Wednesday, March 17, 2004

"Hangin' On A String (Contemplating)," Loose Ends (7/13/85)
What a marvel this is. The only Brits to top the U.S. R&B chart in the '80s - and they did it twice, as you'll see - Loose Ends, a coed trio, made some of the slinkiest machine-driven soul of the decade. But the marvel inherent to Loose Ends, and "Hangin'" in particular, is that they made synthetics sound so sensuous. Whereas the production work of, say, Jam and Lewis is so dry and hard, Loose Ends' is luxuriant, like the best man-made silk. Being British seemed to make them stand out, as well; they had a unique style and sound. The fact that they broke through in the states (where black Brits seem to have the hardest time, save Sade) stuns me to this day. The fact that they did so with such great records, even moreso. A

Saturday, March 13, 2004

"Rock Me Tonight (For Old Times Sake)," Freddie Jackson (6/1/85)
Finally, here we are. Freddie Jackson's first R&B charttopper not only gives this blog its name, but was the co-longest-running #1 of '85 at 6 weeks. Even more impressively, he racked up 8 #1s in just over 4 years (with another pair in the first 6 months of '91, bringing his career total to 10). And perhaps most importantly, he almost single-handedly invented what we now know as "quiet storm": his massive popularity and consistency nearly required it be invented just for him (Anita Baker's similar domination for female artists didn't begin until the following year). And he did it all without ever having a top 10 single on the pop charts; his biggest crossover hit never got higher than #12 on the Hot 100 (and I'll address it after 6 more songs). Even more profoundly than Frankie Beverly (see below), Freddie was Black America's own, simply because he was a superstar in R&B in a way Beverly's never been (and Mr. Vandross, frankly, was too much of a crossover star). Women swooned at levels normally reserved for the likes of Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass; men knew that if they wanted little sumthin'-sumthin', putting on a Freddie Jackson record would increase the odds dramatically in their favor. And here's where it all began.

"Rock Me Tonight" is a sumptuous slow dance of a record, with timeless lyrics and production that, while it's clearly of the '80s, hasn't really dated. Sure, the drum track is obviously synthetic, but most of the single's instrumentation is just classy and classic - and it's thanks to that fact (it's fairly consistent throughout Jackson's career) that he'll forever make royalties from airplay on Adult R&B radio stations. "Rock Me" deals with a universal theme - getting back together with a beloved ex - and does so in a way that, well, who wouldn't want to hear these words from a first love?

"So much has happened in my life
Since we parted
What about you
Oh, now I’ve got myself together
And I know just what I want
And right now, girl, it’s you, you"

- Freddie Jackson, "Rock Me Tonight" (Rock Me Tonight, Capitol, 1985)

Everything in this single - the keyboard squiggles in the bridge, the slow-but-sure thumping bassline, the guitar riffs, the steady 4-on-the-floor drum track - accents Jackson's (gorgeous, rich) singing and his lyric. The music never overwhelms, which for romantic records is key. The chord changes into the bridge are perfect. And Jackson wrings every possible drop of emotion into his performance, without ever overemoting. Alongside Baker's "Sweet Love" (which I may yet sidebar, as it's quite possibly the greatest #2 R&B single of all time), this is the essence, the epitome of a perfect Quiet Storm record. In fact, it's pretty damn perfect all around. A+

"You Give Good Love," Whitney Houston (5/25/85)
Damn, that girl could sing. B+

"Fresh," Kool & the Gang (5/18/85)
Did you realize that the 12" Mix of this starts out just like Stevie Nicks's "Stand Back," all dominating snare and little else? By Emergency, the Gang wasn't fucking around with a good thing, instead sticking with what got 'em this far. Unfortunately, what brought them pop fortune and riches wasn't their primo late-'70s funk, but a clean-and-shiny antiseptic "urban" sound. Which is exactly what this is. B-

"We Are the World," USA For Africa (5/4/85)
Well, what do you say about this record? Sure, it's incredibly schmaltzy, but you can't fault its heart - nor the fairly amazing constellation of stars collected to sing it. "World" was clearly designed by Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones (its songwriters and producer, respectively) to be as mass-appeal as possible, to reach total market saturation and raise the most $$ possible for African famine relief. [How else could you explain a single featuring Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and Kenny Rogers?] And mass-appeal it certainly is; that's the single's downfall. Q's production is, frankly, pretty crappy, nowhere remotely near his usual high standards. Lyrically, it's bathetic. Judging "World" on only its own merits as music, and taking the "cause" out of the equation, the only thing it really has in its favor is its lineup. C

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

"Rhythm of the Night," DeBarge (4/27/85)
Gag. I blame you, Berry Gordy. D

"Back In Stride," Maze featuring Frankie Beverly (4/13/85)
Beverly's the great unknown man of R&B - he and his band tour black America like Jimmy Buffet, selling few records (though nearly every album in their catalog's at least gone gold) while selling out shows upon shows, all the while never coming within spitting distance of a crossover hit. "Back" shows exactly why they're so popular in their sphere, however, as it strikes a perfect balance between funky (bassline) and smooth (keybs) R&B. B+

"Nightshift," Commodores (3/16/85)
A bit more overproduced than "Missing You," with a slightly unpleasant sugary aftertaste. Which of course means it's still a recurrent at hundreds of radio stations across the U.S. B

"Missing You," Diana Ross (2/23/85)
The first of back-to-back we-miss-our-dead-friends charttoppers by Motown giants, this was Miss Ross's ode to her old pal Marvin (if I have to tell you who that is, you have no business reading this blog). While barely (and only barely, actually) overproduced, it's undoubtedly the finest ballad she's cut in the past two decades, striking the right notes of reminiscence and loss without coming off as schmaltz. "Missing You" truly comes off as classy, which, frankly, hasn't been Ross's strength in quite some time - but it was here. B+

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