Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"Lovin' You," the O'Jays (11/7/87)
Autopilot mature soul balladry, what else you wanna know? B
Addendum: But never underestimate the importance of great, great singing - especially when it's coming from legends such as these. (Original grade: B-.)

"Bad," Michael Jackson (10/17/87)
Can anyone who was cognizant of pop (in its greater sense) in 1987 hear those four ascending notes which open "Bad" and not identify it immediately? If that's not enough, there's its snaky, sleek groove (courtesy of a Q. Jones, whaddaya know). "Bad" succeeds in part because of the severe contrast between Michael's singing (all clenched-teeth, very stiff, at least on the verses) and its masterful studio groove (very wet). Those sweeping stabs heading into the chorus don't hurt, either. No, Bad wasn't Thriller, but if you take it for a spin now (happily, Sony remastered Off the Wall through Dangerous a few years ago, with bonus tracks that actually augment your listening) you'll likely be surprised. And "Bad" is a definite highlight, very professional - he's the epitome of a pro, you know. A-

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"(You're Puttin') A Rush On Me," Stephanie Mills (10/10/87)
As Roberta Flack once sang, uh-uh ooh-ooh look out - here it comes. This is an utterly leviathan record, and one which warrants some personal background.

Back in its day, I was still a city-boy teenager stranded on a northern Indiana farm. There was no R&B radio to speak of for miles and miles - but with the right weather conditions (clouds, and lots of 'em, extending at least halfway down the state), if I messed with the antenna on my 1982 boombox, I could sometimes pick up WTLC, which was (and still is) Indianapolis's heritage R&B station, then at 105.7 FM. This was, of course, before R&B radio became so fragmented, when R&B was a single format. WTLC was genius programming: they had "Jazz at :45," which meant they'd play a jazz record every hour; their presentation was incredibly, but not too, upbeat, led by their star jock, Tony LaMont (who left in the '90s for a stint on a market competitor but has since returned to his once-and-always home); and their music mix was as near-perfect as radio got in the '80s. Whenever I could pick up their signal, I'd be sure to have a recordable cassette (generally some of my grandfather's cast-offs, with scotch tape over the recording notches) at the ready so that I could tape anything really great.

One early, early morning in October of '87 - circa 2am, in fact - I got at least an hour of WTLC onto tape. It included Miles Jaye's "Let's Start Love Over" (a sumptuous mid-tempo ballad from a Pendergrass-wannabe with a xylophone solo, which cruelly peaked at #2 R&B [and was an absolute non-starter at pop]), MJ's "Bad" (wait for it), and for "Jazz at :45," George Benson's breathtakingly beautiful "Star of a Story (X)," from his 1980 smash Give Me the Night. But that wasn't all.

The real find of the hour for me was a song by a singer I was vaguely familiar with, thanks to her late-'70s pop hit "Never Knew Love Like This Before." In 1987, that's basically all I knew of Stephanie Mills, but I knew that "(You're Puttin') A Rush on Me" sounded like nothing my ears had heard at the time. Taken from her album If I Were Your Woman (which hit #1 R&B), "Rush" is a propulsive, synth-funky (check that squelchy synth-bassline, like whoa) plea for a would-be beau to slow down, along the same lines as Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force's 1985 landmark "I Wonder If I Take You Home" - but it's about 10 times better. There's need in Mills's voice: it's killing her to wait as much as she knows it's killing her lover-to-be; she practically sings the line "Please just be patient if nothing else" through gritted teeth, before letting loose(r) on "Just know that I respect myself." (If it wasn't so clear that Mills will eventually give in, this could damned near be used to promote abstinence. But it is so clear.) Like much of the day's R&B, "Rush" lopes along at a danceable-but-only-just tempo, with a BPM that's gotta be under 100. I love the track, simultaneously dated and timeless, but Mills is the real draw here. When she sings "I've got to be sure your intentions are good" in the song's bridge, extending "good" a healthy 3 seconds, she nails it completely. (That's something Mills has a hard time not doing, truth be told.)

"(You're Puttin') A Rush on Me" - even the parenthetical title is great! - is as sublime as singles come, regardless of genre. It may not be the greatest record ever (and it's not, I know that), but it's unquestionably one of my favorites, and one of the most influential ever on my tastes and listening. It can't possibly receive any grade but an A+.

"Lost In Emotion," Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam (10/3/87)
Okay, maybe I should've given "Head to Toe" better than a C. But not this watered-down pop-soul, even if Lisa Lisa does everything in her reach to improve it. Something about fighting losing battles comes to mind... C

"I Need Love," LL Cool J (9/26/87)
...which astute readers of this blog, and/or general music freaks will know as the very first hip-hop record to make it to the top of the R&B chart. Akin to the way many say the first black U.S. president will have to be a conservative, the first hip-hop single to be an R&B #1 was a ballad, a love song, a sensitive treatise from not-a-boy-not-yet-a-man Todd Smith, a/k/a LL Cool J. It was certainly a change-up from the def Def Jammer, compared to the likes of "Rock the Bells" and "Radio," but it signalled that perhaps his career would be unlike so many of his kin; he knew very early on how to appeal to the ladeez. He still does, and has learned to make better records along such lines (i.e. 2002's plush "Luv U Better"), but this wasn't so bad for starters, if a bit it-just-sits-there. B

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