Rhythm-and-Blues Has a New Breed
ASK ANY up-and-coming female rhythm-and-blues singer whom she admires, and chances are Whitney Houston will be high on the list. It’s easy to see why. Ms. Houston’s record sales are phenomenal, her voice is superlative, and her image of sophistication is admired by men and women alike. Yet for all her talent, there has always been the sense that she was designed by committee; she may try to get down, but she refuses to get dirty.
The singers Des’ree, Shara Nelson, Carleen Anderson and Dionne Farris are the anti-Whitney’s, not because they lack her ability but because they are more concerned with art than with star power. These divas make music that’s slightly messy, a bit off kilter and quietly feminist. And unlike many such female singers whose material is written and produced by men, this new breed writes its own songs.
Oddly enough, while America is the spiritual home of soul music, Des’ree and Ms. Nelson are both British and the American-born Ms. Anderson lives in London. The music scene in England is more obsessed with trends than its counterpart in America; its embrace of adventurousness may explain why it is more welcoming to such singers.
On the strength of the gorgeous single ‘You Gotta Be’, Des’ree has found herself the commercial leader of the pack. The song has given her another chance to crack the American market after her 1992 debut, Mind Adventures, failed to do so. Unfortunately, her new album, I Ain’t Moving (Epic; CD and cassette), is diminished by Des’ree’s fondness for platitudes and lyrics that seem to come out of a 12-step program. The hook for the song ‘You Gotta Be’ declares, “All I know is love will save the day.” In some form or another, the sentiment is repeated throughout the album and, eventually, it becomes tiresome. The album’s strongest element is the power of Des’ree’s rich, expressive alto.
Ms. Nelson was a fixture on the British avant-soul scene in the mid-1980’s. It was her work with Massive Attack that brought her to the forefront of the often-anonymous club-pop genre. Its 1991 album Blue Lines received glowing reviews; Ms. Nelson was a co-writer and provided the apocalyptic lead vocals for three tracks, most notably the international hit ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. But her contributions were overlooked in favor of Massive Attack’s three male members. Not coincidentally, betrayal and the struggle to regain control flavors much of Ms. Nelson’s stunning solo album, What Silence Knows (EMI; CD and cassette).
With production and songwriting assistance from Prince Be of the rap group P.M. Dawn, St. Etienne and Michael Peden (the Chimes), Ms. Nelson has recorded an album of raw beauty, anchored by anguished, often brutally honest, vocals that seem to teeter on the edge. “High time you told me what you feel about me… ’cause I’m a person in my own right but you’ve got me feeling up-tight,” Ms. Nelson wails on ‘Up-Tight’. What Silence Knows may well be the best album by a female artist this year, but despite rave reviews and a strong cult following, it has been mostly ignored by radio and the public.
Like Ms. Nelson, Ms. Anderson’s roots are in British club culture. The daughter of the former James Brown sessions players Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson, Ms. Anderson was one-third of the Young Disciples, whose 1991 Road to Freedom was an international smash and ushered in the acid-jazz movement. She received co-writer credits on several of the album’s tracks and sang lead, but her male partners, like Ms. Nelson’s, got most of the acclaim.
True Spirit (Virgin; CD and cassette) leaves no doubt as to Ms. Anderson’s abilities. Propelled by no-nonsense vocals and an indomitable spirit of independence, it defies easy categorization. The edgy ‘Nervous Breakdown’ is a Joni Mitchell-like confessional hitched to a neo-soul grove; the single ‘Mama Said’ is sexy and grown-up and American-radio savvy. Ms. Anderson’s intelligence and her humanistic approach to rhythm-and-blues is a persuasive link between the trendy British scene and American soul.
Dionne Farris also refuses to be limited to one genre. She blissfully combines hip-hop, blues, rock and rhythm-and-blues. The soloist on Arrested Development’s 1992 breakthrough hit ‘Tennessee’, she has a spacious voice and a naive approach to songwriting. Although she sometimes resorts to smiley-faced greeting-card sentiment (the simplistic ‘Reality’), she can also get right to the heart of the matter, as she does on the scorching ‘Passion’.
The songs on Wild Seed Wildflower (Columbia; CD and cassette) examine sexual abuse, love and the desire for independence. On the hushed ‘Food for Thought’, Ms. Farris sings, “Faced with a challenge of finding right from wrong in a brand-new world that recognizes none.” The album is anchored by gripping vocals and a lyrical honesty; it succeeds because of Ms. Farris’s determination to be more than just another girl singer.
None of these albums will give Whitney Houston sleepless nights, and maybe that’s what makes them so compelling. In 1994, risk taking has taken a back seat to sales and image. These singers are reminders that there is still a place and a need in rhythm-and-blues for art.
© Amy Linden, The New York Times, 8 January 1995