Monthly Archives: June 2013

Up Front: Diana Ross’ “Ross” Turns 30

Alternate Photo from the Ross Shoot

Alternate photo from the Ross shoot

Define class. Define excess. The summation of those two notions were the crossroads Diana Ross found herself at in the third decade of her career. Ross’ freedom in the 1980’s had eluded her (at times) during her Motown stay.

But too much of a good thing could be bad, or so the saying went. For Ross’ third LP under RCA Records she made an effort to shorten the gap between excess and class. Sadly, Ross is neglected in major discussions of her career. In the 30 years since its creation, Ross has only sharpened its appeal as a mysterious, misunderstood masterpiece.

The History

It’s good to be right when you’ve got the platinum and gold proof. Those that ballyhooed that Ross’ switch in allegiance from Motown to RCA could spell disaster were at a loss. In two years, Ross had racked up hit albums (Why Do Fools Fall in Love 1981, Silk Electric 1982) and singles (“Mirror, Mirror,” “Muscles”) that kept her at the peak of black soul and white pop. There was something amiss in the sound of the discussed works though. Ross’ first two RCA albums felt hollow and not as rounded as her last two Motown platters: The Boss (1979) and diana (1980). Chalk it up to the growing pains of experimenting. Further, it wasn’t as though Ross hadn’t had uneven projects at Motown.

While that may have been true, it was still thought that Ross’ direct hand in her affairs would create a co-existence between her art and commercialism. However, being in her third decade Ross wanted to be both a sales savant and auteur. When Ross sat down to plot her third album under the RCA umbrella, she wanted something that could appeal to every audience without betraying her R&B roots.

The Record

Ross was cut when the art of the session player was very much alive; some of the brightest in the business wrote and played on Ross: Donald Fagan (of Steely Dan), Michael McDonald, Greg Phillinganes, etc. All of their talents were showcased by two primary producers for this outing, Gary Katz and Ray Parker Jr. The former was one of the principal masterminds behind the mentioned rock-soul crew Steely Dan. The latter, Parker Jr., was busy brewing hits that combined breezy hooks and complex urban rhythms; he was a year away from pop culture lightning in a bottle with the theme to the 1984 film ‘Ghostbusters’.

Ross on the video set of "Pieces of Ice"

Ross on the video set of “Pieces of Ice”

Ross surrounded herself with figures that were in the spheres of modernity, but they had an ear for crafting everlasting material. Ross herself contributed the clubby crush closer to the LP, “Girls”;  it was one of the stronger numbers she’d self-produce and co-pen during her entire RCA stay. Katz handled the first five cuts, while Parker Jr. turned in two.

Ross began with the churchy flush of “That’s How You Start Over.” Vocally pronounced, without being loud, Ross’ assured tone gave the song a palpable presence. The winding, patient tilt of “Love Will Make it Right” hid its stormy contents of an affair, Ross held the tale with care (and knowledge). “You Do It” was instantly vintage and recalled the approachability of her offering Baby It’s Me (1977). Immediately, Ross had landed three solid songs that combined classic Diana with just a touch of nouveau. However, the LP linchpin “Pieces of Ice,” penned by two newcomers John Capek and Marc Jordan, gave Ross its mystique.

Blending pop, dance and R&B, “Pieces of Ice” swarmed with its drum programming, vigorous bass and guitar, and a host of other synthetic flourishes. Functioning solely on analogy (lyrically), Ross’ interpretive skill flared brightly. In many ways she pre-dated Pat Benatar’s own “Love is a Battlefield” pulled off of Live From Earth, released later in 1983. Benatar’s hookier landmark hit followed the same blueprint of taking her cornerstone (rock) and caressing it with pop and dance.

The rest of Ross featured a happy-go-lucky number (“Let’s Go Up”) and one ferocious adventure (“Up Front”); then there was “Love and Loneliness.” Pulled between its dichotomous girlish sway and melancholic melody, Ross wore the track and its feeling on her sleeve.

In all, Diana Ross was at her most consistent on Ross. The finalized product had Ross operating between the poles of art and commerce; now it was only a matter of getting this set of songs to a receptive public and make it a “hit.”

