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2012/09/28

'New and Number Ones' - Kristine W.'s New CD Delivers Some Goods!

‘New and Number Ones’, Kristine W.’s new CD, finds the dance floor darling at an enviable point in her career; with 16 #1 Billboard Dance Club Play Hits (and one #2) under her belt.  Only Madonna (43), Janet Jackson (19), Beyoncé (18), and Rihanna (18) have more.  And considering Kristine has never enjoyed the mainstream success of those artists, it’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.  I think it’s a testament to her incredible voice, great work ethic, professionalism, and instincts as a performer, as well as her outer and inner beauty.  If you have ever had the privilege of seeing her perform live, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  She’s a diva in terms of talent only.  In-person there is something so natural and down-to-earth about her that she remains instantly relatable and highly likable. 
The make-up of her latest release mimics an archetype that’s become commonplace in the industry during the CD era – where an established artist remakes a few of their most famous songs while filling the rest of the disc up with new material.  It doesn’t make for the most progressive listen in terms of the growth of an artist, but it does serve as a stop gap measure, providing product for fans to buy while the artist considers their next move.  So if you were hoping for another ‘Fly Again’ or ‘Land of the Living’, you will walk away disappointed.  There is no unifying whole holding this one together – other than Kristine’s incredible pipes, which have never sounded more powerful.   She is fast approaching Martha Wash bombast.
The usual grab bag of producers/remixers are on hand; Bimbo Jones, DJ Howard D, Subgroover,  Soul Seekerz, Bitrocka, etc.   And despite the number of different techniques, almost every track is crammed with vintage synth sounds – including a plethora of laser zaps.  Used sparingly, this approach helps buoy up a few of the less-than-unique cuts, but elsewhere the technique constantly threatens to overwhelm Kristine’s inspired vocals.  Sometimes busy is good, and sometimes it simply distracts from what is already high quality. 
The lead track, ‘Love Come Home’ (Subgroover Radio Edit), will be familiar to anyone who knows Kristine W.’s musical history.  It was one of the first tracks she ever appeared on that gained significant attention in the dance clubs.  It originally appeared under the bill of Our Tribe featuring Frankie Pharaoh and Kristine W.  While a remix by Bitrocka utilizing Frankie Pharaoh’s vocals (along with Kristine’s) appears near the end of CD, the first version features Kristine solo.  It’s packed with synth fills, but Kristine remains front and center.  The verses pulse along nicely, while the chorus takes off like a rocket ship.   I’m sure that this, along with the second track will be released as singles before the end of 2013 – and I’m pretty sure they both stand a good chance at increasing the lady’s number of #1’s. 

