Anita Baker's 'Rhythm' soars whenever she's in the mood

September 13, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Some singers succeed on the strength of their voice; others owe everything to the right taste in material.

Anita Baker's secret weapon, however, is mood. Sure, it helps when she has the right songs, and her rich, satiny voice definitely has something to do with her success, but the bottom line with her recordings is how they feel. If, after listening to her latest, you find yourself wanting to grab your lover and curl up in front of the nearest fireplace, the album is definitely a winner; if you end up noticing that the living room rug needs vacuuming, odds are the album won't be topping the charts anytime soon.

"Rhythm of Love" (Elektra 61555), Baker's first new album in four years, falls somewhere between the two extremes. Although it's hardly the sure-fire romance-starter "Rapture" was, neither is it the self-indulgent snoozefest her last album, "Compositions," was. Instead, the feel it conveys is a lot like being well into a long-term relationship -- comfortable, cozy, occasionally surprising but far from the hot-and-heavy affair it once was.

Why this should be the case is hard to say. Some of it, no doubt, has to do with the fact that Baker's musical vocabulary is a little too familiar to sweep us off our feet these days. Her mannerisms -- the jazzy flourishes, the lazy vibrato, the slurred, rubato phrasing -- are almost the stuff of cliche now, and as such, Baker has to work twice as hard to have the same effect she once did.

Fortunately, she does have some stunning moments. Her take on the Bacharach and David chestnut "The Look of Love," for instance, is a sultry, sensual tour de force that finds her savoring the melody to such an extent you'd almost think she didn't want the notes to leave her mouth. Even better, Baker's honeyed phrasing is supported by a lithe, liquid groove that only enhances the music's mood.

Likewise, there's a sly insistence percolating beneath her singing on "You Belong to Me" that makes it seem as if the song itself was hers and hers alone. (In fact, if you didn't know better, you'd think it had been Baker who co-wrote the song with Michael McDonald, not Carly Simon.) When Baker is "on," her performances are as seductive as anything on her previous albums. Trouble is, a good bit of the album appears to have been recorded when the singer was on autopilot.

Although "I Apologize" has the right instincts, it lacks the emotional impact to make the song truly spark; "Sorry 'Bout That" might have been a more apt title. Likewise, though "Sometimes I Wonder Why" does its best to re-create the sensual locomotion of "Sweet Love," it never builds up enough steam for Baker to get anywhere with it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about "Rhythm of Love" is how it ends, with a pair of jazz tunes that find Baker in full Sarah Vaughan mode. Neither performance is entirely convincing (though the smoky, understated "Sometimes I Wonder Why" works better than her overwrought "My Funny Valentine"), but they seem to suggest the singer's own mood has her looking beyond the R&B market.

HEAR ANITA BAKER

To hear excerpts from Anita Baker's "Rhythm of Love," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6179 after the greeting.

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