On Aretha: 2 duets

On Monday, The Singles Jukebox tributed Aretha Franklin. I had a pair of entries that I meant to get in, but didn’t make the deadline. Here’s the first, on two of her ’80s duets.

“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (Duet with George Michael) (1987)
“It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” (Duet with Whitney Houston) (1989)

The first a global #1 smash in 1987, the second an R&B-only hit two years later (interestingly, both peaked at #5 on the Billboard R&B chart) these songs have a lot in common, apart from their differing chart fortunes — proof that you never can tell what’s going to be a hit and what won’t. Both are duets Aretha recorded with artists who a) were younger than her, b) were hotter than her (in commercial terms, at their respective times), c) preceded her in death. Arista Records impresario Clive Davis just loved, in the ‘80s, to pair Aretha up with artists who were, or who he perceived to be, hotter than her, to help give her singles added relevance/charting potential. Davis also loved Narada Michael Walden, who was essentially Davis’s pet pop/R&B producer for much of the decade, helming lots of tracks for Franklin and for Whitney Houston (his two top priorities at the label).

“It Isn’t,” which only made it to #41 on the Billboard Hot 100  — when Houston was in the midst of her Imperial Phase — is a cluttered, overly busy production, full of orchestra hits (the song opens with one) and synth handclaps. It’s a New Jack Swing production by someone who wasn’t really equipped to make New Jack Swing, and for that you can blame Walden. For the song, however, a fairly silly catfight between two women over a man (like a much lesser version of Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”), you can blame Albert Hammond and Diane Warren; it sounds like an attempt at “hipness” by a couple of songwriters who wouldn’t know it if it hit them in the face. All isn’t lost, though, thanks to the banter and “battling” between the divas singing it. Much of the song was clearly recorded with both Franklin and Houston on the mic simultaneously, as evidenced by their back-and-forth at the song’s end. Genius.com provides a handy guide to what it calls the “Spoken Interaction.” Here’s an excerpt:

A: You know, I realize that you’re under pressure
W: Yes, I am
A: And that you are suffering from delusions, but uh
W: Well
A: Don’t be ridiculous
W: I’m not
A: Get Real!
W: You better get real!

It’s clearly playful, though, as Whitney’s heard not only saying “That’s Aretha” after a bit of Franklin’s scatting, but pointing out “Well you know that’s what you are,” in response to Aretha referring to herself as “the queen.” Franklin seems to bring out a playfulness in Houston that had already vanished by the end of her second album cycle; don’t forget that Houston’s mother Cissy was a member of the Sweet Inspirations, who backed up Franklin on a number of her Atlantic singles, so there was already a relationship there.

In contrast, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” did something else: its intent, ostensibly, was to elevate Franklin, but it ended up doing that instead for her duet partner, Michael. The single was released as the second official single from Franklin’s 1986 album Aretha, and it did something that not only none of her Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Singles did, but none of her singles, period, had done on the Hot 100 in two full decades: it went to #1. Michael was in the midst of his transition from Wham! heartthrob to international superstar (“I Want Your Sex” would follow “Waiting” into the top 2 just four months later), but Franklin would never hit the US top 10 again. However, artistically speaking “Waiting” made the world look at Michael in a new light, as a soul/ful singer who could actually keep up with Franklin. (Her duet with Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” two years prior, simply sounded like Annie Lennox was attempting the impossible, to outsing the Queen of Soul.) The song’s video is a joy, as well, with the pair initially singing to each other on video screens (first verse), then in front of old videos of each other (second verse), not appearing together until 2:33 in. The exultation on Michael’s face is obvious, to be singing with the Queen.

Walden produced this one as well, but went for a much more classic sound, featuring revved-up (synth) guitars alongside bass (from Randy Jackson!), drums, and Simmons percussion. Accordingly, it’s held up much better across time, as is still heard on Classic Hits radio stations the world over. On both records, Aretha herself sounds incredible, wailing yet still controlled (she was the master of that vocal technique) and always 100% committed to servicing the song’s lyric. You can hear her giving her all on every single record she ever made, good or bad. And she brought different things to each duet partner, because a singer like Franklin couldn’t help but bring out things in other singers; that was part of her brilliance. Rest In Power, Queen.

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Posted in 1980s, pop, R&B, RIP

Single file

There’s a bunch of great singles out right now, across numerous formats. Some I’ve blurbed for The Singles Jukebox, and some I’ve missed. Here’s a brief round-up.

