Bossa Nova or Bust (08/06/99)
M People, Testify (Epic 1999) - Returning with their third LP is the British dance band, M People. Fronted by elegant singer Heather Small, of West Indian descent, the band delivers a languid, disco-based R&B sound.
M People was assembled by Mike Pickering, who hails from Manchester, England, and who spent time as a roadie for Joy Division. Pickering describes his musical mission as follows: "To bring dance music back to the song, like Motown, Stax, or the Philly International era. A classic song is the foundation of any kind of music."
Rounding out the foursome are Paul Heard on bass and keyboards and Shovell on percussion. The group's first album, Northern Soul, was recorded with a roster of several singers. As Pickering recalls, "It turned into something really coherent with Heather. We never went back to rotating vocalists."
M People's second album, Elegant Slumming, appeared in 1993 and rose to No. 2 on the UK album chart, buoyed by the hit single, "Moving On Up." "From that point, we knew that we were growing into more than a studio concoction," Heard says. "We assembled a full band and hit the road. It was amazing to hear the songs take shape in a live venue."
Testify marks the band's third U.S. release, and draws tracks from the UK-only release, Fresco. In addition to the dreamy title track, the album also includes a fine cover of "What a Fool Believes" (originally by the Doobie Brothers).
If you're looking for delicious dance music in the vein of Cher, look no further than Testify.
Pink Martini, Sympathique (Heinz Records 1999) - Here's an unusual collection. Pink Martini is a 12-member ensemble hailing from Portland, Oregon, that performs in a big band/bossa nova/Continental/Latin style. Sound different? Sympathique is, in a good way.
Sympathique, released independently on the band's own label, has sold nearly 50,000 copies. The band leader is Thomas Lauderdale, a Harvard-trained classical pianist. Asked to describe his group's diverse style, Lauderdale says, "One of the phrases that has made sense lately is 'Cosmopolitan Rumba' . . . It's not world music, but worldly music. Some of it is Afro-Cuban, some of it is Brazilian, some of it is French music hall of the 30's, some of it is classical. In that sense, it's a post-modern project."
Fronting Pink Martini are Flamenco singer Pepe Raphael, who grew up in Spain and studied classical ballet under Mikhail Baryshnikov, and sultry singer China Forbes, who delivers a sensual version of "Que Sera Sera."
Other musicians include trumpet player Gavin Bondy, trombonist Robert Taylor, violinist Aaron Meyer, cellist David Eby, string bass player John Wager, guitarist Dan Faehnle, vibe player Doug Smith, drummer Richard Rothfus, and conga player Brian Davis, with Lauderdale anchoring it all with piano and direction.
With songs ranging from 60's instrumental stylings of "Andalucia" to Revel's "Bolero" to "Never on Sunday," Sympathique is a surprising find. The big band and swing sound is back in demand, and Pink Martini is a strong contender, with its accomplished musicianship and terrific multilingual singers.
For more information, contact:
Post Office Box 4628
Portland, OR 97208-4628
Ron Sexsmith, Whereabouts (Interscope 1999) - Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith returns with his third CD, Whereabouts. Produced again by Mitch Froom and Tchad Blake, the album has a likeable feel, fleshed out by strings and found sounds.
Now age 35, the Toronto native caught the attention of label heads Ted Field and Jimmy Iovine after years of busking around Toronto. Sexsmith's first (and best) release was his fine self-titled album from 1995, which contained such introspective and probing songs as "Lebanon, Tennessee" and "First Chance I Get."
Whereabouts is a move away from Sexsmith's more minimalized earlier productions. Explains Ron, "The first record was mostly love songs, and the second was filled with short stories and vignettes. This time, I wrote a lot more about what I found inside me: it may sound odd, but a lot of it has to do with my relationship with the Big Guy Upstairs."
Sexsmith has drawn apt comparisons to such singer-songwriters as John Prine and Harry Nilsson. Sexsmith's songs have a wry, Canadian approach, mixing upbeat melodies with discordant horn arrangements and traces of melancholy.
Whereabouts was recorded at the Magic Shop in New York City with Sexsmith handling vocals, guitars, and mandolin, Mitch Froom on keyboards, Pete Thomas (from the Attractions) on drums and percussion, and "Nashville" Brad Jones on bass and slide guitar.
Producer Mitch Froom adds elegance and depth to Whereabouts through such subtle instrumentation as horns, vibes, and reed instruments (such as the sweet clarinet on "One Grey Morning"). "That's what I like about working with Mitchell" says Sexsmith, "he sees a song and things occur to him that wouldn't occur to me."
Ron Sexsmith may be a quiet force amid the technology and swagger of current pop music (comments Sexsmith, "Everything's been so groove-oriented lately, I guess I felt a bit left out of it"), but there's nothing unfashionable about good songs.
With such gentle treats as "Feel for You" and "Every Passing Day," Ron Sexsmith is valiantly carrying on the torch of the thinking man's songwriter. Enjoy Whereabouts.
- Randy Krbechek © 1999
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