Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Empress Strikes Back!

A few years ago, I saw the incomparable Gladys Knight in concert at a Casino in Florida. Of the five times I had the privilege to see the Empress of Soul live, this was the weakest showing, mostly due to a somewhat disinterested audience that did not even clamor loudly enough for an encore! However, the veteran soul diva said something on stage that resonates within me in relations to the musical offerings Gladys granted her fans this year so far:

You don't get it when you want it, you get it when you need it.”

We the fans had been waiting for a new album for a long time. It's been 7 years since her jazz outing, Before Me. Before that, she released a Christmas album and a gospel album with her Saints Unified Voices choir, which did not even feature her on lead vocals on all tracks. So the last actual R&B/Soul album, At Last, was a dozen years ago!

Pretty much every Pip-less album by Ms Knight has been plagued by delays since Just For You in 1994. So it came to no surprise that her latest full album of material was postponed a few times without explanation. Singles from the then “soon to be released” album came out in 2010 and 2011. Some time before that, fans were asked to send in suggestions for songs to be included on an album consisting entirely of cover versions, but it appears that idea got scrapped soon after.

As you can imagine, being the huge fan that I am, I really really wanted to groove to some new Gladys music, to fall in love with another touching ballad, to badly sing along to a funky tune when nobody else can hear me.

Alas, you don't get it when you want it. When the album Another Journey was (somewhat) released, I felt a little disappointed, a bit confused at some of the choices made. (I included the "somewhat" as it seems impossible to get a physical copy of the CD outside the US. The distribution is that bad!)

It is by no means a horrible album. A lot of the songs have promise, but are ultimately flawed. “The Dream” has some great moments, but the children's choir in the back sounds oddly subdued and the list of dreamers at the end, from Martin Luther King and the much more controversial Mother Theresa to media tycoon Oprah Winfrey and President Obama is cringeworthy in that odd juxtaposition.

The stand-out track is not new by any means: The cover of Lee Ann Womack's classic “I Hope You Dance” had previously been featured in the 2008 movie "Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys.” Along with another Tyler Perry OST song, Settle and two versions of “I who have nothing”, 4 out of the 9 tracks on the album are already well know to the many completists among her fans.

The most infuriating thing about the low-budget production on most of the tracks is the occasional use of auto tune on Gladys' vocals. Somebody must have misunderstood their assignment: The reason we hear that horrible effect on so many records (as well as on shows like “Glee”) is not that it is popular, it's that lesser vocalists need it to iron out the kinks in their attempts to sing. Who in their right mind would ever think that auto tune and Gladys could be a winning combination?

So. I was not in a happy place with my Gladys Fanboyism. I was worried that albums like this one would be the musical legacy of her golden years in the industry. I began to feel that brilliant music by Gladys Knight had become a self-contained collection field with no new additions to come.

In other words, I needed something from her. Didn't just want it, needed it.

And boy, did I get it.

The epic “You And I Ain't Nothin' No More” is everything a Gladys Knight song should be. Taken from the soundtrack of the hit movie “Lee Daniels' The Butler” and written and produced by Lenny Kravitz, there already is quite a bit of Oscar buzz about the track.

It is passionate, it has a brutally honest lyric about a damaged relationship between a parent and a child and it allows Gladys to show off her still incredible range and versatile vocal texture.

There is nothing superficial or “pop” about the lyrics:

I want your love
But I'll just wait in vain
Cause you and I ain't nothin' no more.
You gave me life
But I don't share your soul -
You lived your life alone.

It is pure soul, an inner scream of honest sadness and humanity wrapped in a lush arrangement and carried by an angelic voice that keeps us from falling into the abyss we can glimpse between the lines of the song's poetry.This, this is the kind of song Gladys Knight should sing because she is one of the few singers out there who can succeed with its immense demands. 

I am pretty optimistic as far as the song's chances to get nominated for an Academy Award go. Previous nominees like “Listen” from Dreamgirls and “The Girl Who Used to Be Me” from Shirley Valentine showed that the academy likes an honest soul ballad. We just need to distract Randy Newman with something shiny so that he won't compose another Disney song between now and the Oscars!

My fervent hope is that “Another Journey” was just a brief detour – nay, a wrong turn. And that “You and I Have Nothin' No More” will open the door to an entirely new glorious road in the career of Gladys Maria Knight. Let us not stop here, let's do an entire album with Lenny Kravitz or other musicians of his caliber who are fans of Gladys.

It worked for Burt Bacharach, who had become a bit of a joke and misunderstood as a muzak composer when he collaborated with Elvis Costello on the soul-stirring miniature musical drama “God Give Me Strength” on the soundtrack to the movie “Grace of My Heart.” The song got a Grammy nomination and led to a full album, which included another nominated song. Bacharach's standing in the industry was restored and he went on to record a critically acclaimed album with Ronald Isley.

These things happen. And Gladys Knight deserves to have it happen to her. Let the Empress strike back!

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