Obsessive fans know the sheer agony of waiting years, even decades, for their favorite oldies (ahem, classic) artist to finally release a new album of substandard material on a record label no one has ever heard of. Amazingly, some of these ancient relics manage to claw their way back from the brink of blinding obscurity. Anything to escape the horrors and degradation of the hotel casino circuit. Here are a few examples from the recent millennium.
The B-52’s — Funplex
Rock Lobster! Yes, it’s been approximately 8,000 years since Miss Fred Schneider screeched those immortal words and summed up the state of an entire inebriated generation. The nation’s collective lobster was indeed rockin’! Fred, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson & Keith Strickland came streaming out of Athens, GA with sky high hairdos, thrift store fashion sense and a jubilant, camp attitude that no other group could match. Despite being labeled (and often dismissed) as a mere gimmick or cult band, they continued to spin off numerous iconic albums and singles. The B’s eventually reached their glossy, funky zenith in 1989 with the hit album Cosmic Thing. The band thrilled devoted fans and earned legions of new ones when they got their global groove on with the shiny, happy single “Love Shack,” baby.
Despite a huge mainstream breakthrough, an endless 16 years went swishing by before the group finally unleashed their seventh party platter with 2008’s Funplex. Music director Keith Strickland recruited producer Steve Osborne (of New Order & Sophie Ellis-Bextor fame) to pull the band’s retro sound solidly into the current decade. Suddenly they were off the oldies circuit and back into the studio where they belonged — making candy-coated musical extravaganzas. Funplex retains the band’s trademark cool quirks and dizzily enjoyable style of neon dance pop. This time around the recipe stirs in equals parts throbbing synthesizers and drum machine beats and then seals it over with an Aquanet sheen. Sometimes you’ll wonder if you’re trapped in a thumping remix on an infinite loop – one that you may never want to end.
The giddy title track “Funplex” discovers delirious leading lady Fred in glorious kitsch mode, shouting tales about malls and diet pills — timeless themes, indeed. High-haired harlots Cindy and Kate are still spinning gorgeous, effortless harmonies as if thirty years had simply stood still. The single was served up in January 2008 and took its party out of bounds where it reached #14 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. One track in and it’s already obvious that betting on Steve Osborne has resulted in an eclectic jackpot. Stroll further through the carnival and you’ll find even more sideshow attractions and electronic feats of strength. Classic B-52’s beats collide with what passes for modern dance on “Eyes Wide Open.” Robots of various genders invade Fred’s dreams in “Love in the Year 3000.” Second single “Juliet of the Spirits” flew to #8 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. “Ultraviolet” finds Fred extolling the virtues of highway rest stops and g-spots. Yeah, that sounds about right. These highlights, paired with dancefloor shakers like “Hot Corner,” are a sweet, high reminder of the band’s long-ago glory days. We can only hope it won’t take until the year 3000 for those days to return.
Is all of this inspired by early-era rock, Beach Boys harmony or just plain musical schizophrenia? Yes, it is! Funplex topped off at #11 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and sold approximately 30,000 hot platters in its first week of release. Overall a nice return to form for music’s premiere party band. The whole shack shimmies, kids!
Donna Summer — Crayons
For the record, disco is not dead — it just smells funny. Many of its most famous artists have unfortunately suffered a similar fate. However, the same cannot be said for its reigning, glittering goddess. LaDonna Gaines was a reluctant superstar, sex goddess and dancefloor queen. When her demo vocals were morphed into the 16-minute-and-50-second orgasmic throwdown “Love to Love You Baby,” a bleary-eyed world rolled over to have a collective cigarette. An endless playlist of classic dance tracks (“Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff”) followed and cemented her as the beloved, unrivaled queen of the spinning disco oeuvre. Much of her massive success came from her stunning, powerhouse vocal pyrotechnics that few artists of any style or gender could touch. Donna brought gospel fire to an already blazing disco inferno. Working with groundbreaking producers Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder guaranteed a stream of unique, high-concept tracks. Unlike her ’70’s contemporaries, Donna made a relatively smooth transition into the next decade. She continued to have additional hits (“Love is in Control,” “She Works Hard For The Money”) as part of the ’80s dance scene as well as broaden her own musical styles with rock, R&B and gospel. She is listed by Billboard magazine as the eighth most successful woman in music history and has sold 130 million records across the universe.
Fans waited a difficult 17 years between the 1991 album Mistaken Identity and the long-delayed 2008 comeback opus Crayons. Despite the long passage of time, Donna sounds almost as fresh as today’s generation of dance divas. Having followed in her perfumed wake they were likely greatly influenced by her lingering legend. Current R&B behemoth Beyonce seems to be a direct descendant of Lady Donna’s sultry style and vocal flamethrowing. The obvious difference between Donna and most of music’s current crop of gals is that Donna is the real deal. She has more talent than most of them crammed into a recording booth with Auto-Tune set on high. Crayons sets out to take back what rightfully belongs to Donna and what has been greatly tainted over the years by mass-marketing of soulless mannequins.
