The Art of Love and War
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Angie (no relation to Sly and the Family) Stone has the Stax Record label, one of the bedrocks of soul music, behind her. These are the guys who came up with Sam and Dave, Booker T. & The M.G.s, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, to name a few. The execs at Stax are usually pretty good judges of talent. They should be able to pay a few bills with Angie Stone’s fourth album of fresh material, “The Art Of Love And War.”
Stone started out as a gospel singer, and she has the low register and control in her voice found in performers who started out in the pulpit. She began her mainstream career as a member of Sequence, a hip hop female trio, and was then a part of Verticle Hold, which had a hit with “Seems You’re Much Too Busy.” She’s worked with D’angelo, providing background vocals as part of his touring band (and producing a son with him as well). Stone’s been in demand as a back up singer for a wide range of acts such as Lenny Kravitz, Terry Ellis and Buckwheat Zydeco, and worked with Stevie Wonder on a remake of “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” for his tribute album. A sampler, (okay, a borderline plagiarist), Stone’s has nicked the O’Jay’s “Back Stabbers” and Gladys Knight and the Pips “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)” for her backing tracks. But her most visible claim to fame may be her 2006 appearance on VH 1’s “Celebrity Fat Club.” Stone’s recognition factor may change if “Baby,” he Grammy nominated single, snags an award.
The impressive opening cut, “Take Everything In,” begins with reflective piano that gives way to hip hop drums. Gotta admit Angie’s got a deep, full bodied voice to go along with her full body. (Okay, no more “Celebrity Fit” jokes). Angie comes across as the Toni Braxton of the neo-soul generation, and she can raise the roof (or at least shake it) with her voice. “Take Everything In” is a pleasant swirling dance tune with a thwacking beat and heavily layered syrupy vocals. It’s a thumper, a leg humper. Great start, Angie.
“Baby” is the Grammy nominated duo with mischievous veteran Betty Wright. “If I was your baby, baby, baby, baby and you need huggin,’ If I was your baby, baby, baby and you needed lovin’. If I was your baby, baby, baby and you needed stokin’, If I was your baby, baby, baby, baby and you needed strokin’.” No deep meaning in this baby, but this has an infectious beat and Betty and Angie work together seamlessly. Angie takes the first verse and tough Betty hoarses her way through the second. Alex Al’s snaking bass wraps around the confident beat, serving as the lead that Michael Butler’s flicking wah-wah guitar and Rex Rideout’s Fender Rhode’s follow.
The hip hop train slows a bit with “Here We Go Again.” This is more like Toni Braxton’s smoldering soul, and Stone has the bellows to pull it off. Stone’s back up chorus girls
(Juanita Wynn, Thomas Seabrooks, Shannon Crawford and Stone) prop her up and actually become the focal point of the song as Angie coos without actually forming any words. “Here We Go Again” is a passable modern version of a quiet storm ballad, but is more flat and pat than the first two songs.
“Go Back To Your Life” is a short acapella excursion designed to show Angie is a pro. To some degree, it works. Angie sounds a bit sped up and the back ups are way too hyper with a lot of aaah-ha-has. Still, Angie’s got her eye on variety, rather than popularity, and with “Go Back To my Life,” she demonstrates she’d rather be an artist than a hip hop cash machine.
The sturdy arrangement for “There Are Reasons” has a serious tone that most of the previous material has lacked. Greg Phillinganes provides the shivering strings, and there are occasional shakes from the percussion section that sound like a swamp witch waving a ju-ju bag. “Reasons” has real attitude and benefits from it. It could use a little air in the back up voices which are overdubbed 18 million times (falls under the category of too much of a good thing), but this ballad with malice works. Angie doesn’t have much range, but she starts low and picks up a few octaves along the way, which helps set the predatory mood.
“Sit Down” is a whispered choral piece with the back up voices wrapping themselves around a sedate Stone, who’s flanked by a warm bedrock of synthesizers. Angie really has to bring it down to match the songs quietude (if guest singer Chino can use “conversate” in a song, I can use “quietude,” but my words not slang…na…na…na…na). It’s the back up singers (this time its Stone, Jaunita Wynn and Thomas Seabrooks) that make “Sit Down” a stand up tune, because they’re all over this and they sing the chorus while Angie oohs, aahs and gyrates. The formula works here, although Stone really needs to give the freakin’ chimes a rest.
“Play wit it, might get it, you don’t wanna mess with me,” Stone says on the commercialized hip hop of “Play Wit It.” Accelerated vocals may not be your thing, Angie, but I’ll hire your back up singers anytime. Somewhere in the mix is Patrice Rushen’s “Hang It Up,” so listen closely to see how Stone plays wit it.
