They might look like Express for Men salesmen, but these four gentlemen are not here to help you pick out the right pair of skinny jeans to match that blazer. No, bitches, this is All-4-One, and they’re back to reclaim their status as “The Dukes of R&B.” (I’ve honestly never heard of anyone referring to them this way before today, but their kinda hilarious Wikipedia entry says that’s what they’ve been “dubbed,” so I’m running with it.)
All-4-One rose to fame in the mid ’90s, offering all the multicultural R&B harmonies of Color Me Badd with none of the unpleasant visual reminders of Kenny G. They also started a bit of a trend with their cover of John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear,” which almost cracked the Top 40 in its original country incarnation, but became a Grammy-winning smash for the melismatic quartet, proving in the process that country and R&B fans had one thing in common (bad taste, har de har har) and prompting a slew of imitators, like Kevin Sharp’s cover of Tony Rich’s “Nobody Knows,” or All-4-One’s cover…of John Michael Montgomery’s…”I Can Love You Like That.”
Yes, they really did cut two country covers. Of songs originally performed by the same guy. And had huge hits with both of them, actually, although “I Can Love You Like That” was only nominated for a Grammy. Still, as huge as the group’s early success might have been, it was destined to be short-lived — partly because there had been a glut of soundalike R&B harmony acts since the early ’90s, and partly because the secretaries (sorry, administrative assistants) who love this sort of flavorless balladry are so used to listening to the radio that they don’t mind hearing the same song 100,000 times, and as a result, they only buy a handful of CDs every decade. Five years after “I Swear” topped the charts, All-4-One was all washed up, releasing a contract-fulfilling final album for Atlantic and heading off to the Pacific Rim, where — again, according to their Wikipedia page — they’ve packed houses in “cities such as Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok and Shanghai” while periodically releasing albums that no one bought.
No Regrets, All-4-One’s sixth (sixth!) studio album of original material (in other words, not counting An All-4-One Christmas or, gulp, Live at the Hard Rock), arrives five years after Split Personality, which was released only in Japan (cue sad horn noise), and it’s their first in a decade to enjoy the backing of a major label (the Concord Music Group, where album artwork is apparently something you worry about in the car on the way to the manufacturing plant). Why now, you ask? Well, it seems group member Jamie Jones has started a production company, the rather ironically named Heavyweights, which did a lot of work on Wayne Brady’s A Long Time Coming album. In other words, the All-4-One comeback — such as it is — is all Wayne Brady’s fault.
But enough about the album’s background, you’re saying. How does it sound? And when will I turn the title No Regrets into a mean-spirited joke? The answers to your questions, in order, are “like it’s still 1994, mostly” and “I like the way you think.” The album’s title appears to be kind of a personal statement, I guess, seeing as how the group has repeatedly blamed label interference for its short commercial lifespan and how, in a recent interview, they talked about wanting to rise or fall on their own merits with this album. It’s a completely respectable thing to say, and I admire them for saying it, but it’s also completely lacking in self-awareness. I guess if things had worked out differently for them, they might have been able to carve out a New Edition-style career as a popular live act, but really, theirs is not a style of music that lends itself to longevity — and oddly enough, the self-penned No Regrets is the proof, because it sounds more or less the same as the albums they now dismiss as label-mandated product.
The chief culprit is the album’s lightweight (ha! See how I did that?) production, which relies on synthesizers and drum machines whose buttons don’t seem to have been touched since the last time we had a national health care debate. Actually, that isn’t entirely true; one track, the appropriately titled “Go” (download), uses a rave beat and Auto-Tune, which is either obnoxious or the funniest thing I’ve listened to in months. I mean…Auto-Tune? For a vocal group? Did they not hear the irony?
On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why they did it. Groups like All-4-One are confronted by the same problem faced by, say, Winger when they try to record something new — their popular sound has been frozen in pop culture amber, and is identified so strongly with a bygone era that they’re forced to either stick with it and face the consequences or try something new and seem desperate. With No Regrets, All-4-One opts mainly for the former, except they’re no longer poaching songs from the finest writers in country music. No, they’re relying on their own material, which is serviceable when it isn’t begging to be taken seriously (“My Child” is a mawkish divorce ballad; “When I Needed an Angel” is about — I’m not kidding — the awesomeness of organ donors), but isn’t terribly memorable, either.
Wayne Brady’s album barely made a ripple on the charts, but was enough of a success for Concord to sign All-4-One — and the group’s nemeses in Boyz II Men are releasing another goddamn covers record this year, so maybe the time is right for a resurgence of this type of music. But I don’t think so. It’s probably more likely that the Concord Music Group is about to have a huge hit on its hands in cities such as Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok, and Shanghai. Now let’s just hope Shai, Xscape, and Silk don’t go getting any big ideas.