R&B artists' new CDs have mixed results

ON POP MUSIC

August 21, 2008|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

On the playlist this week, I check out recent, under-the-radar releases in R&B. Two of the artists are new to the scene. One has taken the indie route for his third album; and the other, an overlooked giant in '70s soul, returns with his first major-label release in more than 20 years.

Maiysha

This Much is True

She's got the light skin, keen features, flowing hair and svelte figure - all the physical attributes celebrated in today's depressingly vapid urban-pop world. But Maiysha isn't just another pretty face, and in her music she strives to dissolve the conventions of modern R&B. On her ambitious debut, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist couches her impressive voice in spiky arrangements that glint with pop-rock, electro-funk and hip-hop textures.

But as Maiysha tries to show off all of the different sides of her musical personality, she doesn't achieve much cohesion or establish an identity on This Much is True. The frantic groove of "Orbit" sounds like something (rightfully) left off Beyonce's last album. And the surging rock chorus of "Wanna Be" is very derivative. But the album isn't without a few standouts: "You Don't Know," a duet with the talented Martin Luther, sports a bright, sexy groove. And the slinky blues-rock take on Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" works much better than you'd think. Maiysha definitely has The Look and formidable talent. She just needs smarter songs and more streamlined production.

KeAnthony

A Hustlaz Story

On his Reprise debut, this Nashville, Tenn., native goes for thug R&B, a style that generated platinum sales for the likes of R. Kelly and Jaheim. But KeAnthony's brand of "thug lovin' " is supposed to be legit, according to his press materials. Before pursuing a career in music, he served eight years behind bars for aggravated robbery. The 12 cuts on his weak debut were more or less inspired by his hard-knock life before and after jail. But nothing about these awkward, tuneless songs is compelling. KeAnthony's smooth but colorless tenor lacks the grit and heft to carry off such tough tales. Production was handled by Tank and the Underdogs, and the flatly programmed arrangements sound overly familiar. So-called thug R&B has been done with more conviction and imagination. If you like your R&B with that kind of edge, check out Dave Hollister's first two albums: Ghetto Hymns (1999) and Chicago '85 ... The Movie (2000). They still hold up. A Hustlaz Story is completely dismissible.

Dwele

Sketches of a Man

This native Detroiter has gotten progressively better with each album. Some Kinda ..., his last release from 2005, improved on Subject, his 2003 debut, with fuller arrangements and tighter songs. For his new album, Dwele left Virgin Records, the label that didn't quite know what to do with him. Going the indie route this time, the singer-songwriter still largely adheres to the feathery, keyboard-dominated sound that has garnered him critical praise, if not big sales.

But the programmed beats are sparer on Sketches of a Man than on Dwele's previous efforts, and he takes more chances in the arrangements. "Workin' On It," a too-brief cut, is built on little more than hand claps and rock guitar. It dreamily melts into "Brandi," a languid mid-tempo track featuring Slim Village. The tender, gospel-kissed remake of Bobby Caldwell's "Open Your Eyes," which Common brilliantly sampled on his 2000 hit single "The Light," is another standout. At 20 tracks, though, Sketches of Man is overlong. But the album brims with warmly understated songs from one of modern R&B's brightest hopes.

Leon Ware

Moon Ride

Ware is responsible for some of the most gorgeously sensual soul to come out of the 1970s. He wrote and produced Marvin Gaye's I Want You, the Motown legend's dark 1976 ode to the bedroom. He also co-wrote Minnie Riperton's untouchable 1975 single, "Inside My Love," one of my all-time favorite cuts. Although the California-based artist has recorded a string of evergreen albums of his own, including the classics Musical Massage (1976) and Rockin' You Eternally (1981), he has never scored any big hits. But he remains a celebrated cult figure overseas.

On Moon Ride - Ware's debut for the relaunched Stax label and his first major-label release in more than two decades - the veteran singer-songwriter continues his lyrical journeys into all things sensual. The CD is essentially an update of the sound Ware gelled with Gaye more than 30 years ago. Or if you're familiar with Musical Massage, a slightly better produced album than I Want You, you may say Moon Ride contemporizes that criminally overlooked gem. Ware's hushed vocals fold into the 12 velvety late-night cuts. His voice haunts the bumping title track and gently seduces on "I Never Loved So Much." With its laid-back vibe and rich musical subtlety, Moon Ride probably won't garner new listeners accustomed to the shrill dissonance of today's R&B. But it's a welcome reprieve from it all.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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