Recorded over a two year span, Donna seems to have thrown herself full-bodied and full-throated into this project. Her energy is free and contagious and her trademark voice does not seem to have changed at all. Time has truly been more than kind to this national treasure. Crayons embodies everything that would be expected of Donna and everything that originally made her an icon. A variety of styles and (unnecessary) vocal effects come spinning out at you thanks to modern collaborators such as J.R. Rotem, Danielle Brisebois, Lester Mendez, Greg Kurstin and Evan Bogart, son of Casablanca Records founder, Neil Bogart. Most of their contributions positively reek of a fresh, young edge that will likely please a generation who is just discovering the wonder and magic that is Donna Summer. Also sure to be happy, if a bit taken aback at times, are devotees and obsessives who know that Donna has kept her deep connection to the dancefloor.
The first colorful track to emerge from this box of Crayons was “I’m A Fire.” It burned its way to the top of the dance charts, giving her the longest timespan between her first and most recent #1. Considered the album’s first official single, “Stamp Your Feet” sports thumping percussion, near-perfect production and a direct challenge to listeners. Written with Brisebois and Kurstin, it quickly stomped its way to #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. It was her 14th single to achieve this feat — and her second in a row. The album’s funky title track is an inspired “duet” featuring reggae superstar Ziggy Marley who provides a unique, refreshing balance to Donna’s bouncing lead. A standout track, particularly with regard to lyrical style, is the aptly titled “The Queen Is Back.” Donna slows down the tempo and sings longingly of her past and alludes to an invigorating future. Surrounded by younger and less capable vocal chops, this song would fall flat but Donna has the reputation to sell it. “Fame (The Game)” points a finger at the emptiness and obsession surrounding modern celebrity and its superficial trappings. “Be Myself Again” strips away the artifice and effects leaving behind some lingering percussion, a piano and that shimmering voice.
Crayons made a colorful debut on the Billboard 200 Albums chart (and hit its highest peak) at #17. Perhaps her lengthy time away from her kingdom made this success a surprise to some. But for all of us who have waited patiently at her feet, it’s a long-overdue validation that genuine talent rules out — and doesn’t change.
Welcome back, your majesty. Your throne awaits you.
Taylor Dayne — Satisfied
Long ago, in a decade far away, there was a time when popular female artists could actually sing. They could rock a mic sporting leg warmers, fishnet stockings and hair so crimped you could lose a limb. Those days, sadly, seem to be gone forever. Sniffle. They’ve been replaced with a new crop of lip-syncing, badunkadunk-shaking fembots who all look the same (vague) and sound the same (terrible). One of the most feared, towering vocal glamazons from that bygone era was Taylor Dayne. Taylor had everything it took to become a certified dance floor filler. She had the stunning looks, the atrocious outfits and enough hairspray to feed a small country. She also had THAT VOICE — a fantastic, bombastic instrument that could demolish buildings and music charts with a single quiver of her painted red lips.
After years of struggle, Taylor became an instant, overnight sensation with the massive hit “Tell It To My Heart.” A string of popular, percolating dance concoctions and passionate, oversung hyper-ballads followed. She quickly joined the ranks of other beloved, big-voiced broads like Laura Branigan and Pat Benatar — all of whom could deliver with gut-busting vocal firepower . Two successful albums kept Ms. Dayne’s voice booming out of the radio for several years. Then, like with so many talented belters before her, the hits (and the lips) stopped.
A decade of divas blew past before Taylor followed up her last album, Naked Without You, with her fifth official release, 2008’s Satisfied. Now more mature, she acts and sounds like the seasoned veteran that she is. Fans will be pleased that most of her new music is still very much like it was during her halcyon days of the late ’80s. It’s big, bold and brassy but not quite as bombastic as it used to be. That’s where Taylor’s newfound control of her striking voice becomes the album’s major, and most refreshing, asset. She no longer catches her songs in a steel-jawed trap and wrestles them into submission. However, they are still willing prey for our huntress/songstress — escape is futile. While she could clearly use a massive hit, Taylor is no longer running after trends quite as blatantly. Her voice has retained its trademark whiskey on the rocks roughness but has deepened with warm, honey-coated goodness.
The songs on Satisifed have been taken down a notch on the richter scale from the ones on her most famous albums. They’re smoother but still completely in the old-school, dance, pop and light r&b pocket that they always were. Lead single “Beautiful” was the first track to show its pretty face. Written by Taylor and Hitesh Ceon (of 3Elementz), it proves that her old style is still in fine form. It could easily stand along some of her most famous songs with its swirling tempo and a trademark hot, husky vocal at its center. Sung as a passionate tribute to a beloved lover, “Beautiful” went to #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Charts.
Taylor tackles several inspired/bizarre cover versions including Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” which was long overdue to be performed by a woman and boasts a screaming horn section. The suddenly-famous-again Des’ree contributes “Kissing You,” which fits Taylor perfectly and provides a much needed quality ballad. Thankfully, things head back over the top with “Crash,” a booming power track with lots of guts and very little shame. Songwriters Rick Nowels (of Belinda Carlisle fame) and Gregg Alexander chime in with “My Heart Can’t Change” which is a close to pop as this album gets. The pseudo-reggae/calypso/tropical/kitchen sink “She Don’t Love You” goes down pretty easy and only stays around long enough to drop off some drum kit and percussion elements. It quickly gets voted off the island.
So, will fans truly be satisfied after the long wait ? Possibly. Ms. Dayne is certainly aiming that killer voice back in the right direction. Watch out for falling buildings!
Until next time — you’ve just been served!