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Labelle - Group and Solo Work

Reviewed on this page:
Dreamer - Labelle - Moon Shadow - Pressure Cookin' - Nightbirds - Phoenix - Chameleon - Patti LaBelle (1977) - Nona Hendryx - Sarah Dash - Tasty - It's Alright With Me - Released - Close Enough - The Spirit's In It - Nona - I'm In Love Again - The Art Of Defense - Patti - The Heat - Winner In You - Female Trouble - Be Yourself - SkinDiver - Burnin' - Live! - Gems - This Christmas - Flame - Live! One Night Only - When A Woman Loves - Timeless Journey - Classic Moments - Back To Now - Mutatis Mutandis

At the start of the 1960s, Patti LaBelle fronted a conventional female doo-wop group, Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, including Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and Cindy Birdsong. They scored a few medium-size hits through 1968, when Birdsong jumped ship to fill a vacancy in the Supremes. Left a trio, they shortened their name to Labelle, and went in a completely new direction with outrageous costumes and funk rock backing (mostly written by Hendryx). It was slow getting off the ground, but they struck gold with "Lady Marmalade" (and its "voulez-vous couchez avec moi" chorus). Then, after a couple more top-notch albums, they split up to do solo projects.

Hendryx and LaBelle have released a steady stream of albums, the best of which are excellent; Dash has kept a lower profile apart from the disco hit "Sinner Man" and a tour with Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos. Since LaBelle's not a songwriter, she mostly sounds like whoever's producing her; Hendryx writes most of her own material, but she works so hard to keep up with trends that her output is even more variable than Patti's. Personally I don't put LaBelle in the top rank of singers with Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin, but she's a strong, idiosyncratic interpreter whether she's belting or whispering, and Hendryx is an insightful writer with a broad emotional range.

I was lucky enough to see Labelle's reunion tour in early 2009; unluckily for you, I reviewed the show. Patti LaBelle's own site has a lot of good information mixed in with fluff like ads for her perfume. (DBW)

Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, Cindy Birdsong, all vocals. Birdsong left, 1968. Backing musicians varied, but pianist Bud Ellison was involved in much of the 70s recording.

Live At The Apollo (Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles: 1962)

Sleigh Belles, Jingle Belles, and Bluebelles (Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles: 1962)
Yes, a Christmas album. (DBW)

On Stage (Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles: 1964)

Over The Rainbow (Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles: 1966)
The first LP on Atlantic. "All Or Nothing" (by Lori Burton and Pam Sawyer) charted, and thirty years later, the title track remains a centerpiece of LaBelle's live performances. Covers aplenty: "Groovy Kind Of Love"; "People"; "Yesterday." (DBW)

Dreamer (Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles: 1967)
One side studio, one side live. The studio tracks are heavily orchestrated, dour and downtempo (Curtis Mayfield's "I'm Still Waiting"; title track, a single), though Trade Martin's "Take Me For A Little While" echoes the emerging Muscle Shoals sound. Covers include a corny, upshifting take on "Always Something There To Remind Me." The live side is more vigorous (a gumptious girl group run through "That's How Heartaches Are Made"), but it's a shame the songs are so rudimentary ("Down The Aisle") - if they'd belted the new songs and put complex arrangements on the old ones, both sides would have turned out better. And whether on stage or in the studio, LaBelle was trying to be a clear, tremulous treble songbird a la Diana Ross ("Tender Words"), but it didn't quite work - just a few songs are delivered full-throttle ("I Don't Want To Go On Without You"; "Where Are You?"). (DBW)

In 1971, Labelle backed Laura Nyro on her Gonna Take A Miracle.