The Impact

Ross in Central Park, 1983

Ross in Central Park, 1983

Ross fell between two massive promotional events for Diana Ross in 1983: the ‘Motown 25 Special’ and her Central Park concert. The Motown show, taped on 3/25/83 to air on 5/16/83,  included (almost) every standing legend from the label.

Remembered for Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk” performance debut, the program also bore controversy for Ross. A very visible altercation took place between Ross and Supremes stalwarts Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong; it was cut from the broadcast version. The resulting publicity wasn’t the best for Ross, so her next event stood ready to rehabilitate her. The Central Park show was to donate its proceeds to build a new children’s play area in Central Park West; the park would bear Ross’ name of course. The event took place on 7/21/83. The rained-out show, and its next day repeat, became one of Ross’ career triumphs; it’s now immortalized on DVD.* The Ross LP itself preceded the concert on 6/9/83.

The first single from Ross was “Pieces of Ice”: U.S. #31, U.S. R&B #15, U.S. Dance #17, U.K. #46. The follow-ups came in the form of “Up Front” (U.S. R&B #60, U.K. #79) and “Let’s Go Up” (U.S. #77, U.S. R&B #31). The LP itself didn’t receive better sales in her two largest countries: America (U.S. Billboard 200 #32, U.S. Billboard R&B #14) and Britain (U.K. Album #44). Commercially, the album stalled in spite of her omnipresent stature during the year of its release. Even the high energy music video companion for “Pieces of Ice,” piloted by “Beat It” director Bob Giraldi, didn’t draw more than modest attention to the project.

“Pieces of Ice”

Directed By: Bob Giraldi

Music critic heavyweights, such as All Music Guide’s William Ruhlman, referred to Ross as “a noble, if failed experiment.” It didn’t help that gossip mongers like J. Randy Taraborrelli had become the gatekeepers for Ross’ legacy prior to the 2000’s; his comment on the Ross-era was shallow and erroneous:

A third album, Ross, generated no Top 10 songs, and one odd single called “Pieces of Ice,” a techno-pop confection the meaning of which even she (Diana Ross) seemed to not understand when asked about it.”

“Techno-pop”? Someone didn’t have their listening ears on. Taraborrelli’s further elaborations, or lack thereof, on Ross’ music can be read in his book Call Her Miss Ross (1989) and its update, Diana Ross: A Biography (2007). Ross’ selective historical preservation, on her part, also led to the decay of Ross.

Thankfully the 2000’s led a renaissance-like return of appreciation for Ross’ music, no doubt spearheaded by the Blue (2006) reissue and the internet phenomenon of blogging. This explosion of intelligent critique on Ross could be seen recently in essays by Paul Milliken (of The Diana Ross Project) and Dustin Fitzharris; both contributed exhaustive research on the Ross LP. The latter fielded interviews from Ross-period players that were discussed above in “The Record” section. My own thoughts on the overall arc of Diana Ross’ RCA albums can be read here.

As Diana Ross quoted Mae West in Central Park 30 years ago, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful…!” In the case of Ross, its expression of elegance and edge was exquisite. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: Ross is only in print in Japan; it retails for a fair amount of money. *=“Pieces of Ice” was omitted from the 2012 DVD release of Ross’ Central Park concert. I have a hyperlink to show the removed performance in the entry above; there is also an Amazon link for the aforementioned DVD of Ross’ concert above. For current information on Diana Ross, visit her official Facebook page.-QH]

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Is Chrisette Michele “Better” on New LP?

Michele in 2013

Michele in 2013

It’s an age-old battle; natural versus artificial and any other classic cliché you can muster to describe the schism between the organic and inorganic. In the case of modern R&B, the last two decades have seen many flap their jaws about what constitutes “real R&B.”

For a time it was enough to follow the lead of the neo-soul movement that began in the early-to-mid 90’s with Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months, & 2 Days in the Life Of…(1992), Meshell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies (1993) and Joi’s The Pendulum Vibe (1994). Without even going into the slew of changes other arenas of black music were going through, the “neo-soul” stock was plentiful throughout the remainder of the 90’s and early 00’s. Eventually, the movement burned out due to oversaturation. Those that had embraced this style shied away from it just as quickly. It had become too limited and taboo. In the space after this diaspora of contemporary rhythm and blues came Chrisette Michele.

