My essay on Lenny Kravitz’s new album Strut is up for reading now at Blogcritics, where it was first published. Kravitz hits it hard and fast on his 10th album in his third decade of recording. The record is in stores today. Make sure to check it out!
Monthly Archives: September 2014
“I don’t think it’s the music I’m concerned about. It’s obviously that I look really different and there really aren’t any completely Asian people who are popular singers in the U.S. right now”.
Hikaru Utada (宇多田 ヒカル) made this remark around the unveiling of Exodus, her fourth LP. It was Utada’s attempt at penetrating the Western music marketplace after five years of dominance in the East. Exodus was never destined for a charmed existence, but Utada was aware of the cultural uphill battle awaiting her album―she didn’t flinch. Utada, then 21, continued on the progressive track of Exodus’ preceding album, Deep River (2002). Exodus was dense, dark and delicious; the album challenged the conventional pop groupthink prominent at the first half of the 2000’s.
Utada was no shrinking violet and Exodus was an uncompromising work that sought to satisfy her own artistic appetites, but somehow appeal to the fickle American pop populace. A decade removed from its release, Exodus retains its charismatic position in Utada’s discography.
The product of two accomplished musicians, Utada was born in New York City, New York in 1983. As a young girl, Utada jetted between Tokyo and New York City due to her parents work commitments―Utada became bilingual very quickly. Language wouldn’t be the only thing imprinted on Utada, she bathed in the cultures of America and Japan.
It was no surprise that Utada took to music and exhibited childlike prodigy traits. Songwriting her penchant, Utada inked a deal with Toshibi EMI who dropped her first major label record Precious (1996). She worked under the pseudonym “Cubic U,” a play on being the “third power” in the Utada family; the record was sung in English and written by a 13 year-old Utada. The album appeared in America and Japan on 1/28/98 and made no headway.
Undaunted, Utada fine-tuned her skills in arranging and producing. A year later, her real debut First Love (1999) caused a sensation in Japan. From 1999 through 2004, Utada monopolized the Japanese music scene with First Love and its followers Distance (2001), Deep River (2002) and Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004)**. Amid her hectic promotional schedule, Utada married her first husband Kazuaki Kiriya (15 years her senior). She also attended Columbia University briefly on a break from recording. In that same span of time, Utada recorded two songs in English for a film (‘Rush Hour 2’) and a video game (“Kingdom Hearts”).
The former, entitled “Blow My Whistle,” had Utada alongside The Neptunes and Foxy Brown; “Blow My Whistle” wouldn’t have been out of place on any of her first three recordings.
The latter, “Simple and Clean,” was a reworking of an established hit single from Deep River, “Hikari” (“Light”). The ethereal appeal of “Simple and Clean” created an immediate cult following, notably in America. Inspired by this, Utada decided again to record an album in English. However, Utada’s soundprint was turning toward something mercurial. Beginning with tentative steps on portions of Deep River, Utada experimented with ethereal wave, dream pop and classical music. All of these things coalesced on “COLORS,” the lone original recording on Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004). “COLORS” pointed to a moodier sonic space where the seeds of Exodus were sewn and cultivated.
Looking past the A&R maneuver to include “input” from Timbaland and his protegee Nate “Danja” Hills on two tracks (“Exodus ’04” and “Let Me Give You My Love”), Exodus was handled by Utada. There was an occasional contribution from her father Teruzane, working under the guise of “Sking U”.
Voyeurism acted as a central theme to the execution of Exodus. Even when Utada wrote about herself―“You Make Me Want to Be a Man” explored tension in her own marriage at the time―there was a distance. Utada seemed to want to step outside of herself here.
Musically, her previously three LPs dabbled in electronic music whereas Exodus wore its stormy electronic temper on its sleeve. The genre transformed throughout the course of Exodus’ playing time. Utada was tribal (“Devil Inside”), she smacked on arcade bubblegum (“Easy Breezy”) and manicured a post-prog-rock symphonic dirge (“Kremlin Dusk”).
