It’s been 33 years since Donna broke into the national conscious with ‘Love to Love You Baby’, a lexicon of 1001 ways to fake an orgasm in just under fifteen minutes. After six years with Casablanca Records and a slew of #1 disco and Top 40 hits, the undisputed ‘Queen of Disco’ experienced a great deal of controversy and turmoil after leaving her label in 1980. From the bitter betrayal felt by Casablanca Records owner Neil Bogart, her public disagreements with her new label manager, David Geffen, to her fall from grace within the gay community (for which I believe was a sandbag job to begin with), Donna has managed to persevere and regain the good graces of the very community that had helped propel her to stardom and subsequently turned their back on her. No doubt her legacy has fueled legions of fans over the decades, and for good reason. Many of today’s artists, DJs and producers, dig back into the seventies disco era to update contemporary music with the same fun and frivolity the genre provided. Granted, it was a time of hedonism and excess but is often fondly remembered for the playfulness and escapism it brought to a generation undergoing a failing economy and high fuel prices. Hmm, sound familiar?
In 1999, after having performed with Luciano Pavarotti and dabbling in Opera, Donna was experiencing a bit of a revival. VH1 had great success with its ‘American Bandstand’ repeats and the music channel in conjunction with Sony Records struck a deal to release a live album and televised performance containing some of Donna’s past hits. The album itself contained two new songs. One was the Opera classic ‘I Will Go with You (Con Te Partiro)’ which she had previously sung in Latin, but never to a dance beat and a new song ‘Love Is a Healer’. Both songs went on to massive club play and reached #1 on Billboard’s Club Chart. With the recent huge comeback of her former label mate Cher, it was almost certain that Donna could muster the same excitement. Unfortunately, what followed was the lame ‘Power of One’ recorded for the ‘Pokeman’ Soundtrack, the overproduced Tony Moran track ‘You’re So Beautiful’ that was already played out until its official release one year later, a lukewarm collaboration with Ralphi Rosario on ‘I Got Your Love’, a multitude of greatest hits compilations and a disappointing autobiography. Nearly nine years after the success of the VH1 live album and seventeen years since her last full studio album, her rabid fans finally get ‘Crayons’ the album that had been promised long ago.
The title aptly suggests the overall theme that paves the way through the entire album. Each song represents a variety of styles showcasing her diversity, while confirming she wasn’t just a one trick pony. Starting with the big sound of ‘Stamp Your Feet’ there’s no doubt Donna is in excellent vocal form. A song about perseverance and triumph is an excellent uplifting track that should do well at MOR radio. ‘Mr. Music’ takes a recent play out of Madonna’s handbook digging into the big beat hip hop sound that has already played itself out at radio. Though not as aggressive, it shouldn’t turn off any loyal fans. ‘Crayons’ is a modern day reggae flavored duet with the missing in action Ziggy Marley which works quite well. Uplifting bouncy fun, this should be the next single as it has a great summertime feel. ‘The Queen Is Back’ is another big room stomper informing the listener that the Queen is definitely back and won’t be denied. ‘Fame (The Game)’ is a rocker cum Daft Punk about the teenage dream of becoming famous and the potential downfall once that dream is realized. The album then switches gears to the wonderfully acoustic ‘Sand on My Feet’ that could easily be about her longtime marriage to husband Bruce Sudano. ‘Drivin’ Down Brazil’ is a breezy Samba mix with a light jazzy feel followed by ‘I’m A Fire’ (which has already reached #1 on Billboards’ Club Chart) and is the only thing remotely close to disco on the album. An excellent tune in its own right, it changes gears towards the end breaking down into some Latin flavor where Donna showcases her bilingual abilities, before falling back into the original and ending with “I’m burning and I need you”…brilliant! If there is a surefire misstep on this album, it would definitely be the Gospel Blues fueled ‘Slide over Backwards’. The vocals are clearly aggravating and suggest that Tina Turner could really turn this one out on her embarking tour. It’s not clear what Donna’s intent was by garbling her voice, but it just doesn’t work. Back to Daft Punk again, ‘Science of Love’ drops back to the big beats with a throwback to eighties pop rock. It’s not hard to imagine this song fitting nicely on a John Hughes movie soundtrack. Quite possibly autobiographical, ‘Be Myself Again’ is a beautiful ballad about someone looking in the mirror and not recognizing their own reflection. Finally, ‘Bring down the Reign’ is a song about the deeply disturbing situation in Darfur and reminiscent of her eighties hit ‘State of Independence’, but never quite reaches its intended goal. The use of the violin and the ‘Agape Children’s Choir’ are welcome additions that help bring attention to the unfortunate situation in Sudan. My suggestion would be to use more of the violin when performing this song live. Much like the theme from ‘Schindler’s List’, it provides the listener a sense of sadness and urgency which would allow you to bring further attention to this ongoing tragedy in this desperate wasteland.
With the exception of ‘Slide over Backwards’ (really, give Tina a call, she might be interested), the overall album is a collection of fine songs that showcase Donna’s interests and diversity. However, given today’s fickle audiences and the impatient climate in the recording industry, I wouldn’t be surprised if she finds herself without a recording deal in a year. There’s no doubt she will tirelessly tour and promote this album, but it isn’t exactly what her fans were expecting from her. There’s nothing wrong with embracing your past and bringing it into the here and now. Certainly producers such as 7th Heaven, Moto Blanco and Freemasons to name a few would jump at the chance to make an album with Ms. Summer. Instead of using the whole box of crayons, next time try using just a few colors and see what you come up with. You might be surprised. Let’s hope the next album doesn’t take another 17 years and that Clive Davis gives her that opportunity. -PF
Album : Crayons
Artist : Donna Summer
Producers : Greg Kurstin, Danielle Brisebois, JR Rotem, Evan Bogart & Lester Mendez
Label : Burgundy Records
Genre : R&B, Pop