Monthly Archives: February 2014

Lisa Stansfield: From “Affection” to “Seven”

Lisa Stansfield in 2014

Lisa Stansfield today

The lineage of women who have carried the torch of “blue-eyed soul” is storied. Rochdale reared Lisa Stansfield’s tenure has always been beloved, if sometimes undervalued. It’s a shame as Stansfield’s romantically rich tone keeps her alongside Dusty Springfield and Teena Marie respectfully.

In retrospect, Stansfield’s soul roots weren’t what she first planted when she tried to breach the music marketplace. Forming in 1984, Blue Zone’s first (and only) recording (Big Thing, 1988) seemed precipice-poised for success. Comprised of Stansfield and instrumentalists Ian Devaney and Andy Morris, the trio might’ve been too similar in style to an already crowded sophisti-pop and house music scene.

Appearing on one of those mentioned British dance cliques tracks in 1989, Stansfield graced “People Hold On”.  The outfit was called Coldcut and their single with Stansfield caused a delicious stir. “People Hold On” restored faith in Stansfield at her label base―via Blue Zone―Arista Records. She inked a solo deal with the company.

Graciously stepping behind her, Devaney and Morris took up production and co-writing duties; the upshot of this union produced Lisa Stansfield’s debut Affection.

If one were to remark on the renaissance of English soul and dance that sprang from the ether in 1989, the year Affection appeared, it’d be with fondness. Two indisputable anthems materialized from this era that crossed barriers: Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” (with Caron Wheeler as the lead vocalist) and Stansfield’s “All Around the World”. The latter hit like a hurricane on both sides of the pond.

Suddenly, the classy, down to earth lass became one of the faces of the U.K. soul music revolution. Affection, of its time, was tempered in the flames of (black) dance and new jack swing, but with an approachability that endeared listeners across the generational spectrum.

Stansfield later aligned herself to a much more vogue and vintage style. Enter Real Love (1991). Hear the “Change”. The sumptous single, one-upped by the sober silkiness of “All Woman,” betrayed Stansfield’s Philadelphia fetish. However, it wasn’t just a 1970’s R&B revival; Stansfield (with Devaney and Morris still behind her) cut the old with the new (read: adult contemporary pop). Stansfield’s transition from semi-club siren to chanteuse had been completed.

"All Woman" single cover

“All Woman” single cover

Home of the John Barry co-penned “In All the Right Places,” So Natural (1993) extended Stansfield’s plush Philly playtime. The long player fare, as on her previous two LPs, went from strength to strength.

Whether sensually rhythmic (“I Give You Everything”) or designer disco (“Marvelous and Mine”), Stansfield carved her own space in R&B and pop. Of course Arista Records fumbled and denied So Natural U.S. citizenship; it was puzzling since Real Love had been a gold score Stateside. Stansfield’s American traction never recovered from Arista’s ill-advised maneuver. In England, the record maintained a polite presence with its sales. Andy Morris, a part of the artistic team behind Stansfield’s records, left the fold after So Natural; the LP consummated Stansfield and Devaney’s personal union too. They’d marry in 1998.

To go back a year before Stansfield and Devaney’s matrimonial bliss, Stansfield released her fourth, eponymous spinner in 1997. Lisa Stansfield became her third album in America and first there in five years; it’d also be her last U.S. appearance.

Pulling back the ballads that occupied the two preceding LPs, Lisa Stansfield was (at that time) her most modern work. Buoyed by Stansfield’s hip-hop inflected version of Barry White’sNever, Never Gonna Give You Up,” Stansfield’s announcement of her return welcomed a bit of attitude. “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up’s” subsequent video matched the track in its passionate intensity visually. “The Real Thing” became the “single blockbuster” from the effort and there was even a respectable Phyllis Hyman cover of “You Know How to Love Me”.

Stansfield tried her hand at acting―an occupation she’d explore in the coming decade―with 1999’s ‘Swing’. The film was fine, but its soundtrack was even better. Jazz fit Stansfield like a glove and she gave confident turns at established classics by The Four Tops (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”)―her own compositions seared too (“Two Years Too Blue”).

"Let's Just Call It Love" single cover

“Let’s Just Call It Love” single cover

What came next was Stansfield’s return to the dancefloor, as such, with her fifth LP, Face Up (2001).

Her first album in, effectively, her third decade, it wasted no time making new R&B tricks work for her.

