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Posts Tagged ‘Alicia Keys’

Gladys Knight and the Pips – “If I Were Your Woman,” Pop #9, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Relationship fantasies were nothing new at Motown – Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You” was one of the label’s earliest singles. But Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1971 single “If I Were Your Woman” shows how much Hitsville had grown up during the ‘60s. The song removes the concept from the realm of schoolgirl crushes and infuses it with some serious grown-up desire.

When “If I Were Your Woman” came out the Pips were on a run of three consecutive Top 5 R&B hits, dating back to 1969’s No. 3 “The Nitty Gritty.” The group was determined to keep this streak intact and also bolster their album sales; none of their LPs had cracked the Top 10. They accomplished both. The single went all the way to the top of the R&B charts, and the album – given the same name – lodged at No. 4.

Knight’s smoky, smoldering voice played no small role in that achievement. Listeners who grew up with “Baby Love” no doubt enjoyed hearing love songs that matured with them. Knight sumptuously plays the role of a woman in love with a man trapped in a bad relationship. Knight knows she can make him the man he deserves to be, if only he could muster the strength to walk away … and she could find the courage to confront him face-to-face.

Knight sings with the passion of a woman pouring out her deepest desires to the darkness, a conviction rooted in the comfort of knowing these words will never face the harsh scrutiny of daylight. As the song fades, it is easy to imagine Knight drifting off to sleep as her would-be beau lies awake in bed next to his partner, wondering how he wound up in this predicament. The next time Knight and her man meet, their only exchanges will be furtive glances across the room and brief, awkward conversation punctuated by nervous laughter.

Written by Gloria Jones, Clay McMurray and Pam Sawyer and produced by McMurray, “If I Were Your Woman” inspired several covers. The Jean Terrell-fronted Supremes recorded a version the following year, in 1972. One year later, Jones – better known as the original singer of the song “Tainted Love,” later recorded by Soft Cell, and girlfriend of T. Rex glam rocker Marc Bolan – recorded her own version for her second solo album.

Bonnie Bramlett, formerly known as half of Delaney and Bonnie, followed suit in 1976. The unfairly ignored Bettye LaVette put her stamp on the song on her only Motown album, 1980s “Tell Me A Lie.” Eight years later Stephanie Mills put the song back on the charts, where it reached No. 19 on the Hot Black Singles chart (now known as the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart). That same year found the only male interpretation of the number, when George Michael performed it at Nelson Mandella’s 70th birthday tribute. Somehow people were still shocked when he came out of the closet a decade later.

Most recently, Alicia Keys included the song as part of a medley on her sophomore album, and gave it the stand-alone treatment on her 2005 live album “MTV Unplugged.”

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Blueprint_3
By Joel Francis

“The Blueprint 3” is not just the third installment in Jay-Z’s “Blueprint” saga. It’s also the third album since Jay “retired” in 2004. “The Blueprint 3” manages to split the differences in both of these lineages. It falls between the pared-down masterpiece of the first “Blueprint” and its guest- and lard-laden sequel. Similarly, it splits the difference between Hova’s uninspired comeback “Kingdom Come” and “American Gangster”’s return to form.

Just because “Blueprint 3” isn’t as bland and unfocused as “Kingdom Come” and “Blueprint 2,” doesn’t mean it’s a triumph. The album gets off to a strong start with “What We Talkin’ About,” which continues the hard feel of “American Gangster.”

No ID supplied an excellent track for “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” the lead single. “Run this Town,” Jay’s collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West is another in a long line of classic summer singles. “Empire State of Mind,” Jay’s duet with Alicia Keys, completes the album’s early run through its three consecutive singles. The strongest song on the album, the town fathers can immediately add it to the overflowing Big Apple hymnal.

“Hate,” a chorus-less mic battle between Jay and West, has fire in the belly. Young Jeezy nicks part of “Public Service Announcement” for his opening verse in “Real As It Gets.” Jay responds with one of his most convicted performances on the album.

Remove the EP’s worth of solid cuts, though, and Jay’s post-retirement secret emerges: he’s having problem finding new things to say. There’s nothing as fun and clever as “Brooklyn Go Hard,” his contribution to this year’s “Notorious” soundtrack. That song contains one of the best verses in Jay’s cannon:

“I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them,
I Jack, I Rob, I sin,
Ah man, I’m Jackie Robinson
‘Cept when I run base, I dodge the pen,
Lucky me, Luckily they didn’t get me,
Now when I bring the Nets I’m the black Branch Ricky,
From Brooklyn corners, burnin’ branches of sticky.”

Instead, Jay drops a dated Mac/PC comparison and gives us this in “Venus vs. Mars:”

“Shorty like Pepsi, me I’m the coke man,
Body like a coke bottle, I crush it like a Coke can,

Started at the window, then the bedroom wall,
the Ying to my Yang, I skeet skeet off,
I hits it from the back, Shorty like the front,
the Bonnie to my Clyde,
both riding shotgun,
both covered in gold like C3PO,
James and Florida Evans let the good times roll.”

Using this strained metaphor, Jay is able to reference his past as a drug dealer (now nearly 15 years ago), brag about his sexual prowess and remind everyone about his bank roll. Toss in a reference to his estranged father, and this is basically every Jay-cliché in one verse.

There aren’t many points on “Blueprint 3” as hollow as this, but there are enough that it can’t be excused as an isolated incident. Album closing “Young Forever” is intended as an uplifting anthem, but is cornier than an all-occasion greeting card that suffers from the P. Diddy school of sampling. Kanye West gets the production credit here, but all he does here is cue Alphaville’s “Forever Young” – best known for its prominence in the film “Napoleon Dynamite” – and let Jay karaoke.

