Pop music may be bigger than ever, but one of its richest wellsprings, soul, has all but evaporated. Though a few fine voices have kept the flame burning, most black American vocalists have set their sights on rock & roll or middle-of-the-road audiences. It's mighty hard to find any singers working in the Otis Redding tradition: raw, sweaty R&B steeped in the polarities of sex and religious devotion. No less a dying breed is the jazz chanteuse, whispering of heartbreak in a darkened lounge.
Into this vacuum have come two British female vocalists, each making her solo debut. Unlike such singers as Boy George or George Michael of Wham!, Sade and Alison Moyet show less affection for Tamla/Motown classics than for other, perhaps purer strains of black American music. Yet their approaches could not be more dissimilar. Sade, who was born in Nigeria, boasts a model's icy, soignée bearing, and her music is all pop-jazz finesse. Moyet is the blues-and-gospel-influenced bruiser, a wide-bodied belter who looks to sway hearts on strength, not style. Moyet clearly possesses the better voice it's as emotionally immediate as Dusty Springfield's and as big as the great outdoors but "Alf" too often founders because of its disappointingly unimaginative arrangements.
Sade may lack Moyet's ability, but on Diamond Life she receives musical settings that are far more sympathetic, and the result is an album wonderfully redolent of black cocktail dresses, Scotch on the rocks and slow-dancing till dawn. Those Kinski lips, those almond eyes, the highest brow this side of Beldar the Conehead it makes for an interesting look, but suggests a style-equals-substance approach. Even one of her band members admits that they asked Helen Folasade Adu (the daughter of a Nigerian father and a British mother) to front their outfit because she "looked like she could sing."
Her music turns out to be far from feckless, though. The surprise begins with "Smooth Operator," a silky samba whose opening is as sinuous as Steely Dan's "Do It Again." With its tasteful taps on the congas and its muted sax hook, "Smooth Operator" like most of the other tracks, cowritten by Sade and Stuart Matthewman is a perfect showcase for Sade's smoky, delicate voice. Her touch is light, unforced; she has acknowledged the fiery Nina Simone as one of her biggest influences, but to these ears she sounds more like Roberta Flack and at times recalls Lani Hall's hits with Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66.
Producer Robin Millar never makes Sade take on more than she can handle. Her songs are uniformly restrained, decorously dressed for a night on the town. The entreaties of "Hang On to Your Love" "In heaven's name, why do you play these games?" are languorously delivered, not cried out in anguish; hers isn't the voice of the heartbroken lover, but of the put-off sophisticate. In "Cherry Pie" (imagine a Prince song with that title!), her elegance makes even that entendre-loaded dish sound as daintily chic as crème brûlée. Alice Cooper's School's Out LP included a pair of panties; maybe Diamond Life should be sold with spats.
But if Sade's lyrics limn life among the swells, her eyes remain open to its seedier aspects. "Sally" is a sardonic portrayal of a woman drawn to down-on-their-luck men. As in John Cheever's short story "Torch Song," it's not entirely clear how beneficent the protagonist's attentions might be; Sade allows only that "She's doing our dirty work/She's the only one who cares." Sade has come up with an eminently playable record mood music for romance-minded yuppies, but intriguing enough to warrant close listening.
Sade seems to have found her ideal sound on her debut, which is pretty much what happened to Alison Moyet back in 1982, when she was the vocalist for the fledgling technopop duo Yazoo (known as Yaz in the States). Moyet's personal relationship with synth whiz Vince Clarke may not have been so simpatico, but it did yield the dazzling LP Upstairs at Eric's and Anglo techno's most enduring song, "Only You," a ballad of such sustained power that it's been covered by everyone from Judy Collins to schlock pianist Richard Clayderman. Clarke showed respect for his partner's vocal skills by crafting spare, marvelously inventive settings for her. With his estimable support, Moyet could be refreshingly direct.
On "Alf" the title is Moyet's nickname she has joined forces with the team of Tony Swain and Steve Jolley, expert British pop producers who've notched hits with Spandau Ballet and Bananarama. Unfortunately, they haven't served her well. Throughout the record, Moyet's voice rings out vigorously enough, but Swain and Jolley have cloaked it in layers of dinky-sounding keyboards and dopey percussion. Their woefully banal instrumental accompaniment doesn't smother Moyet's voice you'd need an infield tarp to do that but neither does it provide any support for her gutty warbling. At times you're left wondering what the heck Alf is getting so worked up about.
Moyet rolls up her sleeves when she sings: her rich alto fairly booms the licentious "Love Resurrection," the story of a woman who wants a little more than just a good-night kiss. "A warm injection/Is all I need to calm the pain," she declares, with the conviction of the blues mamas to whom she is hyperbolically compared. But she can't rescue "Steal Me Blind"; its empty soul homages only make Moyet sound self-pitying. And why is a maddeningly perky glockenspiel chirping on the otherwise chilling "Where Hides Sleep"?
In the end, Moyet has to pull much of this record out of the fire all by herself. The ineluctable blast of her voice is good enough to make the single, "Invisible" (written for her by Motown legend Lamont Dozier), a definite keeper. She plumbs the depths of her register during the middle of "All Cried Out," and the effect is just as thrilling when she wails with carnal delight ("Now you have no choice but to let go/And dive into my ocean") in "Honey for the Bees." That frankly sensual, defiantly uncoy attitude helps elevate Moyet above others with equally good voices. Even when she verges on melodrama and on "For You Only" she reaches it Moyet shows no shame. She rocks back on her heels and lets fly.
Diamond Life understands its singer's limitations perfectly, and wisely remains within them; "Alf" doesn't grasp or accommodate its vocalist's strengths. Sade is probably en route to becoming the Next Big Thing, but after that, who knows? At this stage, the truer talent is Alison Moyet's. Despite the occasional miasma of "Alf," Moyet's is a voice that shares in a grand, gripping tradition; one that demands and will reward your attention. (RS 446)
(Posted: Apr 25, 1985)
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