In my career as a critic and a reviewer, I have tried to hew closely to a few very important ethical prerogatives. The most important of these would be a determination to be both fair and even-handed. Fair, in that I will not review something for which I have already formed a negative prejudice, and even-handed in that I will try my damnedest to point out the good in even the worst discs that slide across my desk. An album like Strange Flower seems to exist solely to confound these ethical directives.
Let's be blunt, for once: Aya can't sing. Or rather, she can sing, which is obvious because this is her CD and no one stopped her from releasing it. More to the point, she doesn't know how to sing, or at least not very well.
Does this seem harsh? Well, what's a critic to do? The entire album is set up as a showcase for her voice. Her voice isn't very good. You see my dilemma? "If you can't say anything nice . . ."
There's been a decidedly unpleasant shift in house music during the past few years. It used to be that the majority of house vocals were delivered by muscular and intimidating house "divas", a holdover from the disco days but definitely a fine tradition in the form of male singers such as Robert Owens and Tyrone Palmer. But the rise of "smooth" house in the past few years has created a distinct subcategory of the traditional house vocal: the breathy female vocal.
The music is smooth and sultry, so I assume the logic goes that the vocals need to be smooth and sultry as well. Most of the time it ends up sounding like a cross between Sade and Hope Sandoval. Except -- and here's the catch -- both Sade and Hope Sandoval obviously know how to sing. Singers like Aya don't really seem to know how to sing. They can carry a tune decently well, but in attempting to be smooth and sexy they end up singing from their throats instead of deep in their diaphragms, so the notes are weak and very nasally. They don't know how to breathe at all, which can perhaps be forgiven in more intuitive pop singers like Pink but is an unavoidable sin in the traditional, technically demanding world of house vocals.
Strange Flower is produced by Naked Music mastermind, Jay Denes. Denes has been responsible for many a great groove in his time, and more than a few of them can be heard on this album. The opening track, "Looking for the Sun" is an excellent example of the laid-back, slightly Latin grooves that Naked has built their reputation on. The problems only arise when the singing begins. Beats as good as "Slippin'" and "Uptown (Dub)" deserve to find themselves on different, far better albums. As it is, Aya's limited talents and even more limited range of lyrical expression pretty much sink any potential these tracks might have had.
"45 Parade Place", on the other hand, is a pretty blatant Sade homage, with the majority of the vocal content being a series of lightly sighed moans. When the lyrical content is more upfront, Aya finds herself unable to express herself in any but the most egregious clichés. "Curtain Call" begins with the lines:
Been a while now that I've looked the other way /
So many hours spent alone that I can't turn away /
Little I can build a high and mighty wall /
The press kit heralds influences as varied as Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake, Patrice Rushen, and Chinese Opera -- but none of these influences are obvious in the finished project. Aya has also already had an eventful career, working side by side with artists such as Lenny Kravitz, the Pharcyde, and Stewart Matthewman (of Sade's band Sweetback, believe it or not). But it doesn't seem as if she's learned a lot from working with any of these fine music professionals.
At the end of the day, however, this review isn't going to matter much, and I'm OK with that. I casual glance at the Amazon.com reviews for Strange Flower reveals that it's got an average rating of five (out of five) stars, and the customer reviews lead off with declarative quotes such as "Album of the Year!" Fans of the Naked Music brand seem to love it, and there's not much I can probably do about that.
Somehow, I'll just have to manage.