It's hard to respect groups assembled by record industry moguls who hold auditions to find the "types" they think will appeal to the largest number of record-buyers. Looks and style are important factors in determining who gets in these groups, and talent is often optional, since a good production team can pull enough tricks in the studio to make most anyone sound passable.
Call it a small miracle, then, that onetime Club Nouveau members Denzel Foster and Thomas McElroy created a group as talented and enduring as En Vogue when they played musical Frankenstein a decade ago. When the group debuted in the early '90s, there were few women making such well-produced, danceable, and sexy R&B. Despite the departure of Dawn Robinson a few years ago and the increased competition from successful acts like TLC and Destiny's Child, En Vogue bravely soldier on with Masterpiece Theater, their first original release in three years.
After using several producers for 1997's EV3, the ladies of En Vogue have re-teamed with Foster and McElroy for their new effort. The result is a seamless album that doesn't break new ground but still manages to sound fresh and up-to-date. There are a few ballads of the type that bog down most R&B albums, but Terry Ellis, Maxine Jones, and Cindy Herron blend their voices into such lush harmonies that even the sentimental tracks sound good. En Vogue is likely the only group who can sing about love: "It takes me on a journey / Of emotions deep inside me" without sounding idiotic.
The best cuts, however, are the ones where the ladies get their groove on. The lead single, "Riddle," directs both pain and anger at its double-crossing male subject over a lilting hip-hop beat. En Vogue are great interpreters of these tales of modern romance, and they always find the right balance of cynicism and vulnerability. On "No No No (Can't Come Back)" our heroine matter-of-factly asserts, "He loves her more than he loves me / And it's truly just as simple as that."
"Love You Crazy" is perhaps the most sonically adventurous track, with a melody based on Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker Suite. The song provides En Vogue the chance to show off their impressive vocal abilities, as they alternately sing around and with the familiar melody. It's also highly danceable, and not just for ballerinas!
While they occasionally make concessions to the contemporary musical landscape, such as throwing in a few raps and Latin beats, the producers show great wisdom and compassion by focusing on En Vogue's greatest asset -- their voices. The trio remain powerful vocalists who don't resort to show-off histrionics and are unashamed to exhibit the sort of ultra-feminine chic that the Supremes once did. Unlike the scads of other prefabricated groups out there, En Vogue exhibit the style, but they also have the substance to back it up.