Examples included the explosive “I’ve Got Something Better” (her finest album opener ever?) and the divine “Let’s Just Call It Love”. The record, though fantastic, was an unequivocal miss commercially. Content wasn’t the problem, Stansfield had become a refined woman in an industry known for its sexism and ageism. Undaunted, she celebrated her Arista stay with a customary “greatest hits” package entitled Biography (2003). The set collected majority of her singles, the tracklisting varied from British to American editions. Stansfield’s discography got a renewed life too; all five of her studio records were remastered and available individually or in a collector’s box. It was the perfect end to her time at Arista Records.

The following year, Stansfield signed to Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records. Trevor Horn, known for groundbreaking collaborations with Seal, Grace Jones and Tina Turner, turned his charms on Stansfield. The fruit of this union bore Stansfield’s sixth album, The Moment (2004). While some greet it with indifference today, it wisely married the adult contemporary of Real Love with the modish tweaks of Face Up.

Stansfield’s rendition of Prefab Sprout’s When Love Breaks Down” was a highlight; the lead singer of Prefab Sprout (Paddy McAloon) was kind enough to write an additional verse for Stansfield’s cover. Regrettably, the album did not perform well and Stansfield stepped into semi-retirement and her acting ambitions.

In late 2013 the rumors were true, Lisa Stansfield had come back to music. Stansfield partnered with her husband Ian and session-player / producer stalwarts Jerry Hey and Peter Mokran. The indie-issued Seven is Stansfield at her most concise and stripped. The last descriptor is heard on the songs “Why” and “The Rain” that had Stansfield engaged in that new sonic context.

However, that traditional Stansfield magic popped on the flavorful “Can’t Dance”. It might give Face Up’s “I’ve Got Something Better” a run for its money as Stansfield’s best album starter.

Lisa Stansfield, now 47, has taken her place in the pantheon of “ivory soul singers”.

[Editor’s Note: I attempted to tell Lisa’s musical story with a collection of her singles and album cuts. Sadly, thanks to video restrictions (by country) and certain songs not being available (via Youtube or Daily Motion), not everything  has a hyperlink. Seven is available digitally and physically (as an import); for current news on Lisa Stansfield, visit her official site.-QH]

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Ooh La La: En Vogue’s “Soul Flower” Turns 10

En Vogue, circa 2004

En Vogue, circa 2004

Over a decade removed from the sizzle and spark of their landmark Funky Divas (1992) LP, En Vogue held fast to their creative passion.

Soul Flower, their fifth album, allowed Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron-Braggs to rise to the challenge of crafting something timely and tasteful.

On board with En Vogue mainstays was newcomer Rhona Bennett; this union added another layer to the unbelievable tale of this indefatigable girl group.

The History

The Noughties began for En Vogue conceptually with Masterpiece Theatre (2000), their fourth record. A synthesis of classical music and contemporary R&B, its gamble was lost in a changing musical landscape. Three years spanned between EV3 (1997) and Masterpiece Theatre; many of En Vogue’s peers had rescinded and left a vacuum that the singles-ready Destiny’s Child quickly filled. En Vogue’s doo-wop styled vocal approach, the rage in the early-to-mid 1990’s, might have played passé to younger listeners.

En Vogue’s label EastWest Records faced a turbulent dissolution that put its roster of artists into a difficult position. As a result, Masterpiece Theatre lacked the promotional punch needed to sell it.

Maxine Jones, one of the En Vogue originals, took her leave of rest not long after Masterpiece Theatre was issued. Ellis and Herron-Braggs remained and rallied Amanda Cole for touring and recording; Cole appeared on their holiday LP, The Gift of Christmas (2002).

Rhona Bennett had been making rounds as an aspiring actress and singer since the early 1990’s. She’d been a “Mousketeer” on the revived ‘Mickey Mouse Club’; that show’s alumni featured Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. After several acting gigs, including ‘Homeboys in Outer Space’ and ‘The Jamie Foxx Show,’ Bennett caught the eye of super-producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. Bennett signed to his Darkchild Records imprint and put out her first album, Rhona (2001).

Cole abruptly departed En Vogue when the writing and recording of Soul Flower began. Propitiously, Bennett and En Vogue would intersect in 2003.

