Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Colour it a comeback?


Unsurprisingly, "Crayons" has been one of my frequent listens this past week, and so far reviews have been about as mixed as the genres on the record. Admittedly, even despite my own initial skepticism, I've found a lot to love on this record. It's hard to believe that all of seventeen years have passed since the last time Donna Summer has released an original album (and about eight since her last aborted comeback). In the intervening years, her status as "Queen of Disco" and her classic recordings with Moroder & Bellotte seem to have only gained currency, so understandably expectations have been anything but modest. Despite that, "Crayons" comes across as less of an opportunity to affirm her title as the "Queen of Disco" and capitalize on the appreciation, or at least the spirit of her earlier work than it is an excuse to pick up where she had left off nearly 20 years ago and record what is possibly the most diverse, self consciously current, accessible pop records of her career. Depending on one's perspective, it's either a laudable move or a missed opportunity, and it seems almost every review out there seems to fall in either one category or the other..

In a time when the music industry seems to require veteran artists to release endless streams of standards/cover albums (the first suggestion her label brought to the table, not surprisingly), I'm not sure that there's an album out there now that manages to be so unabashedly trendy, yet so un-trendy at the same time. In my mind, she deserves a good deal of credit for bucking the trend and at nearly 60, putting out an original pop record, however out of place it may seem. While the likes of Madonna and Kylie Minogue, having perfected the impeccably timed pop singer reinvention, may be able to pull off something similar without the same sort of criticism someday; between her seventeen year absence from recording and her still strong association with the disco era, considerable vocal talent notwithstanding, one can hardly say the same for Ms. Summer.. Unlike a near decade ago when the likes of Cher and Tina Turner were putting out hit records with younger producers, in the last four or so years it seems, the thought of an aging diva staging a comeback with a pop record as polished and commercial as this one today, produced by a laundry list of current hitmaking producers feels almost like a critical death wish..

With songs like "Stamp Your Feet," seemingly tailor made for a Nike commercial, it's hook copping the Gwen Stefani/Fergie-inspired (or not so inspired) 'spelling bee' trend, to "Mr. Music", where she opens with a line about 'hooking up her iPod, shaking her body and being 'naughty, naughty', to "Crayons" (featuring Ziggy Marley) which sounds like K-os crossed with Rihanna, or even "The Queen Is Back" with it's Mary J. declarations backed with ABBA chords and hip-hop beats, parts of the album sound, to put it honestly, almost embarassing on paper. Admittedly, given all that, it would be extremely easy to completely dismiss the album altogether, if the results weren't as surprisingly and seriously enjoyable as they actually are.

Despite how they may come across on paper, the aforementioned first four tracks end up being some of the most infectious tracks on the record. The single, the Greg Kurstin produced "Stamp Your Feet" makes the perfect combination of dance-appeal and current pop-radio friendliness and "Crayons" (also produced by Kurstin), despite the surface similiarities to her less-than-stellar 1983 single "Unconditional Love," thankfully comes across infinitely better. Even the J.R. Rotem tracks - "Mr. Music" and "The Queen Is Back" with their slightly awkward combination of Donna and their urban styled production values, end up being some of the most memorably catchy tracks on the record.

Although not without it's low-points - namely the gimmicky, overproduced "Fame (The Game)" and "Slide Over Backwards" on which she adopts a southern alter ego whom she calls Hattie Mae Blanche Dubois, other album highlights include the latin styled "Driving Down Brazil," as well as Toby Gad produced "Science of Love" with it's memorable melody and impassioned vocal and lyric, which is, aside from the ones already released, perhaps the most obvious single on the album. As well, the more 'unplugged' tracks on the album, "Sand On My Feet" and the personal "Be Myself Again" and the socially conscious "Bring Down The Reign" are also notable moments, successfully bringing Donna and her voice into a setting in which she has rarely, if ever been heard. In so doing, they're perhaps the two tracks which most dramatically and clearly confirm the album's ambitions..

The first single and # 1 Billboard Dance hit "I'm A Fire" produced by Sebastian Arocha Morton emerges as another obvious highlight along with the international/US Circuit City bonus (also produced by Morton), "It's Only Love." Out of all the others, they are the only two tracks which seem to perfectly bridge the feeling of Donna Summer's classic disco recordings with today's contemporary dance/electronic aesthetics. It has to have been at least thirty years since a Donna Summer record has captured the sheer sensuality and sexiness in her voice as perfectly as "It's Only Love".