Labelle (1971)
At this point, the band's idea of reinventing itself basically meant trading in R&B for white pop/rock: the record is mostly covers, including "You've Got A Friend," "Wild Horses," Laura Nyro's "Time & Love," and Kenny Rogers' "Running Out Of Fools." The new material isn't much better, though "Morning Much Better" (by Michael Sager and Aram Schefrin) is a mellow, tuneful ballad. Hendryx and Dash stay in the background, the band plays simple Muscle Shoals-influenced arrangements, and the disc sounds surprisingly like an Aretha Franklin knockoff. Though Hendryx is already the most prolific, each of the singers gets at least one co-write, the only time this would happen in the group's history. Produced by Kit Lambert and Vicki Wickham. (DBW)

Moon Shadow (1972)
There are still a couple of covers here, but they come off way better: "Won't Get Fooled Again" is unimaginative but brief, and the title track (by Cat Stevens) is transformed into a lengthy, simmering funk jam with bizarre, spacey meditations from Patti. Though Dash wrote "Peace With Yourself," everything else is by Hendryx, and she's coming into her own with original lyrics ("Sunday's News") and fiery arrangements ("People Say They're Changing"), though she relies on some very common chord progressions ("If I Can't Have You"). The singles were an edited version of the title track and "Ain't It Sad It's All Over." Produced by Wickham and Jack Adams. (DBW)

Pressure Cookin' (1973)
At this point, Labelle sound like they clearly understand their niche: fastpaced funk-rock and overwrought ballads. The title track gets things off to a furious start, leading up to the album's masterpiece, a medley of the light, lazy "Something In The Air" with Gil Scot-Heron's proto-rap "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," searingly rendered by all three singers. Everything else was written by Hendryx, except for Stevie Wonder's so-so love song "Open Up Your Heart," which receives a fine full-voiced treatment from the vocalists. The record sort of runs out of steam near the end, thanks to some generic pop tunes ("Mr. Music Man," "Let Me See You In The Light"), before closing with the excellent ballad "Last Dance." Produced by Vicki Wickham; this was a one-shot deal with RCA that didn't produce commercially. (DBW)

Nightbirds (1974)
Wickham was kicked upstairs to executive producer, and prolific writer/producer Allen Toussaint was brought in. The commercial payoff was instant: Toussaint dug up Bob Crewe & Kenny Nolan's "Lady Marmalade," which is not just the best track on the record, it's one of the ten best funk singles of all time, balanced between an irresistable syncopated bassline, a silly chant-along chorus and LaBelle's wild delivery. The rest of the record isn't so good, though: Hendryx contributes two fine tunes with clever lyrics ("Somebody Somewhere," "Are You Lonely?") but Toussaint's soul/funk production is generic (you can predict exactly when the horns are going to come in on each number) and the three voices are rarely used to full effect. There are also a couple of obvious borrowings: Toussaint's "All Girl Band" lifts the chorus from George Harrison's "Awaiting On You All," Hendryx's title track reuses a melody from Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down," and her "Space Children" nicks its opening lines from Funkadelic's "Cosmic Slop." The other single was the lackluster "What Can I Do For You?" by longtime bandmember James "Bud" Ellison and Ed Batts. (DBW)

Phoenix (1975)
This is about as underrated as the previous album is overrated: this time Hendryx wrote a pile of entertaining spacey lyrics and set them to slow, mutating funk. Toussaint's production is more low-key and less predictable; the combination works best on the opening suite "Phoenix (The Amazing Flight Of A Lone Star)" and "Black Holes In The Sky." Budd Ellison wrote a couple of tunes with Hendryx; Crewe and Nolan cooked up another riff tune, "Far As We Felt Like Goin'," which was a single, and is fun though it doesn't stand comparison to their previous effort. The other single was Hendryx's elegant "Messin' With My Mind." (DBW)

Chameleon (1976)
The last of the original Labelle albums, and it covers a lot of ground, from the lovely ballads "Come Into My Life" and "Going Down Makes Me Shiver" to the frantic political challenge "Who's Watching The Watcher" to the eerie Latinized "Gypsy Moths." Although Hendryx is at her songwriting peak here, the only two tracks she didn't write were both released as singles: the funky dance track "Get You Someone New" (with the Tower Of Power horns) and the overlong ballad "Isn't It A Shame." The band is Budd Ellison (keyboards), Carmine Rojas (bass), Eddie Martinez (guitar) plus James Gadson on drums, Wah Wah Watson and Ray Parker Jr.Ndugu Leon Chancler and Jose "Chepito" Areas on percussion, and Tom Coster on synth. Produced by David Rubinson & his infamous Friends, and he keeps the backing tracks interesting while allowing the vocalists plenty of room to do their thing: LaBelle is on record considering this the group's best vocal performance, and I wouldn't disagree. (DBW)

