decades. Passionate, human and in his own way, defiant, Seal is the best there is at what he does. In spite of the “sound of the times,” he didn’t betray his creative flame. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: Seal IV, as the rest of his discography, is readily available in physical and digital retailers everywhere. For current information on Seal, visit his official site.-QH]

1 Comment

Filed under Pop, R&B

Lisa Loeb’s New “Fairytale” on Record

Loeb in 2013

Loeb in 2013

Two decades back, a quiet, but direct voice appeared in popular music. Lisa Loeb’s plaintive “Stay (I Missed You)” topped the charts in 1994. It gave her the distinction of being the first person to land on the peak of the American Billboard chart without being signed to a record label. Since then, Loeb has maintained a busy life. Between her gigs of (tasteful) reality television forays, children’s entertainment (books and music), voiceover work, fashion (her own eyewear line), Loeb has continually carved her own niche.

No Fairy Tale, Loeb’s fifth (overall) studio album and first of original material since 2004, has the singer switch gears in how she frames her voice. Usually, Loeb’s voice swung between disinterested story telling or just right emotional revelation; here it hasn’t lost any of its power or grace. What makes it bite is the arrangements that snarl, snicker, and carry on around her. Punctuated drums, chewy guitar, rounded bass riffs all contrast playfully to Loeb’s lyrics.

The (slight) sonic makeover is courtesy of Newfound Glory member Chad Gilbert. This isn’t her first foray into “power pop” or non-acoustic spaces however. Many forget that her debut Tails (1995) rocked. Later albums also housed sonic evolutions as heard on the jazz-bop fusions of Firecracker (1997), the pop details of Cake and Pie (2002), and the reach-around-to-her-roots ebb of The Way It Really Is (2004). Regardless, Loeb’s voice, guitar, and lyrics remain focal in her work.

Japanese cover art of "No Fairy Tale."

Japanese cover art of No Fairy Tale

Loeb is now a mother and wife, so the songs veer into ponderable territories that are humorous (“The 90’s”) but honest (“The Worst”). The title track, “No Fairy Tale,” playfully admonishes wishing for more than what one desires; instead it’s about enjoying what one has and what may be.

“Weak Day” is the clearest portrait into a section of Loeb’s own psyche and closest to the “classic Lisa” blueprint; the song let Loeb share her own story, yet step outside of it. This gift separated Loeb from her more overtly ambitious peers in Jewel and Sheryl Crow. “A Hot Minute” (written by current female musician darling duo Tegan & Sara) shocks in its layered, rhythmic beats. It surprisingly hangs well with the other new wave-y bits of No Fairy Tale.

Loeb isn’t ready to be relegated to the music history books as a 90’s relic. As she has before, No Fairy Tale fantastically captures the human experience through Loeb’s own life lens and others who inspire her. It succeeds a step further in being bold enough to reinvent her musical context and present her ideas through new sounds. It may not set the charts alight, but then again as Loeb rhapsodies on the titular cut, she never was one “to bear the weight of the glitter and the glue” of fame. Loeb’s notoriety comes through and from her art, as it should.

Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: No Fairy Tale is available at physical and digital outlets now. For current information, including tour dates, visit Lisa Loeb’s official site.-QH]

Leave a comment

Filed under Alternative, Pop, Rock

Deconstructing the Christina Aguilera Conundrum

Aguilera Reflecting

Aguilera Reflecting

The four blondes of the late 90’s pop boom didn’t necessarily broadcast longevity at first glance. Time proved to be kind, somewhat, to three of the four women. Where one ended up pulling off a major creative coup, the other two went onto become the commercial contenders for millennial pop glory.

Christina Aguilera was the girl with the “obvious” voice that could blow you away. Looking back 14 years, as the dust settles around her sixth long player Lotus (2012), it becomes clear that Aguilera has made a mark. Her struggle for a clear-cut oneness as an artist remains an elusive prize; it has claimed her commercial, creative and critical spoils of the music battle she wages into a new decade.

The collapse of Aguilera’s recent record has been the product of several longstanding issues; the problems range from environmental to personal. Her rise from the prison of pre-fab pop has become legend, but it seems to have become the catspaw of her inability to move beyond the space of leaving one persona behind. Aguilera shattered her soft and inoffensive image with Stripped (2002).

In a dizzying Erotica-esque (1992) move, Aguilera attempted to meld both a musical and visual guidepost to her emergent sexuality and thoughts. Reinvention isn’t confined to pop, but often it’s touted as a larger force to behold in pop because no one suspects that genre to generate art. Aguilera’s dilemma is that she never left the dimension of Stripped.