Although it's questionable whether this record will appeal to the same people who would buy a Fergie or Rihanna record, given how influential the work of Giorgio Moroder, particularly her work with him continues to be among newer generations of producers and listeners, there would likely be no shortage of younger, perhaps lesser known, but no less able and ambitious producers willing to return her to the forefront of contemporary electronic/dance music, if she so wishes to in the future. Anyone expecting as such with this album however, would probably be disappointed. Despite that, as a quality pop album and as a showcase of Summer's versatility, it's a roundly successful effort. Although her last original album was released seventeen years back, it's been even longer since Donna herself has sounded this engaged and exciting. So while this album may not singlehandedly untie her legacy from the past, she's at least proved that she's not about to be trapped by it, either. Hopefully the next album won't take another seventeen years.

As a side note, I've got my tickets to see her in Vancouver (well, Richmond actually) this coming August on her summer tour. It'll be my first time seeing her live, so I can't wait! I'll make sure I'll post a review and maybe some pix when I get back..

PURCHASE:
DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (US CD)
AMAZON.COM | CD UNIVERSE

DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (UK/INTERNATIONAL CD) - RELEASED JUNE 23
CD WOW | AMAZON.CO.UK | PLAY.COM

DONNA SUMMER - STAMP YOUR FEET (CD SINGLE)
PERFECT BEAT

DONNA SUMMER - I'M A FIRE (CD SINGLE - PART ONE)
PERFECT BEAT

DONNA SUMMER - I'M A FIRE (CD SINGLE - PART TWO)
PERFECT BEAT

PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
DONNA SUMMER/CYNDI LAUPER ALBUM UPDATES (THURSDAY MAY 15, 2008)
NEW DONNA SUMMER ALBUM COMING IN MAY.. (WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 20, 2008)
BBC RADIO 2: CLASSIC SINGLES - I FEEL LOVE (SUNDAY DECEMBER 30, 2007)
TWIGGY DOES DISCO.. (WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM DONNA) (TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 18, 2007)
NEW DEAL FOR DONNA (THURSDAY AUGUST 3, 2006)
DONNA SUMMER - I GOT YOUR LOVE (MONDAY JANUARY 16, 2006)

DISCO DELIVERY #52: STAINLESS STEAL - CAN-CAN (1978, WARNER BROS.) (TUESDAY FEBRUARY 5, 2008)
DISCO DELIVERY #40: MUNICH MACHINE - A WHITER SHADE OF PALE (1978, CASABLANCA) (SUNDAY APRIL 29, 2007)
DISCO DELIVERY #14: SUZI LANE - OOH LA LA (1979, ELEKTRA) (SATURDAY APRIL 8, 2006)
DISCO DELIVERY #5: GIORGIO MORODER - FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1977, OASIS/CASABLANCA) (FRIDAY FEBRUARY 3, 2006)

LINKS:
BILLBOARD.COM - DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (BY MIKAEL WOOD)
ALL MUSIC GUIDE - DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (BY ANDY KELLMAN)
SOULTRACKS: DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (ADVANCE REVIEW) (BY CHRISTIAN JOHN WIKANE)
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS: DISC DEBUTS: "CRAYONS" BY DONNA SUMMER (MAY 27, 2008)
BLOG CRITICS MUSIC REVIEW : DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (BY DONALD GIBSON) (MAY 24, 2008)
SLANT MAGAZINE: DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (BY ERIC HENDERSON (MAY 20, 2008)
ORLANDO SENTINEL: VARIETY MARKS DIVA'S LATEST EFFORT (BY FERNANDO QUINTERO) (MAY 20, 2008)
THE WASHINGTON TIMES: VARIETY MARKS SUMMER'S RETURN (MAY 20, 2008)
NEW YORK TIMES CRITIC'S CHOICE: DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (BY BEN RATLIFF) (MAY 19, 2008)
BOSTON HERALD: DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (BY LARRY KATZ) (MAY 19, 2008)
THE MIAMI HERALD ALBUM REVIEWS - DONNA SUMMER - CRAYONS (BY HOWARD COHEN) (MAY 16, 2008)

POP TRASH ADDICTS: CRAYONS - THE POP TRASH REVIEW (MAY 24, 2008)
XO'S MIDDLE EIGHT: REVIEW - DONNA SUMMER'S CRAYONS (MAY 17, 2008)

DONNA SUMMER - OFFICIAL WEBSITE
DONNA TRIBUTE

CATEGORIES: NUDISCO, ARTICLES & RAMBLINGS

11 comments:

Kristofer D. said...