Patti LaBelle (LaBelle: 1977)
Rubinson & Friends produced, and they bring together a bewildering array of different writers and styles. The Whitfield/Strong hit "Funky Music" is funkier than ever, with interlocking guitars; Willie Dixon's "You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover" has a sly horn arrangement and a great LaBelle vocal. The only cover that doesn't really work is a slow take on Dylan's "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine" that's an awkward attempt at funk. But there's a lot of good original material too: the singles were the discofied "Joy To Have Your Love" (co-written by Parker) and the slow ballad "You Are My Friend," both heavily laden with strings. Of LaBelle's many late 70s discs, this is the only one that's still in print, and it's worth checking out. (DBW)

Nona Hendryx (Hendryx: 1977)
After leaving the group, Hendryx moved directly to the corporate rock mainstream, with predictably disastrous results. The tunes are served up by her band (Martínez and Rojas held over from Labelle, plus David Prater on drums and Denzil Miller on keyboards), and whatever talents they have are obscured by Michael Sherman's by-the-numbers production. I have no idea what Hendryx thought she was doing here - she even sings Russ Ballard's smarmy "Winning" (later a hit for Santana). And you know there's a problem when her most socially conscious song is a rock star pityfest ("Tax Exile"). Hendryx's ability to write a good melody is occasionally in evidence ("Will You Be There?"), and Boston fans will enjoy numbers like "Problem," but there's almost nothing else to redeem this disc. (DBW)

Tasty (LaBelle: 1978)
The last Rubinson production, and he pulls out all the stops, with top-notch tunes by a variety of writers, and unusual variety in the production and arrangements. There's sly soft funk (Michael Frank's "Monkey See-Monkey Do"), luscious pop (Allee Willis's "I See Home"), head-spinning uptempo R&B ("Eyes In The Back Of My Head"). Sometimes the eclecticism goes overboard: Doc Pomus's ancient "Save The Last Dance For Me" is redone as calypso, and it's just silly. But that's outweighed by all the gems like "Teach Me Tonight (Me Gusta Tu Baile)," a powerhouse salsa written by Patti, Ellison and Armstead Edwards that features an all-Latin band including Willie Colón and Sheila E.. The single was another lush ballad, "Little Girls." (DBW)

Sarah Dash (Dash: 1978)
Produced by W. Gold, J. Siegel, G. Knight and G. Allan, and I can see why they wanted to preserve a measure of anonymity: the sound is uniformly pedestrian, from disco ("Sinner Man," with Dash going as far over the top as she can) to ballads ("Give Your Man A Helping Hand") to pop (the would-be consumer anthem "Charge It") There's nothing approaching a new idea anywhere: "You" sounds strikingly like "You Make Me Feel Brand New." Most of the songs are by Allan and Knight, and melodically they're routine ("(Come And Take This) Candy From Your Baby") but lyrically they're bottom of the barrel ("Look But Don't Touch," "I Can't Believe (Someone Like You Could Really Love Me)"). Dash does the best she can with the material, but her voice is better heard on Close Enough; Leon Pendarvis's arrangements are functional but uninspired. Wickham was still managing Dash at this point, and I can't imagine why she thought this project was worth doing. (DBW)

