Donna Summer - Crayons (2008)

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    All hail the queen! Donna Summer has broken the curse.  For far too long, record companies have lazily saddled established artists -- black female singers, in particular -- with "covers" projects. Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, Dionne Warwick, Patti Austin, Deniece Williams, Gladys Knight, Miki Howard, Patti LaBelle, and Vanessa Williams have all released albums comprised of well-known songs already emblazoned in the minds of listeners by other artists (or their younger selves, in the case of Warwick). While some efforts certainly succeed more than others, the trend bespeaks a lack of creativity from record labels. These artists are more than worthy of original material.

    When Donna Summer was approached by Burgundy Records to record an album, she declined the inevitable "standards"-type project they suggested. Instead, Summer played a song for executives that she co-wrote with Lester Mendez and Wayne Hector, the haunting "Be Myself Again." Based on that one song, Burgundy decided that an entire album of Summer's compositions would be a more interesting and creative enterprise than yet another "American Songbook" album.

    Crayons is particularly special since Donna Summer hasn't released an album of original material since 1991, the sorely under-promoted Mistaken Identity.  Club singles, a concert album, a Christmas album, soundtrack themes, and scores of new compilations have kept Summer visible in the market since then but none have truly captured the excitement and mystery that a new album delivers.  Crayons single-handedly obliterates that nearly 20-year gap - it's that good.

    Not only does Crayons remind listeners about the thrill of discovering a brand new song, it's among the very best albums of Summer's four-decade career. Like Four Seasons of Love (1976), I Remember Yesterday (1977), Once Upon a Time (1977), Bad Girls(1979),and The Wanderer (1980),a theme encapsulates Crayons. The diversity of styles on the album is like a box of different colored crayons. From the spicy samba of "Drivin' Down Brazil" to the bayou twang of "Slide Over Backwards," the album emphasizes Summer's versatility as a singer and songwriter. Always one to take a creative risk, she successfully weaves together the disparate styles.

    Crayons opens with the anthemic "Stamp Your Feet." The song highlights the various contours and textures of Donna Summer's voice while furnishing one of the more fierce grooves on the album. Even before Summer utters an actual word, her trademark timbre beckons. "Whoa-oah/Hey-yea-eah," she intones. Her voice is like a fine wine; its body grows more rich and full with time.

    Summer enlisted songwriters Greg Kurstin (Pink, Lily Allen) and Danielle Brisebois (Natasha Bedingfield, New Radicals) for "Stamp Your Feet" and two stylistically adventurous outings, the title track and "Drivin' Down Brazil." The former features an infectious reggae-derived rhythm, which bounces underneath the refrain, "We're crayons melting in the sunshine."  With a guest appearance by Ziggy Marley, "Crayons" is an exuberant celebration of different cultures, standing as a unique addition to Summer's repertoire. Long beloved in Brazil, Donna Summer returns the adoration with "Drivin' Down Brazil," a story about a sharp-dressed man who literally drives down to Brazil to see his girlfriend. The music of Antonio Carlos Jobim accompanies his journey in a low-ride Bonneville. "Drivin' Down Brazil" is carried by a sumptuous samba and adds yet another vivid hue to the kaleidoscope of colors on Crayons.

    As the first artist to win the Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female Grammy in 1980 ("Hot Stuff"), rock music is never far from Summer's palette. A pair of tracks co-written and produced by Toby Gad (Fergie, Elisabeth Withers) are distinctly rock driven. "Science of Love" is a masterful production. It could even be a hit single if radio wasn't so monopolized by 20-somethings. Gad's meaty power chords and jagged rhythms amplify the lyrics while Summer's strident vocals signify friction as she fights the law of attraction. "Fame (The Game)" takes the rock edge even further. In a clipped, emotionless tone, Summer compellingly explores the superficial, frenetic, and vacuous nature of fame, updating themes David Bowie sang about in 1974 for the 21st century.

    Fame nearly cost Summer her life in the 1970s, which she documented in her autobiography, Ordinary Girl (2003). Its overwhelming force swept Summer's identity underneath the "First Lady of Love" image created by Casablanca Records. On "Be Myself Again," Summer examines the chasm between the true self and the image that's projected when fame takes holds of a person. "Had I known what I lost/what I gained/what it cost/I'd still give what remains/to be myself again," she sings over a stark piano arrangement. It's a chilling sentiment that lingers long after the song ends.

    Donna Summer explores the inner life of a character named "Hattie Mae Blanche DuBois" on "Slide Over Backwards." Singing in a rough and raspy croak, Summer literally becomes the character. Steel guitar and harmonica set the story in New Orleans as "Hattie Mae" tells how she raised herself and lived on po' boys (Louisiana's version of a submarine sandwich). "Slide Over Backwards" might catch some listeners off guard at first but they'd be wise to give it a chance. It's a winsome and winning performance by Summer, chock full of intriguing sonic details.

    Elsewhere on Crayons, Donna Summer serves up a dreamy, acoustic-based tune ("Sand on My Feet"), a throbbing, Latin-infused dance-floor jam ("I'm a Fire"), a poignant prayer for Darfur ("Bring Down the Reign"), and a pair of cuts co-written by Evan Bogart, the son of Casablanca Records founder (and Summer's mentor) Neil Bogart.   Perhaps more than any other album in Donna Summer's career, Crayons exemplifies the breathtaking range of her songwriting and singing. 

    Donna Summer deserves a vociferous round of applause for staying true to her artistry on Crayons. Her first album of new material in 17 years honors her legacy while unveiling other facets of her creativity. Hopefully other artists will take Summer's lead and petition to record original material since audiences are hungry for fresh and innovative sounds. For now, listeners should immerse themselves in the Crayons experience and hear a queen at play in her kingdom.

    By Christian John Wikane