 

Welcome back to the pop world, Aubrey! I mean, obviously he’s not been gone — “God’s Plan” just spent 11 weeks atop the Hot 100, felled only by Drake himself — but that was more of that bullshit Soundcloud/streaming ecoverse sadcore rap. “Nice for What” is a jam, a banger, a gonna-sound-awesome-on-the-radio-all-summer-long HIT. I’ve never responded to New Orleans bounce music before, largely because there’s not enough there there for my tastes. But finally, here’s N.O. bounce married to a real pop song, with verses, chorus, and ohmygod that sample from Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” which underpins the whole thing. The video’s glorious, too. Faux-feminist or not, this kicks. (Also, read what Chris has to say about why it’s #1.) [9]

 

More gorgeous deep house from Mondo Grosso, mixing in a touch of Timbaland ca. ’98 on the verses (which remind me of some of his most spatial work for Aaliyah). Aina the End, out of her comfort zone, sounds perfect against Mondo Grosso’s textures. Everything about this rings true. [10]

 

Everybody knows that Carrie Underwood sings big, but she really kinda outdoes herself here. This is a stellar slice of Nashville feminism penned by Underwood herself with three of the town’s greatest songwriters, Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna (talk about a murderer’s row), also co-produced by Underwood, and it balances tenderness with just the right touch of bombast. This is a declaration of intent from the biggest woman in contemporary country music; she’s not fucking around. Neither is this song. [9]

 

Moby gets a “feat.” credit because this is basically A$AP Rocky spitting bars over a huge chunk of “Porcelain.” And that alone — from a major-label-signed platinum-selling rapper — makes this some avant-garde shit. [8]

 

Posted in 2018, new music, reviews

Hot hits: March/April 2018

Been listening to a lot of early ’70s music lately, most of it previously unknown (or at least not terribly familiar) to me. And this song, Carly Simon‘s first single (from her debut album) — goddamn, how lacerating. The musical version of an Albee or Pinter play, this paints an entirely unappetizing portrait of marriage in the early ’70s. And it made it to #10 pop! Produced by Eddie Kramer (!!!), this is arranged perfectly, and Carly sounds gorgeous. But these lyrics, which she wrote, are just phenomenal.

Slim Jxmmi is just okay for my money, and Juicy J is coasting hard these days, but goddamn, I can listen to Swae Lee sing anything — I mean, c’mon, he’s the reason that French Montana’s “Unforgettable” became such a big hit in 2017 (650M views and counting!) (well, Swae + that killer beat). The groove on “Powerglide” just bumps and bumps and bumps, too. And don’t forget: Juicy J is an Oscar winner, which will never not make me happy.

The first time I heard Matthews’ Southern Comfort‘s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (thanks, iHeart’s Classic American Top 40 channel!), I didn’t recognize the song until about the second pass through the chorus — that’s how unique their arrangement is. #1 in the UK, top 30 in the US, and the best take on the song.

One of the best uses of Morris Day’s, uh, unique gifts, in the service of a great Prince, er the Time single.

Toni Braxton‘s Sex & Cigarettes might be my favorite album of the year so far, and this single is a perfect exemplification why: those creamy, deep vocals by Braxton, with complimentary production and lyrics that play to her strengths (she’s often best singing from a place of pain, akin to MJB).

Posted in 1970s, new music

Caught up in the rapture: my TURNING THE TABLES ballot

Ann Powers has done the world a huge service by spearheading the TURNING THE TABLES project at NPR Music; the canon of “great albums” is bullshit with only token female representation, and Powers and her compatriots are doing their damnedest to right some of that wrong. To close the first year of TURNING THE TABLES, they want to know what everyone else thinks are the greatest albums ever made by women.

My list only includes no albums released since 2000, which I recognize is potentially problematic. But in coming up with my list, I went with the albums I go back to time and again and wear out over and over. That’s not to say there are no great albums made by women in the past quarter-century — see below — but for me, none of those have yet made grooves in my soul like these 10.

About the albums that did make my list: Grant changed the game for CCM with Unguarded; Wendy and Lisa’s debut proved to the world just how much Prince got from his lieutenants; the anti-Anita Bryant benefit album Lesbian Concentrate is proto-riot grrl with acoustic guitars and in some cases more sexual politics; Ndegeocello’s soph effort is a remarkably realized vision that pointed the way to what would come from her; Rapture is the only quiet storm album you need. As for my #1, Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed is written, produced, mixed, engineered, recorded, and performed by women, and it truly dumped a lot of notions of what women in music could do, right upside down. These are beautiful songs by and for women, and “women’s music” such as we know it wouldn’t exist without this landmark record.

1. Cris Williamson, The Changer and the Changed
2. Anita Baker, Rapture
3. Meshell Ndegeocello, Peace Beyond Passion
4. Diana Ross, diana (1980)
5. Various Artists, Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology of Songs and Poems
6. Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace
7. Wendy and Lisa, Wendy and Lisa
8. Amy Grant, Unguarded
9. Joni Mitchell, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm
10. Mary J. Blige, Mary

And a further five from this century:
1. Carly Rae Jepsen, E*MO*TION
2. Meshell Ndegeocello, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape
3. Mary J. Blige, Strength of a Woman
4. Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From
5. dumblonde, dumblonde

Posted in lists

My favorite albums: Inner City, ‘Paradise’

a/k/a The One Where One of the Fathers of Detroit Techno Makes the Perfect House Artist Album.

