TEENA MARIE-EMERALD CITY.
TEENA MARIE-EMERALD CITY.
Having released four albums for Motown between 1979 and 1981, three of which had been certified gold, Lady T, Teena Marie had signed for Epic after a prolonged and bitter contract dispute that cost her over one-million dollars in legal fees. Her first album for Epic had been 1983s Robbery, which reached number 119 in the US Billboard 200, while reaching number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. Her next album, 1984s Starchild would become the most successful album of her career, reaching number thirty-one in the US Billboard 200, while reaching number nine in the US R&B Charts, resulting in the album being certified platinum. After the most successful album of her long career, Teena decided the follow-up would be different from previous albums. The reason for this change was that after the success of Starchild, Teena had complete creative control over the direction her music would take, plus an almost unlimited budget. With such creative freedom, Teena decided to explore her innovativeness and resourcefulness as a songwriter. This resulted in her seventh album Emerald City, a concept album featuring eight new songs, either written or co-written by Teena. Emerald City which will be rereleased by SoulMusic Records on 18th June 2012, saw Teena combine her usual soul and funk style, with jazz and rock more prominent. Would Emerald City build on the success of Starchild and how would fans and critics take to Teena’s new sound?
After the success of Starchild, Teena at last, had the freedom as a lyricist and producer. With this freedom, came something else an almost unlimited budget. For what would become Emerald City, Teena wrote five tracks and cowrote three others. Two of the tracks Teena cowrote were with Penny Johnson, one of her regular songwriting partners. Being able to express herself freely as a lyricist appealed to Teena, and the resulting eight songs would become Teena’s only concept album. This concept album saw a real fusion of styles and influences. It was a departure from Teena’s usual combination of soul and funk, with jazz and rock flavoring the music. For this departure of styles, Teena needed a versatile band capable of playing a variety of musical styles.
Recording of the eight tracks that became Emerald City took place at two studios in Los Angeles. These were Ocean Way Studios and Conway Recording Studios. Joining Teena were musicians of the calibre of bassists Bootsy Collins and Stanley Clarke, guitarists Michael Landua and Stevie Ray Vaughan who played on one part. They joined percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Gary Grant. Adding backing vocals were sisters Maxime and Julia Waters. Many of the musicians who joined Teena, including Stanley Clarke, Paulinho Da Costa, Branford Marsalis and Gary Grant were primarily jazz players, pointing at the direction of Emerald City. Would the new sound and style of music on Emerald City appeal to Teena’s large and loyal fan-base?
On the release of Emerald City in the early summer of 1986, critics and fans didn’t understand the album. This resulted in reviews of the album being poor, while Emerald City failed to sell as well as Starchild. Emerald City only reached number eighty-one in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty in the US R&B Charts. Two singles were released from Emerald City. Lips To You reached number twenty-eight in the US R&B Charts, while Love Me Down Easy only reached number eighty-one in the US R&B Charts. After the success of the platinum certified Emerald City, this must have come as a huge disappointment to both Teena and everyone at Epic. However, twenty-six years after the release of Emerald City, did the album deserve to fare better commercially? That’s what I’ll tell you, when I tell you about the music on Emerald City.
Opening Emerald City is the title-track Emerald City, one of five tracks written by Teena. Straight away, the change in Teena’s sound is apparent. Synths, rhythm section and percussion combine to give the track sound that fuses synth pop with rocky guitars. Teena delivers her voice quickly and coldly, while the arrangement is jagged, arriving in sharp, dramatic waves. Joining Teena is Bootsy Collins, who adds bass and vocals. Meanwhile the soundscape is laden with surprises and isn’t short of drama.
Once Is Not Enough has more in common with her two previous Epic albums. The tempo is quick, with space in the arrangement at a premium. Teena’s vocal is emotive and needy, while washes of synths add to the constant drama of the track. These synths are key to the sound, as are the rhythm guitar which later, gives way to an irresistible and sizzling rock-tinged guitar solo. After this, rolls of pounding drums, funky bass and percussion accompany Teena’s powerful, needy vocal as she delivers one of her best vocals on Emerald City.
Only two singles were released from Emerald City, the first of these was Lips That Find You. Washes of synths, guitars and the rhythm section combine before Teena’s vocal enters. It’s full of frustration and sadness, while backing vocalists accompany her. Quickly, the arrangement grows in power, before funky, then rocky guitars augment the driving rhythm section. Waves of synths are almost ever-present, while percussion and a pounding, funky bass line on a track that incorporates play their part in the track’s sound and success. Together, they fuse funk, rock and Latin music on a track that’s like a five-minute soap opera, full of emotion and heartache.
