Sunday, 27 August 2017

Deborah Cox (1995)

Deborah Cox was one of the singers to emerge out of the post-Whitney/Mariah nineties. Like Houston, she was signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records, and it looked like Cox could follow in her footsteps. Released in 1995, Cox's debut is a solid showcase that sets the stage for her breakout three years later.

    One of the album's singles, 'Sentimental' is a solid torch song augmented by a strong vocal from Cox. The smooth production is a perfect example of mid-nineties adult contemporary, with some (extremely light) beats signalling the industry's acceptance of hip hop as part of the mainstream.

    Things get a little more funky on 'Who Do U Love', which gives her more of a chance to really stretch out. The dance remix at the end of the CD is just as much fun, just sped up and with more interplay between Cox and the backing vocalists.

    Since Cox is often compared to Whitney Houston, there has to be a few big ballads. 'I'm Your Natural Woman' fits the profile well. Cox's performance really adds some guts to the song, which has one of those melodies that could put you to sleep.

    'The Sound of My Tears' is a fairly typical ballad lifted by some nice instrumental choices - the introduction of the organ partway through is a nice touch.

    'Call Me' starts out with tinkling piano, which feels like a bad sign. And then the chorus and the song switches gears. The piano is augmented by a strong beat and another strong performance from Cox. This is one of those songs where a belter of a chorus, strong production and a strong vocal are really essential. Without those elements it might have sounded a tad repetitive.

    A hip hop ballad, 'My Radio' sounds like something off Aaliyah's first album. Cox's vocal is the thing that makes it stand out - her voice can swing between sweet and tough without effort. She makes a good use of her lower register here, and displays a versatility within these contemporary productions that I don't think Houston could have pulled off.

    Another big ballad, 'Never Gonna Break My Heart Again'. Once again Cox sells the vocal, but the song is a little paint-by-numbers. To be honest, most of the straight ballads on this record are less engaging than the other tracks on the album. Cox does not embarrass herself with any of them, but they do feel the most generic parts of the record.

    More of a hip hop number, 'It Could've Been You' sees Cox go into her lower range, adopting a growling delivery that conveys the song's frustration. Songs like this show that the Whitney comparisons are pretty lazy - here she plants her flag in territory that Anita Baker and Toni Braxton traverse with ease. It's a strong, bolshy performance that really shows off Cox's range and sass.

    After getting fired up, Cox dials it back for 'My First Night With You', a slow ballad written by Diane Warren and Babyface. Later to became a hit for Mya, the song is a bit maudlin for my tastes, but that's Diane Warren's forte. Cox's voice is better than Mya's, but the song is merely okay.

    One of the more baffling tracks on the album is her remake of the SOS Band classic 'Just Be Good To Me'. The first problem is that it sounds almost exactly the same as the original. However, the heavy percussion and insanely tight beat of the original has been replaced with lighter synths which kill the pace. Without the tight bass lines Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis brought to it, this cover is just too slow, which neuters its effect (the synth keyboard is also really annoying). Cox's vocal is fine, but she follows the original so closely that she never gets to really dominate the song. It's a bummer, because in the last thirty seconds she cuts loose. It's the one time it feels like her song.  With a different arrangement  foregrounding her voice, it could have been a winner. As is, it's stillborn.

    The remix of 'Who Do U Love' blows the original out of the water. Featuring an alternative vocal from Cox, this song charges out of the gate with the singer vocalising over the song's melody on piano and a muffled beat. Featuring an energetic back and forth with the backing chorus, it sounds like Cox is finally free of the Whitney Houston template the producers are trying to impose on her.

    Following the sugar rush of this remix, 'Where Do We Go From Here' is a bit of a downer. Nothing against the song - it is a big ballad ala Whitney and Mariah - but it is clear that Cox is a more interesting vocalist when she is not aping the stars she bears a vague resemblance to.

    The set I own is the UK edition, which ends with a remix of 'Sentimental' produced by Francis Buckley with a more hip hop flavour. Heavier beats and harder grooves are pushed to the fore - Cox's vocal appears to be the same as the original, and actually works better in this setting.

    A strong album that set Cox up as another challenger to Whitney Houston's throne, there is plenty of filler but the strong tracks show that she is a far more interesting vocalist than that elevator pitch would suggest.

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