The beats weren’t necessarily unfriendly, the bulk of them passed for clubby chic with a casual listen. But the fashionable surfaces of “Tippy Toe” and “Hotel Lobby” hid gloomier tales of infidelity and prostitution, topics not normally associated with pop. The most approachable song on Exodus was “Easy Breezy”. To the attentive listener, the song contained a tongue-in-cheek poke at American men’s ideas of Asian women (“You’re easy breezy and I’m Japan-easy…”) and one of the better phallic references ever written (“She’s gotta new microphone, she doesn’t need you anymore!”).
For the first time, Eastern flourishes were present in Utada’s output. Was Utada giving English listeners what they expected? Maybe, but in true Utada style there was an “in on what you think of me” air. Exodus poised itself to be the next enthralling chapter of this young woman’s journey.
Still signed with Toshibi EMI, Utada inked a deal with Island / Def Jam for Exodus Stateside. Mercury Records handled bringing the album to British ears in 2005.
Exodus debuted in Japan on 9/8/04, 10/5/04 in America and 9/25/05 in England. Four singles were culled from the project over the two year period: “Easy Breezy” (8/3/04), “Devil Inside” (9/14/04), “Exodus ’04” (6/21/05) and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man” (10/17/05).
While the record landed no hits on the Oricon Single Charts**, a first for Utada, Exodus did become the biggest selling foreign language album in Japan’s history. Exodus found a healthy life on all the Oricon Album Charts: weekly (#1), monthly (#1) and yearly (#6). The album shifted a million units and was awarded gold status; another success story for Utada.
Stateside it was a different, if not unexpected, story. In lieu of a diminutive campaign, Exodus placed at #160 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart; the record ended up selling 55,000 copies. Utada’s statement of being the first Asian singer to really reach out to American listeners had proved correct. She was an untested commodity and even with her clout abroad, the notoriously regimented U.S. radio formats couldn’t find a space for Utada.
With that said, the American clubs took to “Devil Inside”: U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play #1, U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales #5, U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Airplay #10. Only two music videos were shot out of the four singles selected from Exodus: “Easy Breezy” and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man”. “You Make Me Want to Be a Man,” the only single to represent Utada in Britain a year later, fed her growing fanbase but didn’t cause a commotion: U.K. #227.
Critically, the album was greeted with positive reception. Andy Kellman of All Music Guide remarked of Exodus:
As the child of Japanese musicians who reside in both New York City and Tokyo, Utada Hikaru was perhaps predestined for a career as a performer informed by multiculturalism. On her first major-label English-language album, Utada delivers a diverse collection of urbane, modern, and, at times, almost avant-garde electronica and dance music.
Directed By: Jake Nava
Even as Exodus rescinded when Utada went onto her next LP, its effects lingered. The album was second in a three-part evolutionary trip that started with Deep River and ended with Ultra Blue (2006). All three albums had Utada pushing herself as far she could go and created one of the best back-to-back album stretches in popular music. Much of the material from Exodus Utada performed live on the tours Utada United (2006) and Utada: In the Flesh (2010).
Remarking of the record in 2009, Utada said: “Exodus was a very experimental album. I was like a mad scientist working away in an underground laboratory. I had the time of my life but it was a very intense, introverted process”.
Exodus might have been too powerful to make non-familiars comfortable with its sound. It does speak to Utada’s integrity that she would not eschew her music’s momentum to appease anyone. Utada bravely invited the uninitiated into her world, thus making her most introverted recording extroverted by sharing it. Risk is always worth the reward and as Hikaru Utada’s catalogue attests, that can never be a bad thing. Ranking: Classic
[Editor’s Note: **―Oricon Charts are the Japanese equivalent of our own Billboard charts. They split their album charts into three sections as seen in the essay. The Japanese often precede their first name with their last name. Exodus is available through any physical and digital music retailer. For current information on Hikaru Utada, please visit her official site.-QH]
Ten years had passed since Donna Summer arrived with Lady of the Night (Groovy Records, 1974). In the decade that ensued Summer rarely rested, reshaping popular music with a string of albums and singles that defined a generation.
Later, Summer shifted into the second phase of her recording career with The Wanderer (1980). Her inaugural set for Geffen Records heralded that the “Queen of Disco” was casting off to embrace her pop spirit.
Summer’s third Geffen release Cats Without Claws―and 11th studio album overall―was her first commercial miss. Subsequently, the record fell into obscurity, all but forgotten outside of Summer’s core constituency. Listening to Cats Without Claws 30 years removed from its inception, one can hear the complexity of pop’s most misunderstood voice steady in its exploration of new sonic shores.