It's been a little more than a week and CRAYONS hasn't left my CD player. As a lifelong fan of Ms.Summer I couldn't be happier with the new collection.

Some critics have mentioned how it is all over the place but to me it only means that the lady was and is still very versatile.

It'll debut at #17 on next week's BILLBOARD chart ; the biggest Donna debut since SWHFTM.

Hope it's the first of many on Burgundy.

Hugs
K

Johnny said...

Donna's already been asked if their will be another album, and she emphatically said yes. Her #17 debut should assure that this becomes a reality. She said they recorded about 50 demos for Crayons, so she has all of those songs, and more songs she'll write for the follow-up album. She also mentioned a desire to include a lot of guest appearances by other music celebrities, which should help sales. Time for all the big names in the music industry who think she's been criminally underrated, to rally around her for another comeback album in a few years.

Tommy said...

Thanks for the comments and the updates Kristofer and Johnny. That's great news about her chart debut! I remember on the album EPK/promo video where she said that at one point, she thought she'd never record again. I thought that was quite unfortunate, even sad that a recording artist of her stature would be in that sort of position.. If she's indeed on for a follow-up, that's definitely good news!

EricHG said...

I think yours is (no big surprise) the review I agree with the most that I've read. Spoton in terms of everything except I really love Fame (and liek how it continues a thread Donna started with Sunset people, Nightlife, Who Do You Think you're Fooling, etc).

I have my suspicious if she does do a second album, it will be more of a straightforward dance production--dunno why but it semed she had to get this eclectic mix out first--to really prove her comeback. And it does--to me anyway.

Can't wait to hang with you in Vancouver--err Richmond when she comes.

erichg said...

The only thing I'd add is emphasise again, especially for disco fans on here, how essential it is to try to get an edition with It's Only Love. An amazing song and the perfect closer to the album.

Tommy said...

Hey Eric, thanks for the comments! :) Glad you enjoy the review.. Absolutely agreed about tracking down a copy with "It's Only Love." As for "Fame", good point about the continuity with some of her earlier material. I don't think it's a bad song or anything, just not a favourite, I guess.. Same with "Slide Over..," not a favourite, but it's actually growing on me.. I was surprised reading the credits that Ace of Base's Jenny Berggren is one of the background singers on that one..

I'm with you too, I think if there's a follow-up it'll probably be more dance-focused than this one. It'll be a great way to solidify her comeback, if anything.. Anyway, can't wait to see you in Vancouver too :)

Anonymous said...

Sadly your review is well taken.... There only couple of fun songs as "Crayons" ( should be the second single) and I'm a fire( done already) then we got cute ones with " Driving down Brazil, Sand on my feet & Science of love, again cute ones , still expecting much more energy for someone that one time was called: Queen of dance floor..... This time she left her cake out of rain too long, we still waiting for a good one!

Johnny said...

The whole point of Crayons is she's more than just the "Queen of Disco", people who have the proper reverence for her voice understand that. Anyway, there's a lot more than two fun songs on the albums, like Stamp Your Feet which is rocketing up the dance chart. That one's not only going to hit #1, it's going to stay there a few weeks. After that, I do love the title track too, but I'm not sure it'd survive club remixes well, The Queen Is Back might be a better choice.

Chicago_Sexbox said...

I agree with your review 100%. Some of the songs do seem awkward on paper and even border on being just plain cheesy but Donna manages to pull it off.

Anonymous said...

I don't care if she has a range beyond dance floor songs. It was her dance hits that got me hooked on her voice. And this album is more crap than hits. For me she was on top with the "Once Upon A Time" album, if she could do a modern version of that sound I'd buy ten copies of that album.

QH said...

Went to read this, good work. Barring two cuts, "Crayons" was a stellar record imho. I reviewed it professionally @ the time for the paper I worked for, and I was quite proud. Still missing Donna.-QH

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