A recent Vibe magazine article made note of the fact that many popular soul singers of the ‘70s and ‘80s have resorted to releasing albums of covers in order to keep their names in the public eye. The article quoted legends like Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight as they complained that age-appropriate songs weren’t being written for them. The writer of the piece neglected to ask any of the interview subjects why they didn’t put pen to paper and write their own songs, but I digress…
The problem with albums composed of material that’s already been recorded and released by someone else is this: much of the material is so identifiable with another artist that these new versions sound like well-produced karaoke. It’s even more jarring when it’s an iconic voice redoing this material.
This fact has not stopped the folks at Shanachie Records from flooding the marketplace with covers albums by R&B favorites. Over the past year or so, the independent label has gone into overdrive, releasing albums of covers by everyone from jazz/R&B vocalist Miki Howard to post-Boyz II Men vocal group Silk. The quality of these albums has been mixed, but there has yet to be one true triumph in the lot.
Deniece Williams’s Love, Niecy Style is the latest of these albums to be released. R&B fans remember Deniece as a former member of Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove backing troupe who pulled together a string of R&B hits in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Pop fans will likely remember her from the inescapable 1984 chart-topper “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”. This album is notable for marking the return of Niecy as a secular vocalist after turning strictly to gospel in the early ‘90s, followed by a semi-retirement.
Much like previous albums in this vein, Williams’ effort is solid, but fairly unmemorable. The album’s best quality is the fact that Deniece’s voice has not lost a step since her glory days. The fluttery soprano is still intact, complete with the cutesy vocal tics that have served as an influence to artists like Mariah Carey. As they say, however, a voice is only as good as the material it sings, and while there are no outright bad performances here, about half of the ten song set fails to provide a spark.
It says a lot that the two songs I enjoy most here are a Deniece original and a song I’d never heard before. “The Only Thing Missing Is You” is a brand new song that holds up quite well to the majority of R&B on the radio right now. It’s smooth and seductive, even though Deniece occasionally goes overboard with the product placement (everything from Luther Vandross records to Cristal is mentioned). The end result is kinda cute, like your mom trying to stay hip. Meanwhile, she performs a breezy rendition of Baby Washington’s “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”, featuring an equally breezy harmonica solo by Williams’ former boss, Stevie Wonder.
Those solid moments are evened out by a couple of songs that are performed well enough, but don’t need to be redone ever again. No one will ever top the originals by Luther Vandross and Donny Hathaway, so I propose that neither “Never Too Much” nor “Someday We’ll All Be Free” ever be sung by anyone again. The intensity of the original versions is completely absent from these remakes. They’re well sung, but devoid of emotion. Meanwhile, whoever decided that the mid-‘80s was a fertile period from which to choose covers was very, very mistaken. Deniece performs a minor miracle by making Kool & the Gang’s cloying “Cherish” listenable after twenty years, but she takes George Benson’s “Lady Love Me (One More Time)” (which was damn near elevator music to begin with), and makes it even more generic.
While this album is vocally and instrumentally sound (the band is tight in that anonymous late night talk show sort of way), there’s a big difference between an album that’s well-performed and an album that really moves you. Love, Niecy Style winds up sounding pleasant but faceless. Deniece, who has written and performed some fantastic material over the years, would be served much better in the future sticking to her own material instead of re-heating already established classics.
// Notes from the Road
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