Saturday, 1 July 2017

SADE: Diamond Life & Promise

Following on from an exhaustive post about Aaliyah, The Midnight Ramble shifts focus to (coincidentally) one of her favourite singers, Sade Adu.

Diamond Life (1984)
I was a bit late to the Sade train. I am more into straight RnB and jazz, and Sade always felt a bit milquetoast and bland by comparison. I nabbed one of her albums a couple of years ago, and slowly I made me way through her entire discography -- thankfully she's only released six albums, so that did not take that long.
      The album kicks off with the album's three best songs. Opening with spoken narration, 'Smooth Operator' slowly builds to the famous chorus. Combining Sade's smoky vocals with sax, at the time people confused the band as a jazz group. To be honest, the album cut goes on a bit too long. The single version cuts to the first lyric and shortens the sax solo, stripping the song down to what it is -- a pop song about a sociopathic man who floats through life using and discarding women.

      'Your Love Is King' is more upbeat, but suffers a bit from Sade's reticent vocal style and the band come off a bit too stiff to really sell the song's sentiment. It's still one of the best songs on the album.

      'Your Love Is King' and 'Smooth Operator' became justifiable hits, and it's easy to see why. They are solid pop songs with memorable choruses and strong melodies. The jazzy trappings only helped to differentiate the group from their contemporaries. While somewhat alien in 1984, you can definitely see their influence on the rise of neo-soul in the next decade.

      Following the double whammy of two of her signature songs, 'Hang On To Your Love' is the standout of the deep cuts. Pitched in a slightly more energetic vein, 'Hang On To Your Love' builds a strong groove and keeps it going for over six minutes without flagging. A lot of Sade songs go on a few minutes too long, but this is the rare case where the length feels justified.

      After a strong opening salvo, the album dips a bit.

      'Frankie's First Affair' has a memorable chorus, but feels a bit too lethargic -- this is one of those songs where the song would have benefitted from a faster pace.

      Along similar lines, 'When Am I Going to Make a Living?' is the funkiest track on the album, but it could use just a bit more energy - the singer's natural chill deadens some of the song's impact. I have a feeling this is one that sounds great live.

      'Cherry Pie' opens promisingly, with wah wah guitar, synth piano and Sade Adu cooing wordlessly. But then the lyrics start, and the song sags. Adu actually sounds like she's about to fall asleep during this song. The mixing of her vocals is also odd. There are sections where the backing track is noticeably louder than her voice. A mix of interesting bits and bobs, 'Cherry Pie' outstays its welcome about three minutes in, and then proceeds to keep going for another three.

      'Sally' is slow-burning torch song that feels like a dry run for the band's second album, Promise. A dark tale of a long-suffering woman dealing with the bad man in her life, its mordant subject gels with the band's slow-burn approach. Adu's icy delivery ensures that lyrics do not come off as melodramatic.

      I still do not get the intent behind 'I Will be Your Friend' - it comes across as weirdly sappy and maudlin. This is another song where the band's style and the song's arrangement do not gel.

      A cover of a song by Timmy Thomas, 'Why Can't We Live Together' closes the record. Opening with a soft, Latin drum beat, the band members slowly join in. the effect is subtle and rather arresting -- until Adu jumps in around the two-minute mark. Against the band's slow-cooking groove, her delivery comes across as too upbeat and (somehow) flat. This is another song where Adu's voice also feels buried in the mix. It's worth listening to for the band, but this is the one song where Adu is the faulty component.

      It's an odd way to kick off, but I have to admit I'm a bit cold on this one. While it establishes Sade's sound, Diamond Life has plenty of dead spots. The big hits all work, but as an album it doesn't quite cook the way her later ones do.

      Promise (1985)
      Released a year after their blockbuster debut, Promise gave Sade another hit record and one of their best songs, 'Sweetest Taboo'. Both of Sade's first two albums were recorded live, and so it makes sense to review them side-by-side, if only to see how far the band has developed since their debut.

      Straight of the gate, 'Is It A Crime' shows that singer Sade Adu and the band have worked out the kinks and found their groove as a group. Unlike their debut, the songs on Promise don't feel like they are being forced to fit the band's style. Instead songs like 'Is It A Crime' feel totally in sync with the band's restrained approach.

      Beginning to end, 'The Sweetest Taboo' is a joy. While not markedly different in approach to their debut cuts, on 'The Sweetest Taboo' the band sound looser and more alive, while Adu feels more engaged. Opening with rain, the slow build of the melody and Sade's teasing delivery all combine to deliver one of the band's best songs.

      'War of the Hearts' veers toward being too long (at 6:30, it's the album's longest cut), but benefits from great production. Adu's vocals are mixed so that they ride on top of the band. The piano, percussion and sax are each given a slight echo which, when combined with Adu's multi-tracked vocals, adds to the song's other-worldly vibe.

      Filled with melodramatic metaphors about bad romance, 'You're Not The Man' is helped along by the band's performance and the album's crystal clear production. Otherwise it's a bit by-the-numbers.

      'Jezebel' is another song about a woman punished solely for her beauty. Its sentiment is as obvious as its title, but it's helped by a strong performance from the band -- the guitar work is especially noteworthy, adding a genuine sense of pathos to Adu's lyrics.

      A spiritual sequel to 'Smooth Operator', 'Mr Wrong' feels like the soundtrack to a film noir, and that retro feel extends throughout the song. In fact with a few alterations, this could have been sung by Julie London or Peggy Lee.

      Promise often sounds like a recording a nightclub band 20 minutes before closing time, and no track better encapsulates that atmosphere than 'Punch Drunk'. An instrumental, it is the one time that the band sounds remotely like a jazz ensemble, albeit of the ultra-smooth quality.

      'Never as Good as the First Time' is almost as good as 'The Sweetest Taboo'. It has a memorable melody and even manages to be a bit funky during the chorus.

      Sade songs tend to follow the same subject matter, but 'Fear' offers an example of how much presentation can invigorate an over-used subject. Re-framing a woman's fear of the man in her life through the metaphor of a matador in the ring. Turning into a perverse bolero, with bizarre sound effects, squealing sax and Spanish lyrics, it is one of the more unique songs on the record.

      'Tar Baby' is about a white woman coming to grips with her daughter's mixed-race child. A rather heart-warming tale of shaking off old prejudices, it is more upbeat than the usual tales of bad love affairs that Sade is known for.

      And just to complicate things even further, 'Maureen' juxtaposes a bouncy, effervescent backing track against the narrator's eulogy for her hard-partying friend 'Maureen', who will never get to meet her 'new friends'. Despite the subject matter, it marks a welcome change of pace and a nice conclusion to the album.

      Tied with Stronger Than Pride as my favourite Sade album, Promise really should be called 'Promise Delivered'. Unlike her debut, I feel like this one flows better, on a track-to-track basis. It has so many great tracks: 'Sweetest Taboo' is a highlight, but there are no weak links.

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