Dear Oprah, I know you're busy. But you should start a music club. And I know which CD you should select first.
What if, in addition to hosting her book club, Oprah Winfrey started a music club? Picture it: Ms. Winfrey leading roundtable discussions with her posse (Gayle King, Dr. Maya Angelou, Dr. Phil, and any reviewer from PopMatters), sipping coffee and tea and listening to tracks from the Selection of the Month, which would open the door to cheerful musings about life and music and the intersections of the two.
Each club pick would of course wear the Oprah Music Club seal of approval prominently and proudly. That darling seal, and the weight it would carry, would quickly separate platinum artists from the bands that brick, and prompt all those 400-CDs-for-a-nickel music clubs to call it quits.
Each club pick would be featured in O Magazine, with photo spreads of Ms. Winfrey interacting with the music, like posing with the CD or jogging to it or eating gourmet food to it (the caption will explain that the music's playing in the background).
I know what you're thinking -- an Oprah Music Club could either be very good or very, very bad -- there's no in-between. But it's not like I'm the first to make the suggestion. The idea for Ms. Winfrey to use "the Oprah Effect" for the good of music has been floating around since at least 2004. Hey, who knows, the Oprah Music Club (are you down with O.M.C?) might be an easy way to squash one of the most bizarre, alternate universe beefs of all time -- The Rappers vs. Oprah. Ms. Winfrey would then have a reason to invite rappers to her show, or her after show, and she could ask them the hard hitting questions her audience has been so desperately awaiting answers to ("Is 'jiggy' always spelled with a 'y' or can you use an 'i-e' combination?") and that would be that. Otherwise, I guess we'll have to get all the parties together on Maury to settle this thing (although Maury's solution is likely to be a paternity test).
I can name the CD that should be the club's first pick: It Can Happen to Anyone by Elisabeth Withers (the CD was featured in the "O-Zone" section of O Magazine's February issue). Of course, you might argue that Ms. Winfrey, along with Quincy Jones, already picked Ms. Withers (sometimes credited as Mrs. Withers-Mendes) when they cast her as Shug Avery in the Broadway version of Alice Walker's A Color Purple. She earned a Tony Award for that performance.
Although It Can Happen to Anyone is Elisabeth Withers's debut for Blue Note, she's no stranger to the music biz. After graduating from Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, Ms. Withers distinguished her vocal skills as a backup singer, then showcased her songwriting abilities, under the pseudonym Elle Patrice, as co-writer of the dance tunes "Rising" and "Emotions". As a performer, she has shared the stage with Luther Vandross, Mary J. Blige, Brenda Russell, and Cher.
This year, she's rocking on the solo tip, with a solid solo album to promote. As such, It Can Happen to Anyone has two major assets, both of which are necessary to the album's appeal.
Asset #1: The Voice
There's a difference between being able to hold a note ("Oh, yeah, she sounds nice"), being able to sing ("She sure can sing"), and being able to really throw down on the vocals ("Whoa, that woman can SANG!" -- that's right, past tense sang). Ms. Withers's voice is phenomenal, rich yet versatile, robust yet capable of communicating the subtleties of emotion. Do you really wanna know how good her voice is? Here's the obligatory comparison: her voice is part Angie Stone and part Gladys Knight, with a hint of Karyn White and a smidgeon of Blu Cantrell.
Ms. Withers's ability to adapt her voice to slow, soulful R&B (as on "Simple Things" and "Heartstrings"), as well as joyous party jams (like "Get Your Shoes On" and "Sweat"), makes her presentation a treat. When the record stops spinning, you're left feeling like she could sing her grocery list, name it "I Ain't Got No Milk Blues", and you'd be clapping your hands or nodding your head to it.
Asset #2: Avoiding Clichés
The greatest voice in the world won't mask well-worn themes and hackneyed lyrics. That's not to say musical clichés automatically make for "bad" songs -- they don't. If that were the case, imagine all the songs we'd have to toss into the "Unlistenable" category for containing one "You did me wrong" or "My heart belongs to you" too many. It Can Happen To Anyone's avoidance of clichés makes this 11-song spread of love, partying, and self-confidence a lot fresher than you'd expect.
