Danielia Cotton is a talented black singer from a “small white town” called Hopewell, New Jersey, and she wants to make it big. This hunger for fame has — until recently — been facilitated by former Bear Stearns credit-derivatives department head Anthony Liberatore, who pumped cash and connections into her career in an effort to make her a superstar. Last year, a Forbes magazine article detailed this arrangement, a new innovation to replace the nearly extinct talent scouting departments of our rapidly merging and evolving record labels. Now, record executives expect to have prepackaged (and possibly pre-sold) talents pitched to them. Liberatore figured this out, decided to use his own wealth to invest in Cotton and shoulder the risk of her failure. Although Liberatore and Cotton have recently parted ways, Rare Child fits seamlessly into this career trajectory: it’s a slick, well-produced studio album that seeks to capture the “Rock & Soul” of her highly regarded, (mostly) upscale live gigs.
Will it bring her the fame she deserves? Hell if I know: I’m just here to evaluate the record, not predict its market performance. But the record does sound to me like the same utopian-android “gritty” strategy that informs the work of Melissa Etheridge and Joan Osborne: and both of those women made piles of money didn’t they? Yes, Danielia Cotton is black, but at the risk of reviving some sort of nature vs. nurture debate, I submit that the “small white town” is the primary influence on both her voice and production strategy. This need not be a bad thing: as we’ll see, I see a pioneering future for this aesthetic in Nashville. But Rare Child, despite its charms, often feels like a slick and overdetermined product, too neat and bland for Cotton’s obvious talents.
“I’m a little black girl who’ll rock your world”, Cotton proclaims at the outset, a riff-heavy Betty Davis descendant entitled “Make U Move”. Though certainly not a worldrocker, the track evokes a stately, hard-working erotic core to her aesthetic (allegedly that 60something sexpot Tina Turner is interested in recording it). Pretty nice track, though it would work much better with wilder, looser musicians, and maybe a ballsier riff. What happens next is a little something called “Testify”, which opens with some melodic guitar-strumming strangely akin to the acoustic intro to Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love”. Could this be an odd feminized retro-AOR concept album time-locked from the 1970s? Please? Alas, no. “Testify” soon transforms into a nondescript gritty belter, in which Cotton’s trip to her baptismal river allows her to forswear lovin’, lies, money (!), and shame. Later she pleads with the devil, who has “one thing on his mind” (guess), but before you think this will become a kinky descendant of Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop” (not to mention the Parliaments’ “I Wanna Testify”!), the soul-saving gets very bland indeed. “Is it too late to testify to all the things I’ve done in my life?” she asks, as a Sominex jar rattles in the near distance. Again, dirtier, sloppier guitars would have been nice here. There’s a reason why Janis Joplin (Cotton’s frequently cited inspiration) needed the crazed near-anarchy of Big Brother & the Holding Co. to set up a briar patch for her unhinged thrashing about. The every-note-in-place “safety first” ethos of Rare Child certainly does no justice to Cotton’s talented voice, but then again, nowadays mad dollars and individual genius travel two different paths.
The most interesting songs here are two relatively quiet ballads, both of which are entirely written by Cotton (lots of song doctors on the other tracks). “Didn’t U” is a wounded, angry kiss-off to a clueless lover given to dispensing bromides about “starting over” and “standing tall”. “My apologies if my words came out wrong”, she says, before letting loose with some slow-acting venom: an evolving catch in her throat which strikes a perfect balance between hurt and strength. Louder and louder, with more scars revealed and even some clumsiness in her train of thought, the song sounds like a victory in the end. On the other hand, “Running” — also relatively quiet and love-stung — seems to have the same target in mind, but with a different conclusion. “The holes you made in me / Can’t fade those memories”, she complains, but then announces that “I’m running right back / Running right back / Running back to you”. What on earth? Just when I was excited by that earlier kiss-off. But yes, this sort of needy heart-shifting has its appeal, and the song strikes a nice self-defensive note, even asking this ambiguous question at one point “If I can’t catch you, who can?” Does she mean, who else can (i.e. speculative jealousy)? Or does she just mean he’s really really fast, and she’s, y’know, just as fast? Nice stuff though, and if the world could ever find room for a black female country music superstar, I bet Danielia Cotton could make the grade: between her talented voice and her sense of the literal boundaries of jealousy and need, she’s got the goods to take Nashville on.
This is particularly evident on the album’s standout track, “Bound”, which takes a nice melodic detour (inflected by largely atmospheric electric guitars) on the topic of her — can we call it codependent? — relationship with whomever it is that inspired “Didn’t U” and “Running”. “Am I bound to you?” she asks, in a beautiful brief cadence, before going on to ask “What does love make you do?” What indeed? Then, the declarations: “I got a will of my own!” “I got fear, but I’m strong!” etc. Could this be her farewell to former Svengali Anthony Liberatore? If so, that makes the album’s concept that much more fascinating. And it’s pretty much where the album’s narrative ends. Sure, she deals largely in massive concepts and vague symbols, but she does a decent job of putting them into her melodic slipstream and covering up the seams. Just like Journey used to do! My hope is that Cotton will become a reverse Rod Stewart — starting out bland and commercial and then getting looser, more intuitive, and riskier as her career goes on.