2. Wendy & Lisa: Wendy & Lisa (1987) & 3. Sheila E.: Romance 1600 (1985)
Wendy & Lisa with Prince
It’s just so tempting to put Wendy & Lisa (Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) at the top of this list. I absolutely adore them, and want so badly to nudge them ahead of The Time in terms of their skills as composers and arrangers, and in consideration for their post-Prince longevity in the industry. You might know them from the Purple Rain movie, where they were always looking for a way to play something else…like, their own music. Otherwise, you might recognize them from the opening lines of the Purple Rain track “Computer Blue”: “Wendy?” / “Yes, Lisa.” / “Is the water warm enough?” / “Yes, Lisa.”
One of the things they do extremely well—and this facet of their abilities doesn’t garner much press—is write simply. Sacrificing flashiness in favor of wistful arrangements, these ladies aren’t big on ornamentation, grandiose themes, or power anthems. Instead, they work with, around, and through the silences.
Wendy & Lisa left Prince’s employ in 1987 (I suppose y’all haters would say Prince “fired” them, just because he asked them not to come back to work), but they didn’t leave the music biz. They’ve built a formidable reputation as collaborative musicians (working with the likes of Seal, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Eric Clapton, and others) and as composers for television and film scores. You were listening to Wendy & Lisa when you watched TV shows such as Heroes, Crossing Jordan, or if you were one of the handful who watched Bionic Woman. Their films scores include Soul Food, Dangerous Minds. Showtime’s Nurse Jackie is also joining their list of TV show credits.
In the meantime, they’ve released albums as “Wendy & Lisa” and as “Girl Bros.” Their self-titled debut, is my favorite, largely because it still has a Revolution-style feel to it, which might have something to do with them releasing it fresh after coming off the Prince parade (pun intended, as Parade: Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon was the last “Prince & the Revolution” release). Also, Revolution member Bobby Z. helped on the production tip. I’m still diggin’ this beguiling set of pop, soft rock, and jazz fusion, led mainly by the rhythms and the choruses more so than by the melodies. They aren’t slouches in the lyrical department either, despite their tendency toward melancholy. Notwithstanding my appreciation for The Time—and India.Arie for that matter—I don’t like my musicians to be too happy.
Their latest album to date, White Flags of White Chimneys, became available for download via their official website in December 2008, and was shipped to consumers in physical CD form in March 2009. There is also a vinyl option. The title references a lyric from the title track of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. The music is mellow, except for the rowdiness of “Salt & Cherries”, and the lyrics are concise but artful. The digital configuration offers bonus demos of “Waiting for Coffee”, “Niagra Falls” [sic], “The Dream” and “Viste”, which are special treats for collectors.
Just to put things in perspective, and because all the critics love you in a list, let’s rank Wendy & Lisa’s albums from best to least-best: (1) Wendy & Lisa; (2) Girl Bros.; (3) White Flags of White Chimneys; (4) Eroica; and (5) Fruit at the Bottom.
By the way, I keep hearing people say that it’s Wendy & Lisa together in the video for Prince’s song “1999”. Well, it’s not. One of them is Lisa, yes. But the other one ain’t Wendy. I’ll tell you who it is later in this list.
3. Sheila E.: Romance 1600 (1985)
Extraordinary percussionist Sheila E. (“E” is for Escovedo) hit the rode with producer and funkateer George Duke when she was in her teens, so I can’t say Prince “discovered” her. However, the promotion that fueled 1984’s The Glamorous Life and 1985’s Romance 1600 presented Sheila as something of a Prince protégée, with hints of romantic interest in the air. Sheila leaned into the intrigue too, singing lyrics like the ones in Romance 1600‘s “Sister Fate”: “They insisted that we’re more / more than just friends / So I’m gonna stick around / until this movie ends”.
You can get me to agree that the sultry horn-laced “The Glamorous Life” is Sheila’s most famous song (7th and 8th grade band students in my area still play it sometimes, along with “Hello” by Lionel Richie). But the album, The Glamorous Life, while good, especially by so-called “Prince associate” standards, isn’t as strong as Romance 1600, and I’d be hard pressed to rate it higher than Sheila E’s self-titled album of 1987. Tracks like “The Belle of St. Mark” and the crooning “Noon Rendezvous” are enjoyable, but the song “The Glamorous Life” is so far ahead of its cohorts that the album feels unbalanced.
My beloved Romance 1600, by contrast, feels like more of a complete work, with a loosely constructed fairytale in the boy-meets-girl tradition as its narrative. Plus, there’s more emphasis on Sheila’s lightning speed percussion. She plays like she doesn’t have arms but tentacles like an octopus—and each one wields a drumstick. I’ve heard that Romance 1600 suffers from too much “filler”, but I could never relate to that assessment. I get the complaint that the love fest duet between Prince and Sheila (“A Love Bizarre”) is too darn long. A little more than 12 minutes! I love the song and all, but good grief, that’s at least seven minutes too long!
But the rest of the album is quite charming, with its tales of longing for Renaissance artists (“Dear Michelangelo”), songs and lyrics with the quintessentially Prince-style double meanings (“Toy Box”), some hyperactive jazz (“Merci for the Speed of a Mad Clown in Summer”), a weird blast from the doo-wop past (“Yellow”), and a straight up ballad (“Bedtime Story”).
Her post-Prince work (Sex Cymbal, Writes of Passage, Heaven) doesn’t quite have the weight of her With-Prince output, but her last couple of albums featured a cleaner and less layered contemporary jazz vibe, with a touch of spirituality in the mix for good measure. In 2009, Sheila won CMT’s reality show Gone Country. Does that mean she’ll record a country album? I’m curious, but also a little worried. Country isn’t the easiest thing to pull off.
Oh, yeah, before I forget. Two bits of trivia.
First, Sheila E. appeared in the hip-hop flick Krush Groove back when hip-hop wasn’t that cool with the mainstream (or “kool”, as everybody used to spell it) and she dropped the faux-rap song “Hollyrock” on the soundtrack. I wonder if a young, impressionable Lil Kim heard her use the b-word in that song.
Second, elements of the song “Faded Photographs” from Sheila’s self-titled album remind me so much of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” (Yeah, I like Pat Benatar, wanna make somethin’ of it?). I don’t know, it just seems like more than a coincidence. Then again, I hear the beginning of “Maneater” by Hall & Oates and mistake it for Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover”, so what do I know?