Disappointment arrives this year in a gorgeous, dusty, antiquated box with the words Seven written in red ink across the top of it. Lisa Stansfield, the owner of that stunning, soulful British voice has returned after an absence of ten years. Always a veritable force to be reckoned with, her instrument is still as warm, sensuous and striking as it has forever been, albeit a little pleasantly weathered from life now. Stansfield hasn’t aged a day and continues to possess that mysterious “it” factor in spades, but it might have behooved her to hire a producer who could bring her sound into the present day without sacrificing what makes her so uniquely brilliant. She and her songwriting partner and husband Ian Devaney appear to be responsible for the slightly démodé production on this seventh album, so while the string arrangements are spectacular, the brass sections are always riveting, and that voice is still incredible, there’s something curiously missing. In the attempt to sound ageless, she delivered an album that often can’t decide which decade it was released in.
The songs of Seven are mostly delightful, refreshingly feminist and undeniably well-crafted, but so many of them seem to be lost in a veritable time warp. While the songwriting is immensely better than her Trevor Horn-produced, 2004 album The Moment, the evolution and willingness to experiment Stansfield displayed on that record, seems to have partially dissipated in the creative process for Seven. It’s hard to fault much of anything though, when the performances are this blindingly strong.
First single “Can’t Dance” is fantastic. It’s clear that Stansfield was aiming for a retro, disco, Chic-lite mood and in that she succeeded. The tasteful handclaps are quite a nice touch and there’s little ignoring its immediate charms, yet one might inquire where she thought the success of a track like this would lie in the current musical market? Would she still be relevant? It appears remixes from Moto Blanco, Snowboy, and Cool Million have already worked their magic in the clubs, so maybe I’m underestimating the general public at large. Apparently she still has a formidable fan base clamoring for her live performances, as all her recent concerts in the UK have been completely sold out.
So the question remains, why did she disappear for so long? Her response was as such, “I felt I didn’t fit in anywhere. I didn’t want to alter what I do to fit in to a current trend, but things run in cycles and now it feels as though the time is right to get my foot in the door again.” So, she might not necessarily “fit in” within a Top 40 playlist containing Pitbull, Miley Cyrus, and Beyoncé , but “Can’t Dance” proves she still has some commercial clout.
Sultry second track “Why”, with it’s big band bombast, slinks around, simmering until it boils over three-fourths of the way though. It’s electrifying. Grammy Award-winning musician and orchestrator John Hey, who was an integral part of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad albums, brings his expertise to the table here with scintillating results. He leaves his talented fingerprints all over the old school charm of “So Be It”, where a distant harp entwines with joyous “oohs” at one point, recalling Be Yourself Tonight-era Eurythmics. The splendid “Stupid Heart” sounds like something that would have been recorded decades ago at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. These first four tracks are so well executed, that when the plodding mid-90s ballad “The Crown” arrives, it’s jarring to say the least. Coming off as a mere Mica Paris b-side, the track has no emotional arch and doesn’t leave much of an impression. If it weren’t for the vocal performance on the following courtroom drama-flavored song “Picket Fence”, it would pass by without much notice as well.
Thankfully the songwriting strength that dominated the first half of the record returns with “The Rain” and “Conversation”. In an album that showcases the versatility of her voice in various genres, Stansfield suddenly steers the proceedings into unexpected musical theater territory. Both songs sound like eleven o’clock, show-stopping numbers from a Broadway musical, giving her an opportunity to flex her Jennifer Holliday muscles. It’s striking how similar she sounds to the Tony award-winning actress, best known for her stellar turn in the original stage production of Dreamgirls, within the context of these two pieces. She explodes with life on the confident pair and they’re truly the highlights of Seven.
From there she unsuccessfully takes another stylistic detour, dabbling in the Northern soul of the album’s second single, “Carry On”. I still can’t imagine why this was chosen as the follow-up to the infinitely superior “Can’t Dance”. The track’s pleasant enough, but Lisa’s histrionic wailing towards the end, sees her uncomfortably derailing in the vocal department. Seven regains it’s footing once again with the final song of the set, the infectious R&B track “Love Can”. This is classic Stansfield, unforced, seductive and poised. There’s a distinct modernity about the production that’s mostly absent from the rest of the album, and it’s damn near irresistible.
Twenty five years since her global, chart-topping single “All Around The World” was released, the iconic soul singer returns with a comeback album that isn’t terribly “of the now”, but it’s admirably solid for someone who’s been out of the game for a decade. While the songs may play it stylistically safe and echo previous musical eras instead of redefining soul pop for the 21st century, the vocal performances are so impressive that it’s difficult to be too harshly critical of the effort put forth. One thing is for certain, it would be an absolute crime against humanity if she disappeared for another ten years. Sevenisn’t the utter triumph one might have hoped for, but it sees British soul pop icon Lisa Stansfield artistically reinvigorated, still as vocally divine as she’s ever been.
// Notes from the Road
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