It's Alright With Me (LaBelle: 1979)
Produced by Skip Scarborough, who also wrote the bouncy title track (a single), the enjoyable pop tune "What'cha Doing To Me," and the touching ballad "My Best Was Good Enough." He mostly avoids the formula disco trap - even the eight-minute "Music Is My Way Of Life," is enlivened with a nice timbale break; the ballads generally come off well (Alee Willis's "Come What May") though (as on the previous album) you'll wish LaBelle's vocals were more prominent. The weaker tracks aren't awful, they're just forgettable ("Love Is Just A Touch Away"). Nothing real distinctive; this is still a safe bet for fans. (DBW)

Ooh-La-La (Dash: 1980)
The title track was a single. (DBW)

Released (LaBelle: 1980)
Toussaint got another shot here, and came back with the lovely ballad "Don't Make Your Angel Cry," the mellow "Release," and Peter Allen's slow "I Don't Go Shopping" - a throwback to the Bluebelles days. All three tracks were released as singles, and if the other compositions were as enjoyable this would be a good buy despite the routine late 70s funk-or-ballad production, with everything marinated in strings. But too many tunes are just forgettable, including several LaBelle co-wrote: "Find The Love," "Love Has Finally Come," etc. Recorded in New Orleans with Toussaint's usual band, plus Ellison. (DBW)

Close Enough (Dash: 1981)
It doesn't seem like CBS considered this much of a priority: they turned it over to unknown David Wolfert, who produced in anonymous late disco style. It's a mix of ballads (Peter Allen's "Somebody's Angel") and dance tracks ("City Boy"), and the tunes aren't particularly memorable, except for Brenda Russell's gentle "God Bless You" and the album-opening "Only You Can Fill The Need." The good news is Dash's voice: full-throated, natural, unpremeditated, to my ears more enjoyable than either LaBelle's mannered histrionics or Hendryx's calculated cool. So it ends up being about as good a record as you can get with such thin songwriting and routine production. Players include Nathan East, Mike Boddicker, Dean Parks, Lenny Castro and Jerry Hey. (DBW)

The Spirit's In It (LaBelle: 1981)
LaBelle switched to Philly soul producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, and a more retro sound than before. It's not an unqualified success: she nails "Rocking Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu," but a pat remake of "Over The Rainbow" emphasizes the too-slick production. The more up-to-date material is also a mixed bag: the title track is a thrilling blend of gospel vocals and screaming electric guitar, while a cover of Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann's insipid "Here You Come Again" (originally a hit for Dolly Parton) is just a waste of time. The record is best when it sticks to orchestrated ballads like "Love Lives," a direction LaBelle was to pursue on her next release. (DBW)

Nona (Hendryx: 1983)
In another abrupt departure from her earlier work, Hendryx produced this collection of minimalist synth-funk with Bill Laswell's Material. The debts to Prince and disco are clear, as "B-Boys" lifts not just the groove but lyrics from Chic's "Good Times." When the approach works, as on the spacey "Transformation" and the scary love song "Keep It Confidential," it's fascinating. More often, though, it's just repetitive and self-consciously weird, and lots of big-name guests are wasted because they're not given the chance to really play, including Jamaal Adeen Tacuma, Nile Rodgers, and the all-female band on "Design For Living": Valerie Simpson, Laurie Anderson, Tina Weymouth, even Go-Go Gina Schock and Heart's Nancy Wilson, not to mention LaBelle on backing vocals. I've got to give Hendryx credit for moving so far to the avant-garde twenty years into her career, even if the record seems dated these days. (DBW)

I'm In Love Again (LaBelle: 1983)
This went gold and dented the Top 40, the first of Patti's solo albums to do so. Another Gamble/Huff production, but they seem to have stopped working together: Gamble produced the first five tracks including the title track, a lovely lush ballad, while Huff contributes "I'll Never, Never Give Up," a disco throwback. There are a lot of slow numbers, and Gamble really knows how to pull them off, emphasizing the melody with artful string arrangements, keeping the rhythm section in the background, and leaving plenty of room for the vocals to breathe. LaBelle mostly avoids the gospel-inflected shouting she's known for, focusing on quieter interpretations that are no less intense. There are a few faster dance grooves, including "Body Language" arranged by Budd Ellison, and they're dull and ordinary - stick with the slow numbers and you'll have a solidly enjoyable experience. (DBW)