Despite surrounding himself with A-list producers and guests, Jay lacks much of the fire and creativity that fueled masterpieces like the original “Blueprint.” After three installments, it’s clear Jay needs to go back to the drawing board.

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Above: Jack White and Alicia Keys do the latest James Bond song, “Another Way To Die.”

By Joel Francis

Duran Duran bass player John Taylor probably had the previous two James Bond themes in mind when he drunkenly approached producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and asked when they were going to get someone “decent” to do a Bond song.

It didn’t take long to learn the answer. Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill” was a No. 1 hit, re-establishing Paul McCartney’s precedent of letting successful pop acts write and perform title songs hit. While the big synthesizers and processed drums haven’t aged well – few pop songs from the ’80s have – the chorus of “dance into the fire” remains as catchy as ever. The song also marked the last time original Duran Duran’s lineup recorded together for 16 years.

Encouraged by Duran Duran’s success, the Bonds producers handed the reigns to another pop act for 1987’s “The Living Daylights.” After being rejected by the Pet Shop Boys, who wanted to score the entire film, a-ha, the band best known for its 1985 No. 1 hit “Take On Me,” agreed to take on Bond. Sporting similar dated production as Duran Duran’s hit, but weaker songwriting and overly sensitive singing, “The Living Daylights” became another Bond footnote.

The lush orchestration associated with early Bond numbers was back for Gladys Knight’s “License to Kill” in 1989. Composer Michael Kamen did a good job incorporating the “Goldfinger” horn line into the main melody, but the lyrics and melody are bland. It’s a shame that Knight, who has one of the strongest soul voices of all time, wasn’t given stronger material. Bond’s further musical malaise is marked by the presence of Patti LaBelle’s end credits theme, “If You Asked Me To,” which was later covered by Celine Dion. Dion’s appearance marks the nadir of any expedition.

After a six-year hiatus and casting change, Bond returned in 1995’s “Golden Eye.” Written by U2’s Bono and The Edge, “Golden Eye” found the duo continuing in the same vein as their summer hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” The arrangement wraps the duo’s discotheque infatuation around a haunting melody build on a horn line. Tina Turner masterfully teases Bono’s voyeuristic lyrics and was rewarded with a Top 10 hit in Europe. “Goldfinger” was the best Bond song in a generation and helped successfully jumpstart the franchise.

After the powerful, soulful voices of Knight and Tuner, Bond’s producers turned to another American female in 1997 for “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Sheryl Crow brought strong songwriting chops and chart-topping cache, but she lacked the voice to carry her melody. Her vocals fare well during the verses, but the chorus is too high for Crow’s register where her throat lacks the energy to carry the words and emotion. k.d. lang’s “Surrender,” written by the film’s composer David Arnold, fits firmly in the Bond mold of big strings and brassy horns and would have been a better opening number. Unfortunately, it was retitled and pushed to the closing credits once Crow signed on. Finally, pop-techno musician Moby was enlisted to remix Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.” The result was a rare update that successfully enhanced and modernized the original.

Arnold successfully married his large orchestration with light techno elements for “The World Is Not Enough.” Garbage singer Shirley Manson slithers through the lyrics with authority and the rest of the band maintains a tasteful balance between rock and orchestral while adding their stamp to the song.

Madonna was easily Bond’s biggest star pull since Paul McCartney when she signed up for “Die Another Day” in 2002. While the film may have been Bond-by-numbers, Madonna blew up the formula for her electronic theme song. Her manipulated vocals hide behind banks of synthesizers and strings and spout the memorable line “Sigmund Freud/analyze this.” Although the song spent 11 weeks at the top spot of the U.S. charts, it is unlike any other theme in the Bond cannon and, as a result, not without controversy. The Material Girl wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bond was rebooted once again in 2006 for “Casino Royale.” As the character became grittier, so did the music. Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” is easily the hardest number in the Bond cannon, cut from the same stone as Alice Cooper’s rejected “Man with the Golden Gun” that repulsed producers 30 years ago.

Confirming they were no longer afraid to rock out, White Stripes mastermind Jack White was enlisted to perform “Another Way To Die” for 2008’s “The Quantum of Solace.” Unsurprisingly, White’s song sounds like a heavily orchestrated White Stripes number given an urban twist courtesy of the piano and vocals of Alicia Keys. Stripped of the overproduction that plagues her solo releases, Keys shines under White’s watch. Her call and response with White’s dirty guitar licks halfway through the song channel “What I’d Say” through Jimmy Page’s amplifier. The number is the first Bond theme performed as a duet, but based on the openness Bond’s producers have shown in the past decade, it will likely not be the last.

Keep reading:

The Music of James Bond: Part 1 – The Classic Years

The Music of James Bond: Part 2 – The Seventies

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Brenda Holloway – “Every Little Bit Hurts,” Pop #11
Motown may have been “the sound of young America,” but this song was clearly aiming for an older audience. Lee Cobb’s writing is obviously influenced by the Burt Bacharach/Hal David team, but Brenda Holloway’s pristine, nuanced delivery elevates the song above imitator status. Her restraint is the key – Holloway trusts the melody and structure will carry the song further than her lungs. She was right. Although the style is closer to supper club than street party, Holloway and Cobb inspired a legion of artists to take it on.

The Spencer Davis Group, fronted by a young Steve Winwood, had a hit with it in 1965. A year later, the Small Faces tried their hand on it. Funkmaster George Clinton turned the song into a duet in 1972 when he performed it with Diane Brooks. Alicia Keys released a more faithful version on her 2006 live album “Unplugged.” Proving once again there were few musical stones they wouldn’t turn over, The Clash recorded a cover in the early ‘80s. Fellow English punkers The Jam also cut a version about the same time. — by Joel Francis

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