When Summer left Casablanca Records, home to the first half of her discography, she took up residency at the newly launched Geffen Records. An industry power player, David Geffen saw the rebranding potential in Donna Summer; she herself proved game for change with The Wanderer. The record secured critical acclaim and modest sales. Importantly, it made Summer one of the few viable black acts in the now alabaster post-disco, pre-Thriller (1982) pop world of the early 1980’s.
What came next were a series of career hiccups for Summer. I’m a Rainbow―the last record Summer cut with principal partners Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte―was shelved by Geffen. The ambitious new wave dancer―later issued in 1996 via Mercury / Polygram Records―didn’t seem sales savvy to the label head. As a result, Summer was paired with modern maestro Quincy Jones for her eponymous effort that appeared in 1982. Donna Summer invoked ire and praise with it being Summer’s debut trek into R&B; it produced the charter “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)”.
To add to the pressure, Polygram Records, who now owned the Casablanca Records label, reminded Summer that she contractually still owed them an album. Summer saw this as an opportunity to release a record she’d recently cut with producer Michael Omartian.
A potpourri of rock, synth and soul-pop, She Works Hard for the Money (1983) became the prize record of Summer’s 1980’s stretch; the hit Geffen wanted for himself but, effectively, rejected had come and gone. She Works Hard for the Money was merely the blueprint for what came next, musically, for Donna Summer.
Summer remained partnered with Michael Omartian for the follow-up to She Works Hard For the Money. Omartian, a former A&R staffer, had become an in-demand producer of the period. Excusing input from Summer’s husband, former Brooklyn Dreams vocalist Bruce Sudano, Omartian commented on he and Summer’s working relationship:
On the last album we began writing together and found that we really enjoyed the procedure. Donna and I would spend about 5 or 6 hours a day working―you know, she’s (Donna) really gifted with melodies. So we’d put together a tune with drum machines, then put it away. Two weeks later we’d take it all out, review it and select what we wanted.
We decided up front not to clog up the tracks, so we really didn’t cut them with a lot of folks. We used the drummer’s tracks and my keyboards as a basic guide, which left everything wide open and uncluttered. So, from the beginning, you’re not committed to a certain direction. This makes things more flexible and you end up with much less in the way. We also decided not to involve other names in duets and backgrounds, so this album really is a personal statement, very straight-ahead. Besides, everybody’s doing duets and stuff; where does it end?
Cats Without Claws, a focused song cycle about humanity (at its best and worst), was inspired by Summer’s own spiritual travels.
Barring two emotionally driven covers―“There Goes My Baby” (The Drifters) and “Forgive Me” (Reba Rambo)―Cats Without Claws was a Donna Summer original. Looping back around to “There Goes My Baby” and “Forgive Me,” both songs gripped an understated warmth thanks to their sensitively sequenced synthesizers. In particular, “There Goes My Baby” had Summer tease the song’s teen angst into a much more palpable pathos than heard in the original recording by The Drifters.
Mood acted as an integral ingredient on Cats Without Claws; the titular piece, another of Summer’s social commentaries, put the listener into a dangerous cityscape. With its slasher-flick synths, various effects and colorful vocal, Summer captured the disillusionment of urban life. That voracious vocal acting heard on the title track reared its head throughout the rest of the long player. Torchy on “Maybe It’s Over” and cool on the freestyle flash of “Face the Music”―the flipside to “Supernatural Love”―Summer held fast to her chameleonic talent.
As a songwriter, Summer continued to advance as affirmed on the dank voyeurism of “Eyes” and the insistent “Supernatural Love”. The latter, along with “It’s Not the Way,” were 80’s beat-pop candies that melded contemporary dance music with pop melodies. Summer even added her flavor to the “island craze” sweeping popular music at the time with “Suzanna” and “I’m Free”.
The song structures were among her best; Cats Without Claws owned Summer’s finest middle-eight’s recorded. The bruised “Oh Billy Please” exemplified this with the song’s configuration changing without warning to a floorfiller halfway through. It made for exciting listening.
Not since Lady of the Night had Summer been so stylishly pop and succinct. Cats Without Claws promised to get the charts chatting with its contents.