The Art Of Defense (Hendryx: 1984)
Another Material production, this time with Laswell more firmly in control. The players are his usual suspects: Bernie Worrell and Jeff Bova on synth, Daniel Ponce and Aiyb Dieng on percussion, Laswell himself on synth-sounding bass. Martínez is the only holdover from Hendryx's old band, and even he's barely audible. Another attempt at edgy, spare, trance-like dance music, and "I Sweat (Going Through The Motions)" was a dancefloor hit, but I find it and everything else here repetitive, dull and overlong. Each track settles into its groove in the first thirty seconds, never developing from there ("Soft Targets"), and most of the tracks didn't have good hooks to start with ("Electricity," "I Want You"). If you're a huge fan of either Hendryx or Laswell, you'll probably find conceptual brilliance somewhere on this disc; everyone else should just skip it. (DBW)

In 1985, LaBelle had a big hit with "New Attitude" from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack.

Patti (LaBelle: 1985)
Like I'm In Love Again, this is a mix of pleasant ballads and gratingly modern dance tunes, exec produced by Gamble and Huff. But this time, there are more of the latter ("Living Double," "Shy," both mostly written and performed by Reggie Griffin) than the former ("Look To The Rainbow," a long live take on the classic "If You Don't Know Me By Now"). Surprisingly, Cecil Womack is involved with two of the album's worst, noisiest tracks: "Love Symphony" and "Where I Wanna Be," both like the 80s Pointer Sisters at their worst. And though the ballads are pleasant, there's nothing here you haven't heard before (Gamble didn't do any arrangements this time), so you should hold off unless you're a huge LaBelle fan. Budd Ellison appears on just two tracks; the musicians include James Sigler, Darryl Jones and a long list of unknowns. (DBW)

The Heat (Hendryx: 1985)
The programmed drums and spare funk-rock backing that had sounded avante-garde in 1983 was all over the airwaves by 1985, so Hendryx moved closer to the mainstream without changing her approach ("Revolutionary Dance"). In other words, if you didn't like the previous solo albums you won't find much to listen for here either. The singles were the conventional love song "If Looks Could Kill (D.O.A.)" and "I Need Love," a big ballad written with guitarist Jean Beauvoir. Produced by Arthur Baker, often in collaboration with Bernard Edwards and Jason Corsaro, except for "Rock This House," produced by Edwards, Corsaro and Hendryx and featuring Keith Richards on guitar. Other name guests include Doug Wimbish, Worrell, Bova, Martinez, and Dash. (DBW)

Winner In You (LaBelle: 1986)
LaBelle's MCA debut, this was a smash success, propelled to #1 by the Michael McDonald duet "On My Own," also a #1 hit, written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. The only problem is, the music is terrible: overdone mid-80s production (by Richard Perry, Ron Kersey, Budd Ellison and several others) of sappy love songs with obvious hooks (including "There's A Winner In You," written and produced by the usually reliable Ashford & Simpson). Essentially the same high-gloss, high-tech, multi-producer format that Chaka Khan was using in this period, but without paying attention to the songwriting. Guest stars and session musicians abound, you can probably guess most of them without my even mentioning their names. (DBW)

Female Trouble (Hendryx: 1987)
A return to the mainstream for Hendryx, specifically the Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis/Jody Watley "Minneapolis Sound," with deliberate tempos, buzzing funk synths, and crashing electronic percussion. Lest anyone forget, it's all Prince-derived, and the album's one great dance number was written by the man himself: "Baby Go-Go," with a guest appearance by George Clinton. Most of the disc is produced by Dan Hartman, fresh from reviving James Brown's career, and as usual his approach is to grab one overused production technique and run it into the ground - nearly every track sounds the same ("Big Fun"), with Nona half-speaking and no discernable melodies; though Hendryx contributes good lyrics (title track), they're generally wasted. Jam/Lewis proteges Jellybean Johnson and Spencer Bernard also contributed a couple of awful tracks ("Rhythm Of Change"). The one big exception is "Winds Of Change (Mandela To Mandela)," probably the most memorable of the 80s spate of Mandela tributes, with subdued backing, an effective melody, and introspective, heartfelt lyrics. The band includes TM Stevens on bass, Trevore Gale on drums, Ira Siegel and Ronny Drayton on guitar; Peter Gabriel and Bernie Worrell appear on "Winds Of Change." (DBW)

