When a band breaks up, audiences expect the individual members to carry that sound with them to their new outfits. Fans of the vets who make up R&B triumvirate Lucy Pearl -- En Vogue's Dawn Robinson, Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Raphael Saadiq and A Tribe Called Quest's DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad -- will be pleased to know their faves haven't lost their grooves. In fact, they've all found a way to meld their areas of expertise onto one album. It is inspiring to discover that these cats are doing something clever, and uncompromising, especially since their former bandmates are relying on hooks and gimmicks to make those chips.
Tribe MC Q-Tip has already turned in his blue jeans and denim shirts for leather pants and Versace tank tops, jamming his music videos with booty-shaking honeys and turning his solo debut, Amplified, into a bumping frenzy completely bereft of the Tribe's wit and charm. And En Vogue's new album, Masterpiece Theatre (released on the same day as Lucy Pearl's), is a bizarro piece of work. A few songs manage to capture the girls at their peppy, funky finest ("No No No," "Work It Out"), but most, in which the girls interpolate classical compositions into their tunes, will have you wondering what the hell they were thinking.
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You know En Vogue didn't have much to work with going into the project. R&B divas who aren't 17-year-olds in thongs and pasties? What else to do? This creative straitjacket is what reportedly made Robinson quit the band before she could sell out, which may be why she sounds so willing to do whatever on this effort. Her bandmates share this sentiment. The threesome intercuts neo-soul (Saadiq's forte), funked-up R&B (Robinson's taste) and offbeat hip-hop (Muhammad's bread and butter) to come up with music that's both enchanting and eccentric.
They collaborate on tunes that resonate with sincere familiarity. Songs like "Lala," "Everyday" and "Do It for the People" bring back that doing-the-hustle-at-your-family-reunion vibe. But it's not all Sunday barbecue soul. Saadiq rolls with some hedonistic guitar hooks on the low-down rock track "Hollywood." And the trio also shows its humorous side, when Saadiq and Robinson sound off on meddling matriarchs on "Can't Stand Your Mother." ("You better deal with her / Or you'll be living with her," Robinson rants.) The group also finds a way for Snoop Dogg and Q-Tip to coexist on the cascading "You." Now that's inventive.
Lucy Pearl's brand of liquid soul isn't that far off the map from another R&B trio, the Family Stand, which a couple of years back released the little-heard gem Connected. Much like the Stand, Lucy Pearl's sound is alternative, laid-back R&B with moments of suggestive funk sprinkled with a dash of pathos. All three factors are evident on "Dance Tonight," which may be the closest Lucy Pearl comes to achieving Roy Ayers-style retro-soul.
Robinson, Saadiq and Muhammad construct a soul album that's more quirky than flashy, and that's what ultimately makes it such an amusing, endearing, entertaining peculiarity. This album isn't groundbreaking shit, mind you, but it's something to get you through these hot summer nights.