Cats Without Claws arrived Stateside on 9/4/84; “There Goes My Baby” preceded the album by several weeks as its lead single. The single became a mild hit―U.S. #21, U.S. R&B #20, U.S. A/C #17―though it was a disappointment after the frenzied reception of “She Works Hard for the Money”.
The year of 1984 saw established talent like Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan and Linda Ronstadt―peers to Summer―present projects that met commercial success; Turner obviously led the charge with her Private Dancer album.
Then there were the new girls on the scene: Pat Benatar, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna. All of these new voices had sprung up in rock, R&B, pop and dance―genres Summer had conquered at different points in the past. Summer’s competition was considerable this time around.
At home, Cats Without Claws made modest headway: U.S. Billboard 200 #40, U.S. Top R&B / Hip-Hop #24. The long player worked itself into the international markets later in the month of September with varying degrees of impact: U.K. #69, Germany #39, Denmark #13, Sweden #10, Norway #15, Netherlands #19.
Summer blazed through a decent promotional trail for the record domestically and abroad; notable American appearances included ‘American Bandstand’ and ‘Soul Train’. The latter allowed Summer an opportunity to memorably elaborate on the themes of Cats Without Claws with the show’s host, Don Cornelius.
The album failed to find its audience and became Summer’s first recording to not achieve gold certification since her commercial ascendancy in 1975. Critically, the album mostly went over well with critics. Rolling Stone writer Christopher Connelly opined:
Buoyantly tunfeul, admirably restrained and only occasionally silly, Cats Without Claws continues the resurgence of Donna Summer. As on She Works Hard for the Money, producer Michael Omartian displays Summer’s considerable talents to their best advantage.
Producers tend to swathe divas like Summer in yards of backing tracks, but Omartian has wisely used spare settings, with a solid, uncomplicated rhythm section and just the right touch of high tech.
Others weren’t as charmed by Cats Without Claws; Ralph Novak of People Magazine selected the album as a “pan” for their “Picks and Pans” feature:
Prevention of Any More Songs Using the Metaphor “Flame Burn Higher” should be alerted, since that phrase is part of “Supernatural Love,” a Summer-Michael Omartian-Bruce Sudano song on this LP. That sort of unimaginative material is, in fact, all too prevalent. The title song has some possibilities at least, and Summer’s revival of the 1959 Drifters’ classic, “There Goes My Baby,” is fun—though it peters out as if nobody could think of a smart way to end it.
Summer’s voice and lyrics are so much at the service of the rhythmic thrust of these basically dull songs, however, that she has to be in peak form, singing something that is sharp and clever, to make much of an impact. Since Bad Girls she has too often ended up with pedestrian material.
“There Goes My Baby”
Directed By: Ian Leech
Two additional singles were pulled from Cats Without Claws as 1984 wrapped: “Supernatural Love” (U.S. #75, U.S. R&B #51, U.S. Dance #17) and “Eyes”; neither were able to revive the recording. All wasn’t lost as Summer netted a “Best Inspirational Performance” Grammy for “Forgive Me” that year. It was her second win in that Grammy category after she garnered one for “He’s a Rebel” in 1983, an album cut from She Works Hard for the Money.
Summer took everything in stride and emboldened by a decade of more successes than failures, she took respite with her family for the next two years. Summer produced another quality effort for Geffen Records before closing that tenure of her career—All Systems Go (1987). Summer scaled the charts again with her Atlantic Records backed Another Place and Time (1989) LP.
The usually lazy generalization with Summer’s 1980’s output was that she struggled to find her footing post-Casablanca Records. Cats Without Claws, like any of the records she cut from 1980 through 1989, had Summer trying out new sounds on her terms. The music was eclectic, axiomatic proof that Summer had come “out from under shadows” and that pop had worked its “miracle” on her once again. Ranking: Classic
[Editor’s Note: For years, Cats Without Claws was the most expensive out of print recording in Summer’s discography. This album, along with the remainder of Summer’s Geffen and Atlantic records, will finally be reissued on 12/1/14. For information on the reissues and Summer’s continuing legacy, please visit her official Facebook page. Special thanks to the dedicated fan space Donna Tribute for valuable research information. Recast Harry Langdon photograph artwork courtesy of Travis Müller.-QH]