Angie is back in the bedroom in “Pop Pop,” trying to sound sexy. Angie sings in a higher range that forces her to imitate Nikka Costa’s kewpie doll delivery. Aha, add in the talking synthesizer trick and we have all the elements of a crash and burn. But it doesn’t! Despite the vocal challenges Angie faces, the crackling instrumentation works; it’s sensual and as usual, the girls in the background, the real stars, hold your attention. “Pop, pop, pop, let your body rock.” You’d be well advised to shake your body vigorously.
“Make It Last” falls in the category mid-tempo off/beat romantic hip hop. The piano dominates like drops of rain, much in the way PM Dawn was able to draw emotion out of even the slightest of melodies. Angie doesn’t have that capacity. The chorus girls are still the glue that gives the song its emotional skin, but Angie sounds uncomfortable, especially when she utters, “I wish I had the time to get my sh** together,” as part of the chorus. I wish you did too, Angie.
Wind chimes again? Is this hip hop Disney? No, it’s “Sometimes.” I guess Toni Braxton must have put her chimes on E-bay and Stone scapped them up. Once is enough; continual use of the fantasy inducing props makes this mid-tempo finger-snapper sound like hip-hop on ice. “Sometime I wanna love you, sometimes I wanna hate you.” This would be one of those times, Angie.
Beware of singers named after pants. Chino chimes in on “Half A Chance” with a run of the mill Boys to Men voice (that’s why he usually a back up singer). The street cred and attitude in Angie’s voice missing in the past few cuts returns, as do her legions of back up singers, (this time its just Angie and Chino overdubbed to the max). The back ups do a bit of a head on collision before Chino returns with the wind chimes swearing his undying love while Greg Phillinganes turns up the syn strings. You’ve heard this kind of overblown urban ballad a thousand times before on “Showtime At The Apollo.” It’s the type of dramatic potboiler that’s better to watch live than listen to because you get to see the begging and pleading expressions on the singer’s faces. Listening to Chino say “conversate” is worth hearing, but only once.
Anything with James Ingram in the mix has potential, but “My People” is a fist in the air, flag waving farce. It starts off with a preacher pontificating to the masses: “My people, the foundation of the United States rests on my people…Every enemy of the United States has to meet my people on the front lines…” Whoa. A political stance. It’s great to have a sense of pride in one’s heritage, but will someone please write a good song for the brothers and sisters? One problem Angie has is she isn’t always clear when she sings, as if she’s been taking lessons in Esperanto from Macy Gray or borrowing a few pages from Amy Winehouse’s prescription pad. It’s more apparent when a singer like Ingram, who can still blast out ever syllable, takes the second verse. In case you miss the obvious (and you’d have to be in a coma),”My People” is Black History Month wrapped (actually rapped) up in the course of four plus minutes. A line up of school kids starts reciting the names of noted black figures in history, followed by a pair of rigid adults, who add their own list. The roster ends with Stone uttering… “Bill Clinton… That’s right I said it….Ya’ll know that he was the first black man in the white house.” Make of that what you will.
Never start off a record with phone sex if your speaking voice is as rough as an inmate doing life at Bedford Correctional, a mistake in vanity Stone makes on “Wait For Me.” Talking about edible underwear if you mutter like Rocky Balboa after the fiftieth overhand right to the chops ain’t sexy. Fortunately, Angie’s not nearly as scary when she sings. But this musical booty call still owes too much to Toni Braxton and never takes off.
Pauletta Washington, Denzel’s wife, is reportedly singing back up on the Stevie Wonderish “Happy Being Me.” Pauletta’s invisible, Angie, so you solicited the wrong Washington. Maybe there are still a few names Denzel can rattle off for “My People.”
Stone isn’t that unique unless she sings in a lower register, which she doesn’t do often enough, but the CD will sell on the merits of the rich arrangements and thickly layered vocals. Since Stone co-produced the album, she can take pride in ready made for BET performances of multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Richmond, guitarist Erick Walls, bassist Adam Blackstone and string synth master Greg Phillinganes. But there would be no love, only hate, if it wasn’t for the back up work of Portia Griffin, Chino, Jaunita Wynn, Thomas Seabrooks and Shamora Crawford (and Stone too). Next time out Angie, pay more attention to what’s going on in front of the mike. Sometimes Stone basks in the beauty of the background vocals too much and counts on them to bail her out – which they do expertly. But you come away knowing more about the vocal prowess of Wynn, Seabrooks, etc… than you do about Stone, who needs to decide if she wants to be Toni Braxton or Angie Stone. And please leave the chimes hanging off the porch next time, Angie. Overall though, Stone’s “Art of Love And War” will make peace with your CD player.