‘I Get Up’ (DJ Howard D Radio Edit) follows and features the best vocals on the album, straddling the line between gospel holler and dance floor burner.  A theme of independence runs through the first three tracks, with this being the most powerful.   It reminds me of Natalie Cole’s ‘Livin’ for Love’, as it shares a similar chorus structure, and, considering how much I like that song, that is high praise.
Already on the dance charts (#18 as of this writing) is the (possibly) autobiographical, ‘Everything That I Got’; a song released about a month ago.  I downloaded it as soon as I knew it existed and its mixes (all good to terrific) were the only thing pouring out of my car’s speakers until ‘New and Number Ones’ was released.  ‘Everything’ is a great song, leaving her last three #1 dance club play singles (Be Alright, The Power of Music and Fade) in the dust.   If it fails to reach #1, I will be surprised, though she does face some pretty stiff competition with Beyoncé looking to peak the same week (Aside: typically, Kristine’s singles move to #1 in 7-8 weeks).  I love this song.  It’s got a great melody and catchy lyrics.  I think it’s a shame that something this uplifting and fun doesn’t get picked up by mainstream radio.
The first of her previous #1’s , ‘Land of the Living’ is up next.  The last time she revisited this number it appeared as a hidden track on a Patti Labelle greatest hits package.  That pairing left me lukewarm, but that says a lot about the beauty and power of Kristine’s original take.  Here, the song is given a ton of energy courtesy of Subgroover’s never-ending flank of synth gimmicks.  It works fairly well, as do the other two #1’s from the same time period – the mournful ‘One More Time’ and  epic ‘Feel What You Want‘; although ‘Feel’ is robbed of much of its mystery and drama in the hands of Bimbo Jones (Note: ‘Feel’ also appears in a very different version on her jazz album ‘Straight Up With a Twist’).  Of the remakes, only ‘Lovin’ You’ seems superfluous; a slight song overpowered in this instance by some heavy-handed production work. 
The remaining originals range from cheesy with a shelf date (Busted – think Melissa Manchester’s ‘Pretty Girls’ or Donna Summer’s ‘Eyes’, same territory), slight and overproduced (So Close to Me), underwhelming while being overwhelmed by ill-fitting production (Room At the Top), and unsubstantial (The Glow).  Of the four, ‘The Glow’ is the most fun and is the best produced.  Though, ‘Room at the Top’ features a great sax part and a stellar rap section that reminds me of Missy Elliot and given a proper remix, it could work as a possible single.
She fairs a bit better with the cover material.  ‘Sometimes a Butterfly’ is an old Bruce Roberts/Donna Summer collaboration that appeared as the B-side of Summer’s 'Love is In Control (Finger on the Trigger)' single back in 1982.  It’s a classically-contructed disco tune (and creaks just the tiniest bit), but given Kristine’s tendency to remain rooted in a kind of classic diva-of-dance mode, it is a good fit.  Which makes me think that now that Donna Sumer is gone (R.I.P. - she is so missed), Bruce Roberts could use a new diva to write with – why not Kristine?  Kristine appeared as a featured vocalist on Bruce’s dance epic ‘When the Money’s Gone’ (which also featured Elton John), so they are definitely aware of each other.  Seems like a win-win to me.
As for her cover of Chaka Kahn’s MOR classic, ‘Through the Fire’, a worthy song, for sure, I have yet to hear a mix that totally works.  I don’t know what mix she used in Duluth, MN, where she recently appeared as part of their 2012 pride celebration, but I liked it in that setting much more than either of the versions offered on ‘NANO’.  If the album version via Bitrocka sounds like one of those cheesy dance remakes of a popular Top 40 ballad featuring a faceless female vocalist with a click track, then rest assured:  that it is as good as it gets.  For, in the hands of Chus & Ceballos Iberican, the song  practically becomes unlistenable.  It is during this mix that one really notices the difference between Donna Summer and Kristine.  Donna had this wonderful warmth that colored the underside of her vocals, not so Kristine.  On the Chus & Ceballow Iberican version of ‘Fire’ we hear just how strained and thin Kristine’s voice can come off if not handled well in the production booth.   That this will be released as a single is pretty much a given.  Whether it enjoys the same success as her cover of Diana Ross’ ‘The Boss’?   That remains to be seen.   It’s not that Kristine’s vocals are bad on the extended remix or that the song isn’t great, it is just that something more needs to be done with this one before turning it out to the clubs.
There are also two additional extended mixes of ‘Feel’ at the end of the CD; the Sanchez mix is a slow builder in traditional 1998 club mode, while the Dave Saronsan mix retains a little of the intrigue and tension of the original by giving the verses an industrial grunge touch, but then loses it in the chorus by adding superfluous synth bleeps.
I can see three definite future #1’s: ‘I Get Up’, the remake of ‘Love Come Home’, and the already released ‘Everything That I Got’.  If ‘Room at the Top’ gets a proper remix, I could also see it climbing the charts.  What I hope doesn’t happen?  That they decide to try to get ‘Feel’ to the top of the charts again.  Not sure the clubs would go for that and I would hate to for her to spoil her string of #1s (though, with repeated listenings, the new versions of this song are growing on me, and may be an excellent way to introduce the song to a new generation). 
As Kristine W. CD’s go, this one is a lot like her last dance release ‘The Power of Music’, in that it feels cobbled together.  In the case of NONA, given its mix of new and old material, that’s understandable.  It does contain a number of standout cuts, in particular ‘I Get Up’ – every time I hear that song I get excited – and those are what make this worthwhile to own.  It also avoids the pitfalls – poor songwriting, indifferent production - that left ‘Power’ losing steam.  Kristine shows no desire to embrace new technology or borrow from the likes of Kesha  or even Beyoncé.  So, unlike Madonna, she’s comfortable with herself as an artist and isn’t desperately jumping on the latest trend to chase a hit or remain ‘young’.  And that is one of the hallmarks of a mature, fully-formed artist – one who is comfortable in her own skin.

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