I Am (2007) was the requisite “breath of fresh air,” her phrasing evoking past heroines of jazz (Sarah Vaughn) and of-the-moment ladies on the scene (Jill Scott). As pleasant as I Am was, it was also not distinct from the young men and women clawing their way out of the trenches of the neo-soul collapse. With a canny sense of wisdom, Michele cut her second project Epiphany (2009) with modern R&B. It helped her appeal to younger audiences, but she didn’t lose the maturity that won over her record buying adult listeners.

In short, she created her best record. But, fans were split in two camps over Michele’s direction in the end.

2010’s Let Freedom Reign continued to push Michele into her own niche of modern, classy R&B; but the uneven songwriting on the LP fractured the cohesiveness won from Reign’s stronger moments. It also didn’t make much of an impact commercially. What was a girl to do?

Michele Explores Her Own Sounds on New LP

Michele Explores Her Own Sounds on New LP

Michele decided instead of ditching her approach, she’d whittle her songwriting. It’s that lyricism that powers her fourth album, Better. Despite its uninspired title, the record is Michele doing what she does best, working within the templates of throwback and current soul music. Mentioning throwback, it’s a great thing to hear that Michele has expanded on her old school touchstones. Yes, there are still the 70’s flourishes as heard on her Natalie Cole “Our Love” paean “A Couple of Forever’s”; Michele’s voice is luscious and sung straight ahead here.

Elsewhere, Michele digs into the crates of late 80’s and early 90’s R&B on the summer heat of “Let Me Win.” That sample you’ve heard, in everything from Eric B. & Rakim to P.M. Dawn, is The Soul Searchers cut “Ashley’s Roachclip” from their debut Salt of the Earth (1974).  Michele works out the familiar groove with her sassy style and makes it new once more.

Michele’s confidence that was corrupted into cockiness on Let Freedom Reign’s “I’m a Star” and “Number One” is nowhere to be heard on “Snow” and “Visual Love”; both songs have Michele aware of her strengths (and flaws) and she’s empowered by her own journey toward life and love.

There are quirky numbers that gallop around on Better, “Rich Hipster” is jumpy, funky, and frisky in its teasing tone. Even a guess spot from Wale feels right at home on the track. Though she does stumble on the dull “Charades” (with 2 Chainz) and “Supa”; the former tries to ape what Michele accomplished on Reign’s “So In Love” where she tamed Rick Ross for a verse delivery.

Removing those two errors, Better plays as a fluid, consistent piece of R&B that is right at home in 2013 but will age gracefully. The question Michele poses at the conclusion of the record is “can the cool be loved?” That will be up to her fans. This album may not win back her I Am crowd, but if they open up, they may hear someone clearly comfortable in their own cool skin. Ranking: Above Average

[Editor’s Note: Better in stores on 6/11/13, edition of album reviewed was the standard pressing. Deluxe versions available as well. See online and physical retailers for details. For current information on Chrisette Michele, visit her official site.-QH]

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Sweet Temptation: Jewel’s “0304” Turns 10

Alternate Single Cover for "Intuition"

Alternate Single Cover for “Intuition”

Jewel Kilcher embodied the essence of the 90’s post-Joni Mitchell folkie-popstar generation; whether she wanted this or not has never been sussed out completely. 1995’s Pieces of You was one of those once in a lifetime recordings that shattered barriers.

It left skeptical A&R men on their knees praising a product they most likely fought in its incubation period. Much later, when Jewel was  two years shy of her 10th anniversary, her fourth long player 0304  (2003) was to be even more controversial and ground-breaking than her debut.

That it ended up becoming a hot talking point about authenticity, or lack thereof, when regarding women in the singer-songwriter mode overshadowed its brainy (and sexy) tricks. Further, Jewel’s sonic (and visual) makeover was more in tune with her fellow Venusian songwriters, past and present, than many knew.

The History

The road to 0304 was fraught with many sharp detours. While the whole of Pieces of Me was based in restrained (partially live) folk music, its singles had been studio sweetened to give her a broader reach. Out of that decision, Jewel’s second record Spirit (1998) embraced the polish but didn’t back down on her soon-to-be trademarked lyrical mixture of naïveté and wisdom.