The (still) reigning pop princess Kylie Minogue had a similar concern when she desired to shake the stalls of S.A.W. in the early 90’s; the production trio fought Minogue’s musical musings. So, she began toying with her image. What Minogue realized early on is that the visual and musical must always work in unison, not one exceeding the other. When Minogue ventured into the dance fields with “Shocked” and “What Do I Have To Do,” it was with a sound that was as edgy as the fishnets, lipstick and four-inch heels she adorned in their subsequent music videos. She perfected the formula with Kylie Minogue (1994); once Minogue had the creative capital to spend, she never looked back.

But Aguilera’s constant need to show how grown, free and uninhibited she was (and is) all the time doesn’t make her anything but someone seeking validation. Further, many of her executions of these principles come across stiff due to a perspective that switches between martyrdom and entitlement. Many “sangers” are told that they have a gift that only requires them to just stand there and emit a sound at a certain volume, extended over time.

The best sangers, singers and stylists aren’t encumbered by technique, instead they work to keep their instrument in fresh, challenging situations. It isn’t about how many runs one can complete to resonate with audiences. That aesthetic can be pleasing, yet if one relies on it too much the carnival trick is seen for what it is, a trick.

Shot from the "Your Body" music video

Shot from the “Your Body” music video

When Aguilera decided to take a step into vintage vistas with Back to Basics (2006), her hubris allowed her to think that it was enough to name-check soul greats over snazzy hip-pop-lite productions (“Back In the Day”). Now, this isn’t to say that Back to Basics didn’t have its fair share of artistic triumphs; Aguilera jump-roped from the  spiciness of “Ain’t No Other Man” to the ache of “Hurt”. The main conditions that plagued Back to Basics was too much of one thing and not enough of another. The former focused on material that had no business making the cut (“F.U.S.S.,” “Welcome”), whereas the latter period evocations (“I Got Trouble,” “The Right Man”)  were lost amid the mentioned excess.

The album swelled to a two-disc bloat, one that didn’t have a foundation to support itself. When its modest sales checked-in, it caused bankruptcy for the freedom needed to make her definitive statement with 2010’s Bionic. The electro-pop posturing of “Keeps Gettin’ Better” and “Dynamite,” both on Keeps Gettin’ Better: A Decade of Hits (2008), set the bar for Bionic to be that big pop revelation.

But label wrangling and Aguilera’s inability to realize that hype has to be backed up by work (not just vocal volume), sank the project. Thankfully, Aguilera doesn’t make bad records, usually just uneven ones. The albums always hold potential making them that more frustrating to entertain at times. For every “Bionic” and “You Lost Me,” there was a mundane member rearing its head, like “Vanity.”

Again, everything circles back to Aguilera’s own attitude. Her lack of humility, the key to the door of vulnerability, has drained the believability and spirit from her recent slower numbers. On Lotus, songs like “Army of Me,” “Sing For Me” and “Light Up the Sky” flatline because of her victim-turned-bully mentality. This isn’t saying that having a bit of a ‘tude isn’t good, “Dirrty” remains one of the sexiest, unapologetic urban-pop bangers of the last decade. Moderation is required, as is context. Attitude needs the proper lighting and staging; when these rules are followed you get Aguilera in fantastic form on athletic numbers like “Your Body” and “Red Hot Kinda Love.”

“Your Body”

Directed By: Melina Matsoukas

That Christina Aguilera (1999) remains, despite its own inherent beginner flaws, her most unified album is telling. The warmth and control that underscored “Genie in a Bottle” is what made it an equal generational gladiator against Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.” Not that Aguilera hasn’t had personal hiccups that may have derailed her creative endeavors, but like the greats before her (Donna Summer, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Kylie Minogue) she has the chance to turn it into aural therapy and make it her art. Miles beyond the soulless pop favored by Spears, Aguilera hasn’t achieved the transformation that Mandy Moore so elegantly garnered 10 years ago.

If Aguilera can learn to be a bit less defensive and fix on a narrative that can house her sexuality and spirituality, she could be brilliant. That brilliancy will overcome any commercial or critical (identity) crises, because creatively she’ll be fulfilled like the best parts of her last four albums.

[Editor’s Note: Lotus, standard and deluxe editions, available in all digital and physical retailers. For current information on Christina Aguilera, visit her official site.-QH]

3 Comments

Filed under Pop