If you're of a certain age (35+) and grew up during in the 80s, then you know that the era had some hallmark trends many of us want to forget (Jheri Curls, parachute pants, neon make-up and hair sprayed-up and teased out of the hemisphere, for starters) -- except for the music. Ghastly fashion choices aside, artists had more freedom to be themselves and record labels still had generous A & R budgets to package and promote their uniqueness to the masses. It was this fertile environment that allowed for the success of one of the era's most successful R&B groups, Club Nouveau.
Formed in Sacramento CA and founded by musical entrepreneur Jay King, the hit-making quintet arose from the ashes of Timex Social Club, a group that kicked off King's independent label with the 1986 monster smash "Rumours" but disbanded soon after. Capitalizing off that success, Club Nouveau hit the ground running with a string of hits of their own, such as "Situation #9," "Jealousy," the heavily-sampled "Why You Treat Me So Bad" and the snazzy Grammy-Award-winning 1986 remake of a Bill Withers classic, "Lean On Me." Unfortunately, after the departure of their lead singer (Samuelle Prater) and in-house production duo (Denzil Foster & Thomas McElroy), the hits and Club Nouveau's chart prominence all but evaporated.
Getting back in the studio to resurrect a recording career after so many years is a huge undertaking no matter how many hits one had, but Club Nouveau's done just that with the creation of their sixth studio CD, Consciousness, reuniting Prater, King and Valerie Watson-English to capitalize on their still-recognizable musical imprint for original fans and Generation Next. Some of the songs found on Consciousness deliver what they intended, combining their straight-forward, funk-fringed R&B with updated lyrical content/delivery and energetic, yet never-oversung vocals. The similarities are easy to pick up in a couple of the tracks when compared to their heyday era of hits: "I'm So Happy" is patterned closely in style and tempo to "Heavy On My Mind," down to the pacing and back-and-forth Prater/Watson-English action, and "Let's Have a Party" (featuring another instantly recognizable throwback, Chubb Rock) will recall the busyness and boisterousness of "Lean On Me." The song that they borrow the most heavily from is "Friend Of Mine," which has been re-constructed with updated verses in "Call Yourself A Friend Of Mine": "I remember that day when you went upstate and I promised to keep your business straight.....Three years went by, out on parole/on the streets back to ballin' out of control. Stretched out Navi, triple-black on dubs/ain't gave me a call, ain't shown no love." It's one of the most potent songs on the CD, given that many of today's rappers aren't even capable of flowing as fluently.
But since the formula's been so strictly adhered to, it also restricts the album's range and subject matter and makes some of the tracks within the dozen sound more repetitive than they should: "Come Together," with legendary EW&F keyboardist Larry Dunn, is elegant and understated, and "For Your Love (Jordan's Song)" should resonate with anyone blessed with a child, but the group's insistence on singing time and again about global chaos and a deteriorating social fabric quickly feels rigid and redundant. Sure, the voices of media mogul Lee Bailey and hip-hop pioneer Chuck D enhance and underscore the turmoil described within the title track, but since it follows previous ones with a similar message, it struggles to stand apart. "That Ain't Love," the current single, attempts to serve as a warning of what an abusive relationship entails, but doesn't offer an alternative and what little rebuttal Valerie injects is drowned out by a litany of chauvinistic expectations that recall a 1960s/70s-era Ike Turner and "Good Times'" James Evans (?!).
One can only innovate so much without reaching back into the past for inspiration, so there's nothing is wrong with recycling or revisiting it....as long as one doesn't dawdle there. Club Nouveau's Conciousness could've stretched and expanded the group's style to include newer topics with ease (babymama/daddy drama, reality shows gone mad, etc.), but because they clinged so tightly to what had worked before, it's an uneven effort that sounds more dated than need be. And like most of the 80s trends, some moments are still fly and fashionable....while others just fall flat. Moderately Recommended.
By Melody Charles