Sunday, October 26, 2008

The oft maligned elegant lady of post-jazz: Sade Adu

By most people's categorization standards, Sade Adu's music is "easy listening" or "lounge jazz" (a kinder way of saying "elevator music"). The lyrics, "coast to coast/LA to Chicago/west of Maine," from arguably her most well-known song "Smooth Operator" invokes an intercontinental tone can comes off as goofy to American listeners. Her music is oft maligned for being schmaltzy and vacuous. For all the nay-sayers, I advise they listen more closely.

Sade’s music has an excellent sense of rhythm, often makes use of Latin beats including bossa nova and African grooves, and is intelligent and sexy. Lyrically, she has a way of diving very deep into your soul with lines like:

"If you were mine, I wouldn't want to go to heaven" (“Cherish the Day”)
“I’d wash the sand off the shore. Give you the world if it was mine.” (“Paradise”)
"I'll give you my love, I'll give you everything I feel inside...surrender your love to me." (“Give it Up”)
“My love is wider than Victoria Lake. My love is taller than the Empire State.”
(“Is it a Crime”)

Who says the best “love poetry” is written by men? I listen to those lyrics and just sigh – would that I could feel that way about a man, is the thought that comes to mind. I often wish that more women be that direct and courageous about the intensity of desire. In that respect, on the lyrical front, I can compare her to Stevie Nicks.

In concert, she’s surprisingly dynamic. With her smooth complexion, high forehead, and eyes that stare right into you, her stage presence is charismatic. She is only 5’7; however she looks incredibly tall. People with long legs, long necks, and long arms get away with murder when it concerns height. She is no dancer, nor is her music really danceable, but she moves well with it, feels it as it is her own, and even barefoot, is amazingly elegant.

Sade’s sense of style is impeccable. It’s at once evocative of old screen legends such as Katharine Hepburn (for the more male elements), Audrey Hepburn (for the un-fussed simplicity in color and form), and Lauren Bacall (for the film noir-ish mise-en-scene), but at the same time deceptive. She wears black trousers and high-necked, long-sleeved turtlenecks with the back completely open or kimono-like dresses, but with slits high up the leg. I think it’s very reflective of the sense of mystery mixed with sex just below the surface. It’s very clever – it’s about covering it all up so that the skin you do show has that much more effect. And at 49, she looks beyond amazing.

Sade was in a genre of her own in the 1980s – next to Duran Duran, U2, and Madonna, no one compared. Indeed, Sade owes a lot to her predecessors – Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, and even Diana Ross and Astrud Gilberto just to name a few. I think however she deserves major credit for writing a form of jazz that is lyrically lovely, only marginally in tune with the 80s and 90s, and allusive of the 1940s. It’s completely anachronistic, yet totally irresistible.

Friday, October 17, 2008

An underrated little gem: Stevie Nicks' Street Angel

Don't judge an album by the artist's life at the time of its production.

Stevie Nicks' 1994 release Street Angel was dismissed by the majority of critics as being insipid and stale. I listened to it for the first time over 10 years ago on cassette, and perhaps I was over-influenced by the comments. I found myself at Cheapo Records in Central Square, Cambridge the other evening, looking for used CDs while waiting for my take-away dinner at the Indian restaurant next door. At $3.99, I had to buy a copy, as it's the only Stevie studio album I don't own.

Of course, quality of sound differs greatly on a CD opposed to cassettes (does anyone even own a tape recorder anymore?). The CD possesses high-quality production values that are superior in fact to Rock a Little (1983) and even to Wild Heart (1983) – though not superior to the songs.

Overall, these are beautifully written songs from the catchy pop sound of "Blue Denim" to the poignant "Greta" (alluding to the screen goddess) and the wistful "Maybe Love Will Change Your Mind." Even her cover of the Bob Dylan classic "Just Like a Woman" is well done. If ever there was a woman with the voice to cover a Dylan song, it is Stevie. The take-it or leave-it attitude and open-road feeling of "Kick It" is very satisfying. In fact the only sub-par song on the record is "Jane," her tribute to anthropologist Jane Goodall. Something about the line "the forgotten chimpanzee" makes me cringe, even if the song was well-intended (sorry, Stevie). Most surprisingly, the songs are contemporary for mid 90s popular music, along the lines of Natalie Merchant. Admittedly, her voice was *not* in the best of conditions, but I do love the gravely, lived-in sound, and where she is unable to hold the verse on her own, her long-time back-up singers Sharon Celani, Lori Nicks, and Sara Fleetwood, more than adequately support her vocals.

In retrospect, it almost appears that the reviewers dismissed Street Angel on account of the personal troubles in Stevie's life – she was at the time, overweight and fighting a drug addiction. Her voice was not in the best condition. They seemed to have thrown the record out with the woman, as it were. Street Angel showcases a calmer Stevie and a thoughtful songwriter with excellent rhythm (as always) and exceptional musicality.