You're All I Need (Dash: 1988)
Patti guests on a cover of Ashford & Simpson's "You're All I Need To Get By." Also in 1988, Dash appeared on Keith Richards' Talk Is Cheap and the subsequent tour.

Be Yourself (LaBelle: 1989)
After the MOR sappiness of the previous multiplatinum disc, LaBelle decided to go for a contemporary streetwise sound, but she tried way too hard: lots of medium-fast tunes with electronic percussion so loud you can barely hear Patti, much less the other musicians. Prince donated two tracks, the single "Yo Mister" and "Love 89," both social consciousness lyrics with aggravating, simple-minded percussion tracks. The other single, "If You Asked Me To," is a bland Diane Warren ballad, arranged by the nefarious Aaron Zigman, and Bacharach & Bayer Sager's "Need A Little Faith" isn't much better. But the album's biggest embarrassment is Full Force's "I Got It Like That," a silly parade of then-hip phrases. The worst part about all the high-tech approach is that Patti's vocals are squeezed to the margins; even on the mellow tunes like Narada Michael Walden's "Still In Love" (with Kenny G on sax) her singing is unforgiveably subdued. Budd Ellison produces three tracks, and there are several other less-familiar producers (Stewart Levine, Raymond Jones). Not even a commercial success; this is one to avoid. (DBW)

SkinDiver (Hendryx: 1989)
After the previous attempt at mainstreaming failed, Hendryx went back to flaky minimalism, and hit the jackpot. Produced with Tangerine Dream's Peter Baumann, but Hendryx is clearly in control, writing every song, programming all the electronic percussion and synthesizers, and playing keyboards. It's the same instrumentation that everyone else was using in the late 80s, but she manages to come up with something new and compelling, using subtle synth hooks over syncopated rhythm patterns to create spacious, meditative soundscapes. Light touches of electric guitar, flugehorn and piano add variety and color. The end result is something like New Age music by way of Latin hip hop, soothing but never dull, and it's the perfect backdrop for some of Hendryx's most intriguing, philosophical lyrics ever: "No Emotion," "Through The Wire," and the title track are part story song, part stream of consciousness, part meditation on the limits of human communication. A couple of tunes are more fleshed out and conventional, including the single "Women Who Fly" and "Interior Voices" (featuring a grating children's choir), and they're actually not as much fun as the more minimal tracks but still interesting and listenable. This record vanished without a trace, as far as I can tell, but it's well worth searching out. (DBW)

Burnin' (LaBelle: 1991)
A sudden rebound, on all fronts: the ballads are gentle and touching (Jonathan Butler's "When You Love Somebody"), the dance tracks are spare and clever ("Feels Like Another One") and Patti's thrilling vocals uplift even the lesser tunes ("Temptation"). Labelle reunited for one track here, Hendryx's "Release Yourself," and it's ferocious funk combining modern production touches with a 70s style groove and glorious vocals. The haunting "I Hear Your Voice" is another Prince donation. Then there are two more superstar duets: Gladys Knight on Marvin Hamlisch & Marilyn Bergman's pleasant but routine "I Don't Do Duets," and Michael Bolton on "We're Not Making Love Anymore," which Bolton wrote with Diane Warren and is unquestionably the album's low point. Budd Ellison is still around but is restricted to three tracks; there are several other producers I've never heard of, like Michael Powell and Dana Chappelle. (DBW)

