Sunday, July 21, 2019

Lisa Stansfield: The Ferdinand Magellan Of British Neo-Soul

Here's a question: do you think Lisa Stansfield has ... found her baby yet? I mean hell, it's been 30 freakin' years already. How many times do you think she has literally traversed the globe searching for this guy? How many Shanghai opium dens, Moroccan cafes, and Eskimo huts has she poked her head into in her never-ending quest to track down that elusive paramour? Aren't there, like, private investigators you can hire for this kind of thing? On the plus side, I'll bet she's picked up an impressive array of languages. Just think of the frequent flyer rewards. Wouldn't it be ironic if her baby turned out to be ... dead? No wonder she can't find him. Or maybe he just moved back in with his parents.

Though she could've won a Tracey Ullman lookalike contest, and though she sported the best hair curlicue since the reign of Bill Haley, Lisa Stansfield, in her heart of hearts, to her misfortune (or perhaps to her great fortune), was a fiery soul diva stuck in an era of robotic dance-pop. You know how some members of the LGBT community might refer to themselves as "a woman trapped in a man's body," or vice versa? Well Lisa Stansfield was like a burly early '70s American black man trapped in a skinny late '80s Northern English white woman's body. But did she let this tragic twist of fate stop her? No sir.

Stansfield certainly has an impressive set of pipes, but there's something about her 1,000 watt delivery that causes me to giggle ever-so-slightly. Examples:
  • "Been around the world and aye-aye-aye...": Is she providing her own DJ stratching?
  • "I was oh-uh-oh so baaad": Look out, she's dropping octaves and speak-singing. She's a tough cookie all right.
  • "I did too much lyyyyyinnnnn', wasted doo much tyyyyyme ..." More like "I did too much elonnngatinnnn', stretched doo many syyyyyllablessss ..."
  • "I was the one, the weakest one of all": Whoa, it's like a little mini-Prince suddenly took possession of her body and caused her throat to choke up and turn squeaky-like. Quick, somebody slay the demon before it devours Stansfield whole!
Unfortunately, by the outro, it's clear that the demon Prince has turned Stansfield into his permanent host creature (See "I've beeeeen uh-round the wuuuu-huh-huldddd" at 3:49), within whom he can lay his eggs and spawn a million more little demon Princes.

Maybe if Stansfield boasted a deeper catalog, I wouldn't be quite so tempted to (gently) mock her vocal style. For instance, while Madonna was certainly guilty of releasing big, showy, earnest ballads like "Crazy for You" or "Take a Bow," she could still turn right around and release winking, self-aware singles such as "Material Girl" or "Human Nature." Whereas Lisa Stansfield just released ... "All Around the World." Now here's the part where I point out that Stansfield scored at least six other Top 10 hits in the UK, and even three more Top 40 hits in the US. But let me tell you something: I've been around the world and aye-aye-aye, I've never heard the radio play any other Lisa Stansfield song aside from "All Around the World."

But man, she sure nailed it on this one (the single peaked at #1 in the UK and #3 in the US). It oozes that "late, chilly, rainy night in London" vibe that I get from, say, Saint Etienne, or the Pet Shop Boys circa Behaviour (without, of course, oozing those acts' arch British drollness). It's like a Studio 54 symphony for a hip-hop age. Which leads me, naturally, to Puff Daddy's "Been Around the World," featuring Mase and the Notorious B.I.G.

Here's how I imagine this went down. One late evening (or perhaps very early morning?) in a Manhattan recording studio, at some point before his corpulent being departed this earth, Biggie was horsing around with his trusty producer, Sean "Man of A Thousand Questionably Chosen Rapper Names" Combs, taking a break between snorting blow off a woman's belly and re-organizing his cherished collection of gold medallions, when he proceeded to playfully ad-lib a new variation of "All Around the World." Combs, in his infinite wisdom and foresight, decided to record this off-handed nugget of genius. In this re-interpretation, Biggie managed to articulate the poignant concerns of a downtrodden community:
Been around the world and aye-aye-aye
And we been playa hated
I don't know and I don't know why
Why they want us faded
I don't know why they hate us
Is it our ladies
Or our drop Mercedes
Maybe maybe
Spoken like a true poet of the proletariat. Then, at some point following Biggie's murder, Puff Daddy must have been "combing" through his tapes when he came across this little morsel, and inspiration struck. All he needed to do was sample David Bowie's "Let's Dance" (another memorable attempt by a white British singer to sound black), sprinkle in some verses from the world's most comatose rapper (Mase), and presto - another worldwide smash! (And that's not even mentioning the 10-minute music video starring Jennifer Lopez and Quincy Jones in which Puff Daddy and Mase manage to thwart an attempted overthrow of the Tunisian government by Wyclef Jean.) The lesson: sometimes when you embrace the black community, the black community will embrace you right back.