You So Heavy demonstrates the eclectic nature of the music on Emerald City, when Teena incorporates psychedelic rock into the track, while Stevie Ray Vaughan adds a blistering blues guitar solo. Pounding drums accompany Teena’s voice which resonates wistfully. They give way to the synths, rhythm section and percussion, before Teena’s earnest vocal enters. Her vocal is shrouded with subtle delay, that adds to the track’s drama. Later, Teena’s vocal soars as she scats, accompanied by Stevie Ray Vaughan sizzling, guitar solo. It not only matches the drama in Teena’s vocal, but is crucial to the track’s sound and success.
Shangri-La which opened side two of Emerald City sees another change in style. The track has an unmistakable eighties sound, with a moody, broody sound preceding Teena’s vocal. Some of the lyrics have a surreal quality, with meandering synths, drum machines and percussion accompanying Teena’s slow, wistful vocal. As the track progresses, her vocal grows in power and emotion, while synths, rhythm section and a smattering of percussion add a moody, pensive backdrop before the track comes to a dramatic ending.
Batucuda Suite is a track where jazz, Latin and Caribbean music are fused, creating the best track on the album. Teena is accompanied by steel pans that bring to mind sunny days on a Caribbean beach, while a myriad of percussion and sultry horns add to the uplifting sound. The track shimmers along, while Teena unleashes a joyous vocal that contribute to the celebratory nature of this uplifting and irresistible fusion of musical styles.
Love Me Down Easy was the second single released from Emerald City. Sadly, the single only reached number eighty-one in the US R&B Charts. This means so many people missed out on hearing one of Teena’s impassioned, heartfelt vocal. The arrangement benefits from much more space than previous tracks. Synths, rhythm section and guitars are key to a meandering, dramatic arrangement, that slowly unfolds. It allows what’s Teena’s best and undoubtably, most impassioned vocal on Emerald City to take centre-stage, where it quite rightly belongs. Given the quality of Teena’s vocal, Love Me Down Easy deserved to fare better when released as a single.
Closing Emerald City is Sunny Skies, where Teena demonstrates her versatility, delivering her vocal in a jazzy style. This she does with just a piano, lone sultry horn and percussion accompanying her. Teena responds to this much more understated arrangement, delivering her vocal beautifully with a combination of tenderness, emotion and later, power. Not only is this a quite beautiful way to end the album, but demonstrates her versatility. Given how good her vocal was on this track, It’s a pity that we didn’t hear more of this side of Teena Marie.
Emerald City, Teena Marie’s seventh album and first and only concept album is one that’s truly eclectic. The music on Emerald City ranges from Teena’s usual soul and funk style, taking in jazz and rock, plus brief diversions via Latin and Caribbean music. During the eight tracks on Emerald City Teena flits seamlessly between genres. Sometimes, just as you’ve just enjoyed a track, Teena decides to change direction. By doing this, you never know where Emerald City is heading. You’re kept on your toes, captivated and compelled, wondering where the album is heading. This was what Teena had planned, as Emerald City was a concept album, celebrating and demonstrating Teena talents as a songwriter. All too often, concept albums sell badly, because critics and fans tend to eye them with suspicion. To me, this is a pity, because there are many great concept albums including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars and of course, Marvin Gaye’s Magnus Opus What’s Going On. Nor could it have been easy writing and recording such an ambitious album as Emerald City. Although Emerald City is an ambitious and eclectic album, there are more than a few highlights. This includes Once Is Not Enough, where Teena’s needy vocal is one of her best on the album. It’s matched by Love Me Down Easy and bettered only by the delightful, jazz-tinged Sunny Skies. Very different is Batucuda Suite, is a true musical fusion, with a joyous, uplifting sound, thanks to a myriad of steel pans and percussion. Of all the tracks on Emerald City, which will be rereleased by SoulMusic Records on 18th June 2012, Batucuda Suite demonstrates perfectly just how ambitious and eclectic an album it was. Indeed Teena Marie should be commended for her ambition in not being content to churn out album after album of similar music. Instead, she was brave, ambitious and of course, hugely talented as Emerald City demonstrates. Standout Tracks: Once Is Not Enough, Batucuda Suite, Love Me Down Easy and Sunny Skies.
TEENA MARIE-EMERALD CITY.