Consider "Listen", a funky analysis of a love disconnection ("Maybe it's what I wanted to hear and what you did not say / That got us started on the wrong foot today"). There are plenty of songs that pinpoint relationship woes, whether it's the lack of trust and fidelity in Toni Braxton's "Love Shoulda Brought You Home Last Night" (or, actually, a big chunk of Ms. Braxton's catalogue) or the need for R-E-S-P-E-C-T we most often associate with Aretha Franklin. "Listen" approaches the problem by going inward. The speaker of the song challenges herself to become a better listener instead of placing all the blame on her partner's shortcomings ("If I bite my tongue next time / Before things get out of hand / Think twice before I say a word / I know you'll misunderstand").
Another example is "Be With You", a soft, rhythmic romp adorned with the swirling sounds of the 80s. The lady in the song wants to be sexy and hopes to fulfill her lover's fantasies, along the lines of En Vogue's seduction in "Givin' Him Something He Can Feel" and the intensity of Prince's "Scandalous" ("Tonight is gonna be scandalous / 'cause tonight I want to be your fantasy"). The twist here is the nature of the fantasy, which involves role-playing, as she sings, "Tonight I'm gonna be every woman in your fantasy" -- see, that's not quite the "every woman" Chaka Khan had in mind way back when. Withers also coos, "What's on your mind, what turns you on, 'cause baby it's okay / You know I love you and tonight we're gonna play".
Earlier in the song, the lead voice asserts that she's not concerned about being out on the town and having her partner notice an attractive woman; she's confident enough to embrace those moments and transform them into a romantic game. Thematically, in terms of satisfying another's wants or needs, it reminds me of "Cater 2 U" by Destiny's Child, yet "Be With You" tweaks the fantasy paradigm and, in the process, straddles the line between spicing things up in the romance department and sacrificing oneself to satisfy someone else's desires. Personally, I don't think the song crosses that line, but then again, as a male listener, I wonder if I'm biased in this regard. If a sista told me she wanted to pretend to be my Gabrielle Union, I'm almost positive I'd be telling everybody we were soul mates.
Finally, "The World Ain't Ready" personalizes the Be Yourself mantra of songs like Mariah Carey's "Hero" ("And you'll finally see the truth / that a hero lies in you") and "The Greatest Love of All" (I like George Benson's version best). Over the song's dancehall rhythm, the first verse tells the story of a cross dresser ("She had the mind of a woman and the body of a man") who struggles with being accepted while dancing as a woman at the clubs in a sort of free spirited, liberating Flashdance ritual. Meanwhile, the second verse details a young lady's conflict with her father over her attraction to other females. Daddy's disapproval is far from veiled as he tries to influence his daughter's "morals" by buying her "pretty dresses instead of baseball caps". The daughter grows up wanting, and perhaps even needing, to appease him and make him proud, so she marries a man, all the while feeling rotten because she believes she has deceived everyone she cares about. Now that's heavy. I'm only unsure of one thing: whether the tales would be more effective in first person, with the lead voice singing from a vantage point within the conflict, rather than being sung in the third person omniscient view. Queen Latifah used the first-person persona brilliantly in "U.N.I.T.Y.", especially in the second verse's depiction of domestic violence.
As for the album itself, there aren't many flaws. My most tedious nitpick is that the party numbers "Get Your Shoes On" and "Sweat" are too short at around 3 minutes. My biggest critique would be the remake of "Wind Beneath My Wings". Frankly, I just don't care for the song -- it has always irritated me to no end -- but, aside from that, I think it disrupts the album's momentum. It's nicely arranged, with a church-like quality that's endearing, but it struck me as tired and overused on an album that mainly avoids such pitfalls. What's more, most of the songs were written by Ms. Withers anyway, which makes the inclusion of the remake a little unnecessary, in my opinion. But, hey, that's what the "skip" button is for.
Overall, It Can Happen to Anyone is explores a range of sounds and emotions. If you like R&B, you'll definitely want to give this disc a listen.