Reviewed on this page:
Brenda Russell - Love Life - Two Eyes - Get Here - Kiss Me With The
Wind - Soul Talkin' -
Paris Rain - Between The Sun And The Moon
Originally from Canada, Brenda Russell started recording with her then-husband under the name Brian & Brenda. From those inauspicious
beginnings, she's had some success as a
solo artist since the late 70s, but is better known as a
songwriter/producer for other pop/soul acts, including Diana Ross and Chaka Khan. Not as distinctive or well-
rounded a talent as her peers Patrice
Rushen or Àngela Winbush, but
her work is always tasteful and well-thought out, and her voice is
pleasant and soothing. She's so amazingly consistent I had to exaggerate the ratings a bit: there's really no more than a star's worth of
difference between her best record and her worst, and if you really like her you won't be disappointed by anything she's released.
Brenda Russell (1979)
Gentle pop, generally based on piano and Fender Rhodes and her
softly yearning vocals, with only occasional guitar, horns or strings. The arrangements are almost identical to
contemporaneous works like Rushen's
debut, but not as catchy: the melodies and progressions are
sound but so subdued they take a while to sink in. This contains
Russell's only Top 40 hit as a solo artist, "So Good, So Right,"
but the ballads "If Only For One Night" and "Think It Over" are
more interesting. Produced by André Fisher. (DBW)
Love Life (1981)
Produced by Stewart Levine; the cast includes top session musicians including most of Toto, Dean Parks,
and Abraham Laboriel on bass, and Russell goes with a straightforward pop sound, not too fast or too slow. Since she doesn't use horns or
strings, the arrangements have nowhere to go, and it's a bit mind-numbing after a while. There's one fine riff tune, though unfortunately
it's the shortest track on the album ("Lucky"), and there are a couple of moving love songs ("Sensitive Man") and dueling guitar solos (by
Steve Lukather and Buzzy Feiten) on "Thank You."
Not as accessible, commercially successful or challenging as her debut, it's still good fun for her fans. (DBW)
Two Eyes (1983)
Produced by Tony LiPuma, but it's the same quiet pop as before - she never falls on her face but never really takes any risks either. The
title track is another moving love song, and "Jarreau" (a tribute to Al Jarreau, who appears on the record) is clever light funk; otherwise
there's really nothing to distinguish this from the rest of her work. There are a lot of guest stars this time around, including
Christopher Cross, James Ingram, Caleb Quaye, Patrice
Rushen, Rita Coolidge and Leon Ware, but everything's so carefully in the background it's hard to
tell what the guests contributed. (DBW)
Get Here (1988)
By now Russell's on the synth/drum machine bandwagon, though she does it more tastefully than most. She exec produced and co-produced, but
this time didn't play any of the instruments, and the record is her least personal-sounding. There are a few uptempo tracks ("Make My Day")
but she focuses on ballads: this produced "Piano In The Dark," her biggest solo hit other than "So Good So Right," plus the lovely title
covered by Oletta Adams) and the mellow "Le Restaurant" (featuring David Sanborn). Other high-powered musicians with fusion credentials include
Joe Sample, Vinne Colaiuta and Jimmy Haslip, and Stanley Clarke co-produces a couple of tracks. Pleasant enough if you're in a laid-back mood, but you might want to start with one of the other discs, most of which have more variety and vitality. (DBW)
Kiss Me With The Wind (1990)
Russell's written or co-written every song here, and she shows a
lot of range, from funky uptempo dance ("Stupid Love") to lithe
light pop ("Stop Running Away") to creepy jazz pop ("Night Train To
Leningrad") to feel-good ephemera ("Dinner With Gershwin," earlier
recorded by Donna
Summer). She's a clever lyricist and able tunesmith, with a
heavy-duty backing band (including Greg Phillinganes, Earl
Klugh, Jeff Porcaro, Walter Afanasieff, etc.), she's even a good
singer. The album's weakness is that it's overprofessional: for all
its stylistic facility, it ultimately lacks personality. The couple
of dud tunes (including the title track, produced and co-written by
Narada Michael Walden, and "Justice In Truth") don't help either.
Overall, this is a pleasant listen that works better as a
resumé aimed at artists seeking a songwriter than as an
album in itself. (DBW)
Soul Talkin' (1993)
Fischer is out of the picture here, as Russell produces by herself. There are a lot of fun tunes here, from the sexy title track to the
funky, hip hop-influenced "10,000 Words" to the lightly swinging "Life Is Waiting," with soulful guitar soloing from Michael Thompson.
Like the previous effort, this is a musical smorgasbord, but this time it's more compelling, less subdued. She allows herself to stretch
out a bit more on vocals, though you still feel she's holding something in reserve.
Almost all the tunes are Russell's; one exception is the dreary, rambling "Who Are You," by Bill Cantos. The musicians are not as big
names as usual, though Phillinganes, Marlo Henderson, Larry
Williams and Aaron Zigman are in evidence. The record flopped, but to me it's more successful than
her better selling releases. (DBW)
Paris Rain (2000)
After a long layoff, Russell sounds more mellow than ever, almost to the point of catatonia. She follows the same sophisticated Adult
Contemporary pop/soul tack she's taken all along, but she's so resolutely unintrusive she just ends up making background music
("Love And Paris Rain"). There are no memorable melodies, and precious little energy - "Catch On" and "Please Felipe" are a bit livelier
than the rest.
More disturbing, a few tracks are overly derivative of Stevie Wonder: the "Don't Worry Bout A Thing"-style
Latin lite "Walkin' In New York," the gentle acoustic "She's In Love," which sounds like it should have been on Secret Life Of Plants
(except that it's not about plants).
Produced by Russell and Stephan Oberhoff, who also played keyboards and programmed drums throughout the disc (Russell plays piano on only
a couple of tracks).
The backing band is high powered: Phillinganes, Lenny Castro, Jimmy Haslip, Sheila E., etc.
"Move The Moon" was written by Russell and Carole King; Russell wrote or co-wrote everything except the dull
"Something About Your Love," by William D. Smith and Kathy Wakefield.
Between The Sun And The Moon (2004)
The differences between a good Brenda Russell album and a mediocre one are subtle but significant:
either way, she relies heavily on smooth, unobtrusive keyboards and percussion; on engaging, untheatrical performances;
on straightforward, direct lyrics. The approach of this record is almost identical to Paris Rain but the results are
much better: the bouncy, Caribbean-influenced numbers - "Make You Smile"; title track (with Patti
Austin) - are invigorating and clever. The atmospheric tunes - "Too Cool For The Room"; "Different Eyes" with slide
guitar from James Harrah and Michael James - are hypnotic without ever
fading into the background. The simple lyrical concepts - "Ain't No Smoke"; "I Know You By Heart" - don't come off as
hackneyed. Even "It's A Jazz Day," a silly laundry list namechecking jazz greats, builds a distinctive, slightly eerie mood.
Jean Paul "Bluey" Maunick, Jochem van der Saag and Simon Law produced two tracks each, and a bunch of people worked on
one apiece: Oberhoff returned for the title cut; Lee Ritenour produced, arranged and performed on Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks Of My Tears,"
the sole cover. Too many musicians to list, along the lines of Nathan East, Jimmy Haslip
Luis Conte and Hamish Stuart.
Stop running away.