Kevin Saunderson, one of the famed Belleville Three, teamed up with vocalist Paris Grey in 1987 and formed house duo Inner City, who then made what might be the greatest artist album in house music history (apart from say, Masters at Work’s Nuyorican Soul, but that was nearly a various artists record; Inner City were a very self-contained unit). And Detroit house was different from Chicago house; this wasn’t as plush as a Frankie Knuckles production, but more angular, owing to Saunderson’s background. The keyboards are more staccato and urgent. But combined with the gorgeous, soaring vocals of Grey, they made magic. “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin'” was a Chaka Khan cover. “Do You Love What You Feel” wasn’t. “Good Life” and “Big Fun” you (should) know, of course, and Saunderson’s techno side pokes through more on songs like “Set Your Body Free.” Sexy and sinuous, Paradise jams from start to absolute finish.

Posted in 1980s, my favorite albums

Hot hits: February 2018

Personal faves of note getting me through the past month.

Chris Jeday has written for just about every current star in the reggaeton universe, so when it came time for his second single, 2017’s “Ahora Dice,” he could cash in some chips: it featured superstar J Balvin, rising star Ozuna, and up-and-comer Arcángel. And it earned over one billion-with-a-“b” views on YouTube. So, almost a year later, how do you make it even hotter? If you’re Jeday, you add on the online-huge Puerto Rican rapper Anuel AA, and then you spike the ball by bringing in the current queen of hip-hop and her crown prince, Cardi B and Offset. Like she does on Ozuna’s own “La Modelo,” Cardi sings en Español and then spits bars in English, and completely takes over the song. (Offset’s verse is fine, but it can’t compete with the fire his fiancé brings.) Not to mention that the core melody of “Ahora Dice” is sugary-sweet like a bowlful of Pixie Sticks. This can’t miss, and it doesn’t.

BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix started the month by turning two hours over to techno genius Lone, and he gave back one of the warmest not-explicitly-deep-house mixes I’ve ever heard in my 47 years. He sprinkles his own productions, largely but not exclusively techno but heavily influenced by house and breakbeats, throughout the mix, knitting them together with the likes of Future Sound of London, DJ Haus, and Autechre (to name a few of the bigger “names” included), not to mention a jaw-on-the-floor gobsmacking re-edit of Alicia Myers’s post-disco classic “I Want to Thank You” from Earls Booom!!!. (Here’s the full tracklist.) If I hear a better mix set this year, I will sincerely be surprised.

No idea whatsoever how I’d never heard this Chicago soul classic until now, but in researching a project about 1973 hits I came across the original “Love Jones,” and holy shit, these four teenagers turn it outBrighter Side of Darkness‘s same-titled album is worth your time, too, but nothing can come close to its magnificent title track.

This single really holds up. My review for The Singles Jukebox: Finally, a good single from Reputation. First off, I love the sentiment of the chorus: “I wanna be your end game/I wanna be your first string/I wanna be your “A team”/I wanna be your end game.” I mean, who doesn’t want that? Sheeran raps, and I’ve gotta admit, not horribly. Future of course does too, and of course is better. Weirdly they both sound right in this Max Martin/Shellback musical setting. Swift dials down the snark and sounds honest-to-goodness sincere, the synth chords behind the chorus sound gorgeous and expensive, the drums sound delightfully cheap, and both Sheeran and Future chime in later in the song on some ad-libs, not just “do a verse and leave” as is so often the case these days. On paper, this should not work — Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Future, really? — but on record, it actually does. And I’m as surprised as you are, maybe more. And it sounds better the more I play it. I’m genuinely shocked that this was a kind of flop single. Maybe Swift’s time has passed?

Posted in 2018, new music

My favorite songs: “I Just Wanna Be Mad”

Canadian country singer/guitarist Terri Clark has never gotten the credit she deserves. From 1995-2004 she notched 10 top 10 country singles in the US, seven of those going top three (including a pair of #1s), but today she seems to have been largely forgotten. Which is a shame, because her rich voice and fine guitar pickin’ — she’s kind of the female Brad Paisley — should be much better-known than they are. 2002’s “I Just Wanna Be Mad,” a #2 country hit, may well be one of the greatest, truest songs ever written about relationships. Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller’s lyrics just nail part of the essence of being in an LTR, to wit its chorus:

“I’ll never leave, I’ll never stray
My love for you will never change
But I ain’t ready to make up or get around to that
I think I’m right, I think you’re wrong
I’ll probably give in before long
Please don’t make me smile
I just want to be mad for a while”

OH my god, how perfect is that? Byron Gallimore and Keith Stegall’s production takes good care of the song, putting Clark’s delivery of these killer lyrics front and center. This is easily one of my favorite songs of the ’00s, in addition to being one of my favorite country singles. Everything about it rings true, and sometimes, that’s all you need from a great song.

Posted in 2000s, country, my favorite songs