Honored though she was by this unexpected homage, I assume she was slightly more honored by an invitation to duet with a certain idol of hers. If Stansfield's falsetto vocal leaps were, it appears, an attempt to emulate Marvin Gaye (while accidentally, in my opinion, more closely emulating Prince), the swooping strings in the background owe more than a little to The Walrus of Love himself, Barry White. And, apparently, Barry White thought the same thing:

Yes, Lisa Stansfield. After circumnavigating the earth, you may not have found your baby, but for four minutes and twenty-three seconds at least, you found your soul brother from another mother.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Earl, You Know It's True: You Still Like Those Two Milli Vanilli Songs

Spoiler Alert: Rob and Fab weren't actually singing.

There. I said it. Can't erase that knowledge from your brain. Hate to ruin the shocking twist for everybody. But the question regarding Milli Vanilli is not "How could Grammy voters have possibly failed to realize that those two guys weren't actually singing?" Rather, the question is "Why were Milli Vanilli even awarded Grammys ... in the first place?"

Could someone care to explain to me exactly what it was about Milli Vanilli's work that merited the kind of recognition that did not extend to their peers? Was it their thought-provoking lyrics? Their superlative musicianship? I will drop the snark if someone can genuinely, truly answer this question for me. The scandal wasn't that their Grammys had to be rescinded; the scandal was that they even received any Grammys ... to begin with!

That said, I have a confession to make. Your Honor, I plead guilty to the following crimes:

1) Stabbing a naked homeless man on the side of a South Dakota highway
2) Stealing 36.5 million dollars from an orphanage in Knoxville, Tennessee
3) Genuinely liking Milli Vanilli's "Girl You Know It's True" and "Baby Don't Forget My Number"

The first two, forgivable perhaps, but that last crime ... that's just a bridge too far. Honestly, time heals all wounds, and, you know, a record is a record, and the dirty truth is, it doesn't really matter who was doing what, and what I'm trying to say is ... I ... I ... (peeks around) ... actually enjoy "Girl You Know It's True" and "Baby Don't Forget My Number."

I mean hell, it's not the kind of scandal that has seriously tainted the music. If only they'd turned out to have been secret rapists or sexual predators instead. I was never really a "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" guy. I will accept blame from certain fans for not being particularly fond of "Blame It On the Rain" (Dianne Warren, bless her soul). But "Girl You Know It's True," and "Baby Don't Forget My Number" - any day, any time, crank 'em up, I'll be there, front row.

Like the Roman Empire or the Italian Renaissance, Milli Vanilli did not arrive out of nowhere. The brainchild behind all the malarkey, one Frank Farian, was the svengali responsible for Boney M, a German disco act that managed to rocket to superstardom in virtually every country but the U.S. Here is an astute observation several YouTube commentators have made about Boney M's immortal "Rasputin": It is a song performed by a German band, consisting of Jamaican singers, singing lyrics in English, about a Russian historical figure. Well, that was the '70s for you (and could someone please give me the Russian translation for "There was a cat that really was gone"?). At any rate, it turns out that, at least as far as American chart success was concerned, with Milli Vanilli, Frank Farian would have the last laugh - and I'm fairly certain he was literally laughing.

Everything about Milli Vanilli screams out "mindless" and "disposable" - especially the name, which has always reminded me of Magilla Gorilla (for all of you Hanna-Barbera aficionados out there). They dance by stomping in place and then pointing their arms to the sky a la Superman! Milli Vanilli were not attempting to be ... innovators. If you're looking for an act that was keen to avoid accusations that they were repeating themselves, look elsewhere. Take, for example, their copious sampling of the "Ashley's Roachclip" drum loop. It would take me less time to name the rappers who haven't sampled the "Ashley's Roachclip" drum loop than the rappers who have (here's the Wikipedia page); the two songs I personally associate the most with the sample are Eric B. and Rakim's "Paid in Full" and P.M. Dawn's "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss." Well, Milli Vanilli sampled it not once, not twice, but thrice. They were like the stoner roommate who orders the same kind of pizza every night. Their goal was not diversity; their goal was enjoyment. Milli Vanilli knew they liked this sample. They knew their listeners liked this sample. Why change samples?! The thing is, on both "Girl You Know It's True" and "Baby Don't Forget My Number," the sample serves the same exact function: it signals a momentum shift out of the comparatively stiffer verses and into the funkier, zippier choruses. And I want to take them to task for repeating the trick, except ... God damn, it works like a charm both times. (Side note: Girl, I'll bet you didn't know that "Girl You Know It's True" is actually a cover version.)

Here's the part of this whole twisted saga that I still don't get: the singing kinda sounds generic anyway! It's not like the inimitable vocal stylings of Charles Shaw and Brad Howell really made the songs soar (I'd say it was more the utterly shameless bubblegum hooks - "Baby Don't Forget My Number" might have the best "bah bah bah bah" refrain since the Turtles' "Happy Together"). Hell, half the time, at least on "Girl You Know It's True" and "Baby Don't Forget My Number," they're basically speak-singing. Honestly, I could've sang this shit. What I'm saying is, why go through all the trouble of having a giant lip-syncing scandal just to slap some faceless R&B dudes onto the final product? They really didn't think this thing through, did they?