Her next offering, and first of the 00’s, was This Way (2001). Perched pristinely between the earthiness of Pieces of Me and the pop professionalism of Spirit, it had its own experienced rhythm. Jewel was growing up into a woman and her travels had clearly (re) shaped her world view and her artistic position in it. A reworking of one of This Way’s singles, “Serve the Ego,” became the flashpoint for the inspiration that’d come to term on 0304.

The Record

Immersed in the club urbanity of Los Angeles, Jewel became taken with dance music. As such, when it came time to release another single from This Way, Jewel selected “Serve the Ego” in 2002. It was retouched by several DJs of the period which drove the single to the top of the U.S. Dance chart. Work began quickly on her next project to build off the overall evolutionary momentum of This Way and fuse it with some of her new musical curiosities.

The project was described by Jewel as a “…modern interpretation of big band music. A record that is lyric-driven, like Cole Porter stuff, that also has a lot of swing…that combines dance, urban and folk music.” Primarily co-conceived between producer Lester Mendez and Jewel, she also brought along noted songwriter/producers Rick Nowels and Guy Chambers. Jewel was reaching, on the surface, for a massive overhaul of sound (and later image); could she actually pull it off?

Jewel Finds Her Neon Rhythm

Jewel Finds Her Neon Rhythm

The lyrics were witty and humorous; from their contents to their exterior expressions (“U & Me = Love”), some songs reflected the text first, talk later society of 2003. Dividing between observational satire and story telling, Jewel captured a culture that she was fast becoming assimilated into, but still innately separated from. Nowhere was that staged better than on “Intuition”; it landed lines like “I’m just a simple girl in a hi-tech digital world. Really trying to understand all that powers that rule this land.” Whether name checking Kate Moss and Charlie Sheen (who still abound in the tabloids today) or riding the accordion ‘n’ beats with an air of disconnected recall-meets-voyeurism, Jewel was mesmerizing.

The sexuality that bubbled on (the original and remixed) “Serve the Ego” caught fire on the late-night curtain closer of “Leave the Lights On”; the track saw Jewel sketching in tones of blues, lounge pop and jazz. Indeed, both the coquette “Sweet Temptation” and the dank desire of “Haunted” had Jewel’s voice all over the map; she flaunted her ability to sing in any fashion she liked.

Additional thoughts on her current “high life” forays included the neon sparkler “Yes U Can” whose nervous hand-claps and California guitar was a post-post-new wave raver. But Jewel also had social commentary worth sharing on “Stand” with its relaxed Marvin Gaye nod. The timely bite of “America” and the meditative “Becoming” stylistically cut across uptempo pop and the “folktronica” Jewel aptly described that she was trying to evoke. The tangy “Run 2 U” blended an “it sounds like a sample, but it isn’t really” vibe by way of faux horns with genteel acoustics over a razor-like groove; Jewel was in her new niche comfortably.

Jewel’s only stumble was her This Way backwards glance on 0304’s center with a collection of shiny folk-pop ballads that puddled into one another; an exception could be made for the country sway of “Fragile Heart” though.

The album’s title read prophetically like digital time capsule of where American society stood in 2003 / 2004; Jewel had pulled of a pop coup of epic proportions with only its length marring the record. Ready or not, Jewel had unexpectedly arrived as the intellectual pop priestess of the year.

The Impact

Aiming for a summer score, Jewel unleashed “Intuition” as the first single from 0304 on 5/6/03. “Intuition” had an equally debated music video that got tongues wagging and helped the song hit respectable spots the world over: U.S. Hot 100 #20, U.S. Dance #1, Canada #34, AU #4, U.K. #52. The LP manifested the following month on 6/3/03. Her fourth album on the Atlantic Records label (Warner Bros. in outside territories) gave Jewel her highest U.S. chart debut (U.S. Billboard 200 #2). It logged 144,000 copies in its first week.

Jewel in 2003

Jewel in 2003

The global chart positions were either strong (Canada #9, ARIA #10) or weak (U.K. #79). The sales for 0304 did flame out quickly however, only claiming gold in America, Cananda and Australia.

