If this were a first effort I could see Ecstasy falling between two increasingly distant schools. Much of the album is too soft and silky for the R&B crowd, but the inclusion of bumping club cuts like “What Do You Want” (with by-numbers arrangement and obligatory boastful rap) will have the soul fans winding up the “what happened to real music?” phonograph. However, Avant is already a “name” and this sophomore set should therefore get enough of an airing to ensure healthy sales. Fair enough too, for this is a polished and well-crafted effort from the 24-year-old from Cleveland.
Mainstream fare it undoubtedly is, but there’s just enough here of value to warrant some of your time. Lyrically it’s as lame as most R&B product—on the up numbers girls bring out the freak in Avant, on the ballads he wants them to open their hearts to him, you know the deal. At least we are spared the farcical current fashion of even the most banal songs being printed cliché upon cliché in the liner notes. However, apart from the woefully inept “Jack and Jill”, they are no worse than we have become accustomed to and Avant does his best to deliver them with sincerity. His pleading tone is less nasal than some and suits him better than his thug/player persona, which is faintly amusing.
Vocally, Avant has a warm, engaging tone in the R.Kelly by way of Joe mould. That is to say his role models are the best that current radio formats allow. The publicity assures us that he (inevitably) grew up steeped in the music of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. The inanity of this now compulsory mantra is getting past a joke. It may well be true. Although one is increasingly given the impression that African-Americans bought no records from 1980 onwards until a year or two ago. This is incidentally particularly foolish given the appearance Charlie Wilson on the album. If you want influences on current styles I offer you the Gap Band.
Anyway, you will look in vain for that pantheon of greats as keys to the sound that Avant and producer Steve Huff conjure up. And there is no real need to. All you need to know is that what is on offer is an unpretentious, unadventurous series of songs expertly tailored to a specific if very big contemporary market. As such, it works very well indeed. There are near disasters—most conspicuously, and perhaps aptly, a track called “Suicide”—and only the party-pleaser “Six in the Morning” really works of the faster joints. The bulk of the album is sure-footed and sometimes a little more than that.
The opener “Call on Me” uses a slightly above mid-tempo groove to good purpose. Guitar stabs and an insistent, thumping rhythm lay a solid foundation over which the singer coaxes and pleads with the right amount of urgency to carry the message. Perhaps not tough enough for the clubs, but car radio fare of the first order. Ignore “What You Want”—there is a better remix knocking around—and the insipid “Don’t Say No, Say Yes”, whose title should give you an idea of the depth and complexity of the song, and skip to track four.
Despite beginning by telling us that he’s got “her legs spread all over the bed” (hope we’re not talking four-legged creature here), “Makin’ Good Love” is one of those medium-paced, shoulder-dipping, head-nodding affairs that cry out for big speakers and lots of bass. Avant’s vocals are totally suited to this above par Sex-U-Up variant and you just know that its target female audience are going to love this one. Again the instrumentation is all stripped-down efficiency and if you can ignore the heard-it-all-beforeness of the song it’s as good an example of bedroom soul as any on the airwaves at the moment.
“Sorry” is a delicate little ballad, too heavy on the self-pity to really convince, but featuring a pleasant chorus (Avant overdubbed). “No Limit” is a jagged-edged, sprightly, if inconsequential, dancer. The song that follows is a pop-ballad that is well-wrought and let down only by a certain sugariness and (again) weak lyrics. “Six in the Morning” is corny but great fun and much enhanced by an odd quivering-voiced rap by Sean Don. The irresistible hook should ensure prolonged dancefloor action.
“You Ain’t Right” and “One Way Street” are the most impassioned of the slow tunes. The latter features Charlie Wilson and the older and younger vocalist trade lines with agreeable certainty and only the modicum of that K-Ci and Jo Jo flannel that passes for emotional depth these days. “Love School” is lightweight, black pop candy and completely captivating in a teenybop sort of way. Unfortunately the would be witty sex romp around the states of “Jack and Jill” has the worst rhyming couplets heard outside a nursery this year, which is a shame because it’s got great zip and cheekiness.
Then comes “Suicide”. This has the best vocal performance on the album, but is too adolescent to bear the implied weight of its theme (he’s lost his girl it feels like suicide). If you are 13 or 14 it may strike a chord, older listeners are more likely to snigger. Again it is cleverly put together and Avant, while being some distance from being a latter-day Percy Mayfield, does get the most from fairly second-rate material.
Which is the story of the record really. The music is formulaic but none the worse for that, the singing is good by contemporary standards and the lyrics are dull, limited and derivative. It’s an R&B album that knows its audience and short-changes them to no greater extent than any other. It avoids the self-indulgences of some of the more ambitious neo gang and the commercially driven crudities of some of the keeping it real poseurs, both of which are pluses.
In short, it is OK and if you’re under 18 will do you more good than harm. Older heads will find it trite but Avant won’t worry too much about that. If he wants to please the more senior contingency he needs a better songwriter on board. But where, in the current climate, is he going to find one?
// Notes from the Road
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