The Record

Soul Flower album cover

Soul Flower album cover

Slick, sexy and professional were apt adjectives to describe En Vogue’s previous music from a casual distance; however, the aforementioned EV3 allowed them a chance to work with different producers (for the first time) and new sounds.

Some of those sounds borrowed from the (then) wildly popular sub-genre of R&B, neo-soul; EV3 cuts like “Right Direction,” “Love Makes You Do Thangs” and “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” marked a predisposition to that sonic aesthetic.

While neo-soul had cooled in the early half of the last decade, that loose atmosphere informed Soul Flower. Still, En Vogue were cognizant of their namesake and desired that “modern touch”. With Bennett along as a member (and songwriter), Ellis and Herron-Braggs worked out a winning formula. Co-piloting with En Vogue were long-standing producers Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster

Two Bennett leads started the LP off and showed that she could hang with the En Vogue veterans: “Losin My Mind” and “Ez-a-lee”.

“Losin My Mind’s” brass flashes and earworm melody that threaded throughout the song, courtesy of Ellis and Herron-Braggs harmonies, hypnotized. “Ez-a-lee’s” guitar tuning pizzicato and arid beats were trim; this “less is more” approach in the arrangements had En Vogue brandishing their abilities with ease.

Doubt of chemistry between Bennett, Ellis and Herron-Braggs was dismissed with a pair of breezy disco numbers: “Ooh Boy” and “Heaven”. Soul Flower beamed continuously with a sassy Guy cover (“I Do Love You (Piece of My Love)”) perfumed black-pop (“Ooh La La”) and an empowerment jam (“Stop”).

A bit of cutting room floor flotsam splintered Soul Flower slightly: “All You See,” “Careful,” “How Do I Get Over” and “New Day Callin'”. Despite the inherent “bang for your buck” CD filler flaw with the mentioned quartet of songs, Soul Flower portrayed an energized En Vogue.

The Impact

En Vogue got off on the promotional good foot with an appearance on ‘Soul Train’ (Season 33, Episode #15) on 1/31/04 to perform Soul Flower’s lead single “Ooh Boy”. The album itself released on 2/25/04 while “Losin My Mind” was moved forward as the second single. Their fifth LP was En Vogue’s first independent release via the California based 33rd Street Records imprint.

En Vogue’s sales slip didn’t halt with “Losin My Mind” or Soul Flower. The album fared well on the U.S. Billboard Independent Album Chart (#15) and the ever loyal U.S. Top R&B / Hip-Hop Albums Chart (#47). Fortunately, the pundits received Soul Flower favorably; David Jefferies of All Music Guide remarked of the project:

Four years after their last true full-length album, En Vogue return as independent women, not only in record label but also in attitude. Soul Flower benefits from more of an eye on the groove than on the charts and better than ever tricks from longtime producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy.

Within the first five seconds of the album listeners get a slinky shuffle of a beat, ’40’s-styled harmonies, and a confident, soulful lead vocal. A ton of winning ideas follow, and Foster and McElroy seem to be having as much fun as ever. The 2004 version of En Vogue — original members Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron with newish member Rhona Bennett — harmonize as well as the original four, adding a mature attitude that’s still sexy and strong.

En Vogue Performing “Ooh Boy” on Soul Train, 2004

Ellis, Herron-Braggs & Bennett, circa 2014

Ellis, Herron-Braggs & Bennett, circa 2014

The record didn’t rock the charts, but En Vogue maintained their reputation for solid albums with Soul Flower.

What came after its release would be a tumultuous decade of shifting line-ups. As it stands, the current line-up of En Vogue is as it was 10 years ago: Bennett, Herron-Braggs and Ellis.

There have been several rumors of albums being started (and shelved) in that decade of changing faces; fans eagerly await En Vogue’s next record and if Soul Flower is any indication, their next record will be another ace affair. Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: Soul Flower is in print currently; for news on En Vogue, visit their official Facebook page.-QH]

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“Bedtime Stories” & “Kylie Minogue” Turn 20

Minogue & Madonna, circa 1994

Minogue & Madonna, circa 1994

Head on over to PopMatters to view my 20th anniversary essay on Madonna’s Bedtime Stories and Kylie Minogue’s eponymous fifth album. Both records were groundbreaking in restructuring the dance-pop departure model as created by Donna Summer with The Wanderer (1980).

[Editor’s Note: Above art courtesy of Travis Müller.-QH]

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