Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Monday, July 10, 2000

audiovox: ... and music, music, music - patti, kd and en vogue

Haven't done one of these on music, really, have I? I mean, yes, there was that whole Supremes thing, but that wasn't about the music as such.

So let's do a pop music extravaganza!


Three albums (yes, I'm old enough to call them that; besides, they're not all CDs) have crossed my charge card's path lately.

Patti Austin
Street of Dreams
Platinum Entertainment, released 8/24/1999

Street of Dreams by Patti Austin is a 1999 release I missed when it first came out. Like her much earlier The Real Me, it's a compilation of songs previously recorded by other artists, this time generally from a bit later (though not universally so) than the 30s, 40s and 50s of the earlier album. (If I'm understanding the corporate information on the CD, it's also a somewhat unique distribution path; Platinum Entertainment/Distribution/CD--a pure web company, from the looks of it, like CDnow and MP3.com combined--handled the whole thing from start to end. Since Platinum Entertainment isn't what you'd call a big player, it's not surprising that the CD slipped through a few radar screens. They also make a rather odd marketing decision; there's no picture of Patti Austin on either the front or back cover. Or the inside fold of the CD booklet. Or, in fact, anywhere in the booklet until the next to last page, where there's a very small picture at the lower right corner. It's unusual, to say the least.)

Now, let's be clear here: I love me some Patti Austin. I especially love me some Patti Austin when she gets all jazzy and swing-like. Generally, the jazz/older pop idiom suits her style better. She swings, she does soulful, she does ballads, she does all sorts of things that work really well for her voice and vocal style better than hiphoppish dance pop (although every so often, she fires off a good one of those, as with her "Reach" single from a few years ago).

This album isn't quite as much fun as The Real Me. In part, it's because it's slanted a bit more toward midtempo ballads than the other--in fact, slanted quite heavily toward them, with a shade too much instrumentation on many of them--"Someone to watch over me" especially suffers from a bit of overproduction. And her version of "Til there was you", from The Music Man, is just demented. The vocal delivery is fine, but the backing instrumentation is this weird vaguely reggae/ska/hiphop sort of thing but it really wants to be jazz and it's just WEIRD and incredibly distracting. (What she really needed to do on that song was to just punt the instrumentation altogether; it would have been perfect as an a-capella song by her.) But just when you think she's gone totally mad for the sacharine instrumentation, "Rain Rain Rain" comes along and she delivers a totally soulful, totally bitchin' song. And then she segues into a perfectly straight traditional delivery (including 50s style instrumentation) of "I only have eyes for you", and that's also just perfect.

In fact, it would be safe to say that from cut number 5 forward, there's only one serious misstep, and that's when the reggae/ska/hiphop/jazz-wannabe style reappears on the standard "For once in my life" (the old Stevie Wonder classic), and it is to wince, especially because the vocal delivery is, again, quite fine. If she'd gone with the jazz instincts on this one, and left the chickaboom stuff alone, it would have been the right decision. Weirdly, the reggae/ska/hiphop/jazz-wannabe style actually comes together on, of all things, "IGY (what a beautiful world this would be)", the old Steely Dan song. What on earth led her to resurrect that song, I have no idea--the composition decisions for this CD are quite peculiar, to say the least. "Calling You" (the theme from the film "Baghdad Cafe"), again, gets a straight delivery with the original instrumentation, and is quite quite lovely. Weirdly, she actually has a bit too much power for the original arrangement in the chorus; it was written or orchestrated for Jevetta Steele, who has a somewhat thinner voice. But it's still really wonderful. "Waiting for you", which I'd never heard before that I can remember, is also a very strong ballad, and the old Boz Scaggs (of all people!) song "(Girl) Look what you've done to me" again gets a very nice straightforward remake (except that we could have lost a few dozen of the backing chorus/stacked recordings).

Overall, I'd say that if you're not a Patti Austin fan, this CD won't convert you--in fact, depending on your taste in ballads, it might make you run screaming into the night--but if you like Patti Austin and/or that sort of laid back style, it's definitely worth the price. (In fact, even if you're not a fan, if nothing else, it would be worthwhile purchasing this CD just for "Calling You" and for "Rain rain rain". They're that good.)

(A web side note: there is, in fact, a site at pattiaustin.com; it's two years old and contains information for a CD that I've never seen anywhere. Hasn't been updated or maintained.)


kd lang
Invincible Summer
WEA/Warner Brothers, released June 2000

In her recent Advocate interview, kd lang said of Invincible Summer, "One of my purposes was to write an old-school pop record--I wrote almost every song with single in mind. [...] the feeling that one gets from the summer and the sun and the water--I wanted to write a record that made people feel like that."

If that was her goal, she certainly succeeded. "Invincible Summer" is bright and breezy and bouncy and fun. Certainly compared to the darkness of Drag or the introspection of All you can eat, it doesn't feel quite as deep. (Which makes her comment "It is spiritual; it's all about love," mildly baffling, unless you take it in the most general possible meaning of "spiritual.") She also says that it's "the yang of Ingenue. As Ingenue was green and longing and young, this is mature and happy and warm." Quite frankly, I don't quite get that at all. It's actually a bit brighter than Ingenue, really.

kd also mentions that "Invincible summer" is supposed to have a movement--rather, she agrees with the interviewer that the movement is from lust to a casual affair to admiration to love then to "universal love". (And if that's the intended movement, then placing "Summerfling" after "The consequences of falling" on the album is mildly problematic; it reverses the flow of the elements.