Much of the 0304’s muted presence had to do with the fact that a noticeable segment of the record buying populace had mixed-to-negative feelings about Jewel’s pop platter presentation. jam! Showbiz pundit Darryl Sterdan summarized the short-sighted opinion shared by a percentage of her followers:

We know artists love to reinvent themselves, but this is nuts. After eight years and three solid albums of contemporary folk and rootsy pop, Jewel Kilcher has up and decided she wants to be — are you ready? — a dance-pop tart. No, really. On her fourth album 0304, the singer-songwriter trades in her jeans and flannel for day-glo duds from a Flashdance revival, buries her acoustic guitar under thumping beatboxes, booty-wiggling basses and squiggly robo-synths, cops the staccato arrangements and slick production of the Backstreet Boys, and puts her angelic, crystalline voice to work on insubstantial fluff stuffed with deep and timeless sentiments such as, “I wanna hold u tonight / It’ll be alright.” No Jewel, it won’t.

Sure, there are a few smarter cuts that work — “Leave the Lights On” and “Haunted” mine trip-hoppy veins, while “Sweet Temptation” and “Yes U Can” revive the new-wave sugar-buzz of The Bangles or Missing Persons. But the bulk of 0304 isn’t going to save her soul — or anyone else’s.

In one sweep Sterdan both praised and knocked Jewel for the reinvention he and others like him wanted for Jewel, but despised her for achieving. All Music Guide’s staunch Stephen Thomas Erlewine pegged 0304’s pattern:

The music on 0304 is the wild, weird result of Jewel’s desire to create a “modern interpretation of big band music. A record that is lyric-driven, like Cole Porter stuff, that also has a lot of swing…that combined dance, urban and folk music.” While the big band and Cole Porter allusions are a stretch — although it is true that this is as lyric-driven as her previous three records — with the assistance of producer Lester Mendez, she has managed to blend dance, urban and folk — complete with pop overtones, of course — in previously unimaginable ways.

Like Sheryl Crow’s eponymous second album, this picks up familiar strands of contemporary pop music and familiar themes in Jewel’s own work, but the way they’re assembled is disarmingly idiosyncratic — it has a polished, commercial sheen, but the songs take weird twists and turns in their arrangements, structure and lyrics (another thing this shares with Sheryl Crow is a predilection for odd pop-culture references and name-dropping).

Two more singles were pulled from the album: “Stand” (10/14/03: U.S. Dance #1, U.S. Adult Pop Songs #37, Netherlands #71) and “2 Become 1” (12/16/03: AU #49, U.S. Adult Pop Songs #33). The long player eventually moved 771,000 copies overall, according to its last certification.

“Intuition”

Directed By: Marc Klasfeld

Jewel wasn’t the first female singer-songwriter to take chances musically. From Carly Simon, to Suzanne Vega and around to Tori Amos, all of those women had made dramatic turns with their sounds and looks. Somehow, to the majority of Jewel’s base who praised the former doe-eyed Alaskan guitarist, her shift toward anything other than what they deemed as “authentic” was counterfeit.

To be fair, Jewel did make the transition bumpier as seen in her coinciding Blender magazine photo shoot; complete with corsets and fussed hair, Jewel clearly rebelled against the idea of traditional femininity and intelligence being mutually exclusive. The public didn’t see the irony or the need to expand out of the confines of girlhood.

Jewel’s evolution over the next decade was bizarre as she marched to the drums of soft-to-spiky rock (Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, 2006) lullabies (Lullaby, 2009) and country (Perfectly Clear, 2008/Sweet and Wild, 2010). Each record met different fates, her country material received the commercial adulation, but she never again approached the heights scaled with This Way and 0304. 0304 continued to ripple throughout Jewel’s discography as heard on her retooled versions of “Fragile Heart” on Goodbye Alice in Wonderland and “2 Become 1” on Perfectly Clear.

Jewel took a major risk with 0304, winning and losing various things in the process. Objectively, if one understands the track on which Jewel’s music was running, they’d see that 0304 was the natural extension of a woman coming into her own. Jewel was strong enough to make people think, laugh and dance with her even if it meant being misunderstood. Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: 0304 is out of print physically but in print digitally. Physical copies can be obtained easily in used music retailers. For current information on Jewel, visit her official website.-QH]

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