Live! (LaBelle: 1992)
A fairly predictable set list - "Over The Rainbow" - plus two new studio tracks. LaBelle is famous for her over the top stage persona, but here she seems rushed, banging out hits like "New Attitude" and "Lady Marmalade" as if she had a train to catch. She only takes her time with the weepy ballads - "Wind Beneath My Wings," "You Are My Friend" - which get intense, focused renditions. Though LaBelle has tackled many different styles over the years, the band (directed by producer Budd Ellison) condenses everything into economical modern soul, a soothing but inflexible mix of keyboards, bass, drums, guitar, sax. The studio cuts include the mechanical synth workout "All Right Now" produced by Soulshock, and Skip Scarborough's "Up There With You." LaBelle's 1998 live release is so much better I wouldn't recommend this unless you're a rabid collector. (DBW)

Gems (LaBelle: 1994)
This time the focus is on midtempo Adult Contemporary soul, rather than ballads or dance tracks. Producers include Sami McKinney and K.C. Porter, Ellison, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Terry Riley and Bunny Sigler, but they all sound much the same: familiar melodies ("All This Love," written by El DeBarge, is spookily like a Michael McDonald tune) and synth textures, with obvious lyrics ("The Right Kinda Lover"). LaBelle sounds more nasal and mannered than usual, which isn't really my thing. But because the record's so mainstream, there are no embarrassing missteps, and the melodies are solid enough if you're not looking for originality or inventiveness. Good enough for your average mellowing LaBelle fan, though her other 90s albums put this to shame. Guests include Jam & Lewis proteges Sounds Of Blackness and Karyn White, but they don't have much to do: backup singers only make the difference on the closing, gospelly "Come As You Are," which also sports strings arranged by Paul Buckmaster. (DBW)

This Christmas (LaBelle: 1995)
Yes, a Christmas album, but it isn't heavy on standards: other than "O Holy Night," I think the oldest song here is the title track, by Donny Hathaway. Largely produced by Bunny Sigler, though Gamble & Huff helmed their own "Wouldn't It Be Beautiful" - with a melody suspiciously close to "My Way" - and Randy "The Great Randini" Waldman piloted Janey Clewer's "'Twas Love" and his own corny "I'm Christmasing With You." No chances are taken with the tame, programmed drums and synths, and LaBelle plays it pretty straight as well (aside from "Holy Night," which gets the full gospel treatment). But if the project is unambitious, it's unpretentious by the same token, and I could recommend it if the songs weren't so overwhelmingly dull. (Sami McKinney and Michael O'Hara's tuneful, easygoing "Nothing Could Be Better" is a welcome exception.) Vince Montana adds vibes to "Beautiful"; otherwise there are no striking guests. Also in 1995, Patti LaBelle appeared on the Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack. (DBW)

Flame (LaBelle: 1997)
A deserved commercial comeback. Someone had the good idea of putting LaBelle's usual outrageous vocals on top of mellow R&B grooves and Babyface-style ballads, which creates a useful tension. Plus they turned up a crop of quality songwriting: Brenda Russell and Ira Antelis wrote the title track; schlockmeister David Foster redeems himself with the lovely ballad "You Are My Solid Ground"; Sammi McKinney co-wrote and co-produced the sensuous "Love Is Just A Whisper Away." Fading big shots Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis contribute a few tracks, including the slightly overdone "When You Talk About Love" and the album opener "Someone Like You." A small army of producers including Arif Mardin, Budd Ellison, Gerald LeVert, Malcolm Allison and Foster. The only notable guest is Najee, who adds sax to "Addicted To You. (DBW)

