Gloria Estefan: The Standards (Crescent Moon / Sony)
Synopsis: You can’t build singers like this; charisma, character, heart and integrity cannot be voted for on reality television talent forums. In the era of ‘The Voice,’ ‘American Idol’ and ‘X-Factor’, Estefan is one of the last of the pop vanguard of old that is an artist based not just on her skill as a songstress, but as an actual artisan. If she weren’t, her 22nd LP (excusing 1992’s Christmas Through Your Eyes) would be just another shrewd business move toward her established fan base; instead, it is another nuanced addition to a plentiful discography.
The Standards is Estefan’s first album of covers in 19 years, following behind her pop songbook tribute Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1994). Hold Me manifested directly after a much saucier gamble for Estefan, Mi Tierra (1993); that gambit paid off high in critical and commercial dividends. So, The Standards follows a similar trail impacting after the dancefloor hedonism of Miss Little Havana (2011).
The Standards draws from the “traditional” American songbook: Ira Gershwin, George David Weiss and Stanley Adams etcetera; they’re songs that are immortal and have received takes from every artist imaginable since their inception. Here, Estefan places her sandalwood tones over accomplished and professional backdrops (jazz, orchestral pop) courtesy of Gregg Field (drums), Al Schmitt (engineer), Chuck Berghofer (bass), Dean Parks (guitar) and Dave Koz (saxophone) to spotlight some of the talent gathered.
Estefan scores with a fairytale take of “What a Difference a Day Makes,” a rending Spanish version of “Smile” (here “Sonríe”) that partners her with Laura Pausini and the coffee and tears mood of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Estefan’s Spanish singing continues to remain a solid highlight, but is usually matched with equally energetic English vocalizing as well.
The record is savvy in that it includes just the right amount of familiar tunes and a few lesser known jewels to keep variety, a key element to a successful covers recording. The Standards combines nostalgia and romance together wonderfully; it sets a template for aging not only gracefully, but elegantly and on one’s own terms. Ranking: Above Average
Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady (Bad Boy / Wondaland)
Synopsis: From the obvious (Sly & the Family Stone) to the obscure (P.M. Dawn), there have been rhythm and blues boundary pushers as long as there has been R&B music; it’s an elite cache of artists whose contradictory efforts attempt to keep their roots in soul soil, yet pull as far away from that earth as possible. Enter Janelle Monáe. The new mistress of this movement has gone from strength to strength since her appearance several years ago; The Electric Lady, Monáe’s second long player is proof of her rise.
Continuing the wide-screen dramatics of her “Metropolis” concept, starring the revolutionary android Cindi Mayweather, The Electric Lady boasts big, but as with any conceptual piece it’s just an allegory. Monáe uses her sci-fi epic to address current (and continual) societal ills and pleasures.
The lead single serviced from The Electric Lady, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” is steam pressed funk frippery that is all at once fun and deadly serious by the time Monáe reaches the rap conclusion. Basically, the revolution will be televised and won by using art in any way she and her clique see fit.
The remainder of The Electric Lady follows a similarly focused and fierce compass, in many ways surpassing the wild and free patterns of The ArchAndroid (2010). Here, R&B through the decades is reworked, often two or more styles colliding in one song. One such example is the title track, featuring fellow avant-garde sister-in-arms Solange on the hook. It combines a bottom-heavy-bass-beat that recalls the fusion of jazzy-hip-hop of the 1990’s, but with the keyboards of Minneapolis driven dance-R&B of the mid-1980’s.
Elsewhere, Monáe gives you straight-ahead urban confectionaries where her voice is allowed to stretch on “It’s Code,” “Victory” and
“What An Experience”. Her guest roster is also impressive on this set, including the already stated Solange, Miguel, Prince, Erykah Badu and Esperanza Spalding who complement versus crowd Monáe; it is she who is the star of this record after all.
While not the first rebel, Janelle Monáe has scrawled her name on the history books of black music as one of its most daring and innovative voices. With The Electric Lady Monáe doesn’t merely match her hype, she exceeds it. Ranking: Classic
John Legend: Love in the Future (Columbia / GOOD)
Synopsis: Titles can be misleading. In this instance, Legend’s fourth record isn’t as voraciously vintage as Once Again (2006), nor is it as future bound as Evolver (2008). Love in the Future falls directly between the two extremes of Legend’s last two albums, which makes for a more involved, but still rewarding listening experience for the audience.
The pace and pulse of Love in the Future will bring to mind an ambitious double album, however it does not overextend itself in any quarter. The large cast on deck producing the new Legend LP helps lend a sense of cohesion that typically evades a project handled by too many hands.
Patrons end up with hip-hop sampled goodness, mod-60’s jazz-lounge-lizard affectations and modern soul flourishes in one recording; but how do all these influences remain tied to one another? Further, many of these discussed elements surface later in the tracks and in subtler ways than on past Legend works.
It is due in part to how the songs glide and groove with Legend functioning as their axis. The hip-hop soul stepper of “Who Do We Think We Are” rides along a sampled snatch of Jean Knight’s 1971 evergreen “Mr. Big Stuff” in a melancholy, but masculine fashion; but it’s Legend that seems to coax the stated influences to the surface of the song. Visit with the spare rumbling of “Made to Love” where he echoes and calls to his lover, his vocal nudity is all at once vulnerable and emboldened.
In all, Love in the Future is a collection of songs that reveals its secrets with each play; it celebrates adult R&B without making a stink about how adult it is or closing its doors to contemporary production done with good taste. Ranking: Classic
[Editor’s Note: All three albums are available in deluxe versions that can be purchased through online retailers. Estefan and Monáe’s physical deluxe editions can only be purchased at Target; Legend’s physical deluxe edition can be purchased in any music retailer. For current information visit their subsequent official websites: Gloria Estefan Official / Janelle Monáe Official / John Legend Official. Artwork courtesy of Andrew Bird.-QH]