Mint Condition

touts the virtues of sensible living

Music

In Concert CDs

April 21, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Back then, in the grunge rock-and-gangsta rap-littered '90s, the idea of Mint Condition was dated. An organic, self-contained band in R&B? The days of Earth, Wind & Fire, Rufus and Chaka Khan, the Bar-Kays and Slave were long gone. Producer-driven New Jack Swing -- with its busy, jittery, sample-heavy concoctions -- ruled urban airwaves at the time, blurring the lines between rap and R&B.

But in blew Mint Condition: a sextet from Minneapolis with a sleek, inviting sound, playing real instruments and writing heart-felt joints about "pretty brown eyes." In an era when Sir Mix-a-lot topped the charts with "Baby Got Back," a crude ode to fat backsides, Mint Condition's music kept things sharp and classy -- the yearning, passionate tenor of lead singer-drummer Stokely Williams bolstering the material. After releasing the superb but woefully overlooked Life's Aquarium in 1999, the group dropped off the scene. Now, six years later, Mint Condition is back (minus keyboardist Keri Lewis) with Livin' the Luxury Brown, a fine album that retains the energy and tight musicianship of its '90s work. The CD hits stores Tuesday, two days before the band plays Lincoln Theatre in Washington.

"We've just been livin', man," says Williams, who's calling from a hotel in Palms Springs, Calif. "Everybody was in his own thing. We just had to sit down and take a break for a minute and be still."

During the interim, the band -- including keyboardist Larry Waddell, saxophonist Jeffrey Allen, bassist Ricky Kinchen and guitarist Homer O'Dell -- kept a low profile, performing occasionally and doing some session work. Lewis married Maryland native and '90s pop superstar Toni Braxton in April 2001 and the couple had two sons soon afterward. When Mint regrouped to record Livin', Lewis decided to bow out so he could raise his family and concentrate on making music with his multi-Grammy-winning wife.

"We support him, and he supports us, so it's all good," Williams says of his former bandmate. "He had to do his thing, and we understood that."

The remaining members entered the studio with smart songs whose lyrical focus is well-evolved. Back in the day, the guys crooned pleading, sentimental love jams like "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)" and "If You Love Me." On its new single "I'm Ready," Mint Condition desires commitment, that holding-on-through-the-storms kind of love Ashford & Simpson used to sing about: I'm ready for a place / 'cause loneliness now in the world is off the charts. ...

"This new album is much deeper, more introspective with some peaks and valleys, because we had that time away to just live our lives," Williams says. "It's part of the continuation of what we've always done."

Elsewhere on the album, the lyrics reflect the sentiments of level-headed grown men: "Sista" is a warm, sincere celebration of supportive black women, not a pumped-up anthem in the vein of Angie Stone's 2001 hit "Brotha." The title track, a standout on the 16-cut set, extols in retrospect the riches of a poor childhood.

"The title of the song is a metaphor in a way," Williams says. "It's about the music; it's all from the African-American wellspring. And we take all of that -- funk, blues, jazz, rock, all types of black music -- in our expression."

Musically, things are familiar and bolder. The grooves are still thick, accented with synth keyboard stabs and atmospheric guitars. The melodies are easy, accessible. And Williams' bright, piercing vocals remain the group's most distinguished element.

This time out, though, the band decided to go the independent route, releasing the album on its Cagedbird label with distribution by Image Entertainment. Elektra, Mint Condition's last label, did zilch promotion for Life's Aquarium, one of the best R&B releases of 1999 that failed to find an audience. The band has thrown itself into promoting Livin' with ads in VIBE magazine and a television special on BET set to air Sunday. In July, the quintet plans to release its first concert DVD.

With all the changes in urban music in the past six years, Williams says the guys aren't intimidated about getting back in the game.

"We were always present but under the radar," he says. "Now we just want to do our own thing with a good team. We never really disappeared. The hard-core fans let us know that they wanted us out there. And here we are."

Sounding good, looking fresh.

See Mint Condition at 7:30 p.m. April 28 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. N.W. in Washington. Tickets are $39.50-$55.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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