To be honest, "Invincible Summer" is a difficult CD to review. Yes, it's bright and bouncy and fun; it's also teflon. Nothing about this CD remains with you. Not the tunes, not the themes, not anything. Partly, it's because, as she says, the album is about love. Every single song is about love. The various songs may be about transformations and shadings of love, but that's hard to pull out of the music. They tend to all flow together. You don't have, for example, the sort of breaks in style that you have on Ingenue (for example, nothing as different as "Constant Craving" and "Miss Chatelaine").

As kd said, she wrote every song with "single" in mind, and I think she succeeded in that goal. I'm not entirely sure that this approach makes for a good album. To be sure, the singles are certainly fun; "Summerfling" is the first release, and if she can actually get the radio stations to play the damn song before the end of July, I'm sure that it'll shoot up the charts, and maybe pull the album in its wake. "Summerfling" is the perfect summer song. (And, in fact, I'm not entirely sure she succeeded in her goal of writing 11 singles. The most introspective songs, "Simple" and "What better said" are the most interesting, and "Simple" is almost entirely radio-unfriendly, and "What better said" is ... well, it will work on radio as long as you don't actually listen to it; it's very much a mood song. In fact, the last five songs are much the strongest, and only "Curiosity" is really radio friendly.)

It sounds like I'm trashing the CD, and I'm really not. If you're a fan, buy it; you'll enjoy it. If you want a breezy summer CD, buy it. If you want something with the depth or darkness or variety of Drag or All you can eat ... well, as long as you don't expect those from this CD, you'll be ok.

(A web side note: www.kdlang.com is supposed to be active, according to the CD jacket, but I have been entirely unable to raise the site. Methinks that someone at Warner Brothers has fallen down on the web job.)


En Vogue
Masterpiece Theatre
Elektra Records
(listing at CDNOW includes samples for four songs
Release Date: May 2000

Masterpiece Theatre is En Vogue's fourth album, and in some ways the most ambitious of the four. It's the first since the departure of Dawn Robinson to a solo career, so we get to see if they've lost anything with the loss of her voice.

Overall, the answer is no, they're still clicking right along. However, you don't see how well they're doing until you hit "Opus 4, Number 45: the En Vogue Love Suite". (It isn't called that anywhere on the album; that's what it's called in the "Suite Intro".) The Suite Intro itself describes the movement of the suite, to wit: "Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love. Girl falls out of love. Girl fights love. Girl has no clue. Girl watches Oprah." (I warn you about this beforehand because I had no way to know that it was coming. Saying "Girl does WHAT?" out loud on the subway gets you some quite interesting looks. But I digress.) The "En Vogue Love Suite" is, in fact, built on top of several different classical (or classical-like) pieces. The "Girl meets boy/Girl falls in love" segment is the song "Love you Crazay" (damn well better, spelling it like that), which is built on top of (wait for it.... ) "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" from "The Nutcracker Suite" by Tchaikovsky. "girl falls out of love" is the song "Sad but true", built on top of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." "Girl fights love" is the song "Love won't take me out", built on Beethoven's "Appassionata". "Girl has no clue/Girl watches Oprah" is the song "Whatever will be will be"--I think that this song is the one built on top of the theme from The Godfather, but I'm frankly not sure; the music was very familiar but didn't ring any bells. (And unfortunately, their liner note credits suck bilge water; really, they should have done a much better job of crediting their sources than they did.)

However, the best song--the absolute best song on the album, no argument needed--is "Those Dogs". The song is built on the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen, but that alone doesn't make it the best, oh, no. What makes it the best is that the song is done entirely a capella. Not an actual instrument to be found anywhere ... although it does, in fact, take you a while to realize this. Why? Because Bobby McFerrin is the featured artist on the song (well, one of them), taking the part of the orchestra. The ENTIRE orchestra. And you have not lived until you've heard Bobby McFerrin do a solo violin and you don't realize that it's a human! That aside, for En Vogue itself, vocally, it's the most intricate and interesting of the songs, with counterpoints and intertwining vocals and really wonderful harmonies. The song itself is quite a lot of fun--basically, the lyrics turn Carmen's song almost precisely on its head; instead of "Watch out for me, you stupid men" it's "Watch out for those stupid men, those dogs." Interestingly, with that one tweak, a lot of the lyrics, although translated, are left essentially intact, but that one tweak makes a world of difference.

Unfortunately, it looks already like this album is going to die on the vine. The album was released in May 2000, with the single "Riddle" (which is OK--the entire single is available at En Vogue's own site) somewhat before the album, and I only heard the single for the first time yesterday. Granting that I'm not the most radio connected person in the world; I generally hear some every day, and this can't be good. I hope that they can get some airplay and movement from it, because it really is a very good, very strong album. To be sure, after the Love Suite and Those Dogs, the rest is sort of ... eh. Same old, same old. But a very good same old, to be sure. The only decidedly wrong step--and then only because of the title--is a song called "Latin Soul", which contains no identifiably Latin beats or music; the song itself is fine, actually a pretty good grove, in fact, but you keep expecting Latin sounding something to pop up. Other than that, the Love Suite and Those Dogs, the part that's not "same old" (but which is, unfortunately, radio-hostile) make this CD definitely worth the purchase price.

One caveat: if you do purchase this album, purchase the CD rather than the cassette. The cassette (which weighs in at a nice 52 minutes and change) breaks the suite in the middle to retain balance, and I didn't realize that the suite continued on the B-side until the Suite Outro came up. It's worth the extra bucks just to keep that flow together.

Posted by iain at 09:58 PM in category