It is something of a surprise to see Patti Austin back on a major label. The record industry has been pretty ruthless with regard to pre-Jack Swing/R&B vocalists. Low budgets and obscure independents have generally been the order of the day. Perhaps her higher-than-most profile, largely due to cameo TV appearances, helped. Whatever the reason, it is refreshing to see an artist of her stature given sufficient funding and, presumably, promotion. It should sell too, for not only is there a very loyal fan base but this is just the type of thing that currently finds a home on Smooth Jazz and Adult Contemporary (or whatever this month’s terminology is) playlists. Please don’t let that frighten you—it manages to avoid the absolute blandness such a statement might imply. On the other hand it does adhere to a given format so don’t expect Busta Rhymes to come storming in after the second chorus.
Austin is a prime candidate for success in the sadly anodyne world of Smooth. Her best albums were those she made for CTI in the late ‘70s. Now CTI, to the jazz purist, has the same effect that 666 has on your born-again Christian. It represented all that was commercially sold-out, leadenly fusionist and artistically unthreatening. More than a grain of truth in that, I’m afraid—except for the awkward fact that plenty of memorable jazz-funk and silky soul records emerged amid the dross—and Austin’s were some of the finest. The whole sound was in fact nowhere near as sickly or somnolent as the more recent stuff (of which they were admittedly forerunners). At its best this set has all the ingredients of those older ones but with enough of an ear for current fashions to ensure it airplay.
Essentially then, On the Way to Love is a solid selection of well-crafted and faultlessly performed pop-soul for grown-ups. The arrangements have a jazzy sheen but don’t expect any risk-taking or extended improvisation. Do be prepared for some much stronger songwriting and a weightier backing than on Austin’s last few releases. One or two of the tracks are as good as anything she has ever done and there is an overall consistency that none of the older recordings ever quite matched. It is a little safe and has a tendency to tweeness at times but for those who know (and can accept) the limitations of the genre there is an assuredness and a musicality which merits praise.
Those of a sociological turn of mind may care to see this album as a soundtrack to a certain Black Middle Class Female experience. It does rather evoke a post-Exhalation world, one where Oprah and Terry rule and material success is marred only by emotional disappointment. There is both a strong pictorial and narrative quality to many of the songs, while the musical accompaniment puts a distinct boundary marker between its well-appointed territory and the privations of the ghetto. I see no need to sneer at this—though many will. It also makes few attempts to placate a young audience raised on MTV Bass. Austin remarks in the liner notes that one of the challenges undergone in making this disc was “turning fifty in a youth culture”. Her response has been to produce music that does not try to ape current chart styles but to use a form that speaks to an older, more sedate, maybe now reasonably well-heeled, generation. It is still very much now—it is just not Li’l Kim’s now.
The musical direction of the album was sealed when deciding to hand production duties over to Paul Brown. Brown is the “King of Smooth” and something of a modern Midas in that market. Austin claims not to have been aware of this—which I do not believe for a second. Anyway, he does a good job and the overall sound is clean and crisp with a subtlety that stops just short of the syrupy. The other musicians include old favourites such as Greg Phillinganes and Paulinho Da Costa—who hark back to early fusion days—the ubiquitous (in this field) Boney James and a resurgent James Ingram. All are consummate if somewhat unadventurous players and hence perfect for the poise and grace this project pursues.
“Girlfriend”, the opening track, is thematically characteristic of the set. A TV Movie version of female solidarity - from poverty and youthful ambition through to motherhood and maturity—it is pleasant enough but way too whimsical to truly bear the weight of its message. What is already evident is that Patti Austin is in confident form—both in terms of vocal control and as interpreter of a song. Her jazz credentials are not given much chance to shine in this context but her ease and adroitness with a lyric shows her pedigree. That sense of old-fashioned “classiness” develops steadily as the album progresses. The breezy “What Can I Say”, complete with discrete wah-wah guitar and old school string arrangements, will touch a chord with early ‘80s soul fans and then comes the sublime title track. Co-written with the much maligned Siedah Garrett, this is a conventional two-step ballad performed with conviction and panache—sweet soul at its best. Corny but still effective—as opposed to the next cut, “Love’s Been Kind to Me”, which, despite some lovely phrasing from the lower end of Austin’s register, sounds like a bad soft rock ballad made even soppier by the Smooth format. The best that can be said about it is that it is not as dull as the Unplugged version that may well redefine your conception of what “Bonus Track” means.
Fortunately, in between these duds it is all pretty much plain sailing. Things even get a little funky on “Playin’ Around”, “Make It Right” and “Southern Rain”. More in a shoulder-twitching, hip-dipping way than a butt-shaking, sweat-dripping frenzy of course, but certainly mobile enough to move a discerning dance floor. “Southern Rain” is a real winner with a quirky chorus and a steady groove that make it the most sit-up-and-take notice of all the cuts. The showpiece song though is “If You Really Need Me Now” and I suggest you go straight to this to decide whether or not Patti Austin is worth your time and effort. If it strikes you as intolerably middle-of-the-road, clichéd and generally past its sell by date then the other numbers are unlikely to tempt you. If its easy sway, its well-organised phrasing, not to mention James Ingram’s light but impassioned co-vocals, put you in mind of Soul in its post-Hathaway, sophisticated, latter day guise—then you are on the right wavelength and will feel you have rediscovered an old friend.
That I think is the key point. I cannot envisage On the Way to Love reaching out to many new ears or making great inroads into the more youth-oriented end of market. However, for those who already have more than a little love for the singer’s pure but teasingly world-weary delivery then new songs like the touching “Let It Be Me” and the quizzical “Tell Me Why” will take their place alongside some much loved classics. Nothing here is going to open up any new highways but most songs cruise along a well-established route in great comfort and with plenty of elegance. Enjoy the ride.
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