Live! One Night Only (LaBelle: 1998)
A two-CD set recorded live, and aside from her still-a-force-to-be-reckoned-with voice, the strongest selling point is probably the wide-ranging track selection. LaBelle includes several of her concert staples ("Somewhere Over The Rainbow," "You Are My Friend," "If You Asked Me To") which are rendered in her best overdramatic style. (A few other hits - "New Attitude," "Lady Marmalade" - are tossed off without much verve.) But she really shines on numerous covers drawn from a variety of sources: Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," Bacharach and David's "Don't Make Me Over," "He Doesn't Love You" (originally recorded by Reba McEntire), even R. Kelly's overdone "I Believe I Can Fly." That's not counting the duets: Ashford & Simpson's "Is It Still Good To You," performed with former O'Jay Eddie LeVert, and a rushed take on the Cheryl Lynn hit "Got To Be Real" with Mariah Carey. LaBelle is in fine form bantering with the audience: she gives spoken introductions to most of the tunes where she explains what drew her about each one, and even invokes Jerry Springer while explaining how to define boundaries with a lover. Only a couple of tunes from her recent album are included, and they're both solid ("Flame," "When You Talk About Love"). Musical director Budd Ellison arranged everything, though he doesn't perform; the band is Nathaniel Wilke and John Stanley (keys), Herb Smith (guitar), Manuel Yanes (bass) and John Blackwell (drums). Produced by Arif Mardin. (DBW)

When A Woman Loves (LaBelle: 2000)
Saints preserve us, a whole album of ballads by Diane Warren, mostly produced by Jam and Lewis. I kid about Warren a lot, but this is no laughing matter: just the title track has enough self-serving romantic clichés to make Michael Bolton blush. There are a couple of dance tracks mixed in - the early 90s style deep house "Too Many Tears, Too Many Times"; the Hex Hector-produced "Time Will" - but the parade of trite heart-rending is still overwhelming. The tepid Girl Power spoken segues just add insult to injury. LaBelle's singing is the same as ever, but with such weak material she can't summon up any drama. (DBW)

In 2001, Hendryx wrote the songs for the stage production Blue, and produced the soundtrack album.

Timeless Journey (LaBelle: 2004)
There's certainly more variety this time: there's more than one writer, which is a good start. The opening "More Than Material" is slow, heavy synth-funk; there are some ballads ("Something More") and there's a lot of midtempo pop ("New Day"; "Mm, Mm, Mm"). LaBelle's showpiece is the slow "Not Right But Real," which gives her room to talk, whisper and belt the way she does best. "Finally Got The Nerve" is similar, with Miri Ben-Ari adding characteristically haunting multitracked violins. Other guests include Floetry (the ballad "Hear My Cry"), and on the Celia Cruz tribute "When You Smile," Carlos Santana (who noodles throughout), Sheila E., and a remarkably underused La India. A long list of producers including Babyface ("Sometimes Love") and longtime cohorts like McKinney. Not a triumph but no embarrassment either. (DBW)

Classic Moments (LaBelle: 2005)
A collection of familiar ballads, mostly from the 70s: Rose Royce's "Love Doesn't Live Here Anymore"; The Delfonics' "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)." The two production teams - Face, Pagani and Daryl Simmons in one corner; Sami McKinney, Michael Bearden and Sheldon Goode in the other - use laid-back retrosoul arrangements with tasteful strings, leaving Miss Patti maximum room. (The energy level only rises on the last two cuts, "You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else" and "Land Of The Living" - both impersonal dance tracks.) But personalizing such well known tunes is a challenge, and LaBelle's not up to it: she either sings straight down the middle (Kelly & Steinberg's "I'll Stand By You") or indulges in histrionics which sound routine and forced ("I Keep Forgetting" by Michael McDonald, Lieber & Stoller). It's great to believe you can outsing Phillip Bailey ("I'll Write A Song For You"), Michael Jackson ("He's Out Of My Life") and Prince ("I Can't Make You Love Me")... but only if you can really do it. The high point of the disc is Mary J. Blige's duet vocals on Carolyn Franklin's "Ain't No Way"; the other guest is Elton John, on a pleasant but redundant run through "Your Song." (DBW)

The Gospel According To Patti LaBelle (LaBelle: 2006)
Lots of guests: Yolanda Adams, MaryMary, CeCe Winans, Patrice Rushen ("Did You Pray Today?"), even Kanye West and Wynonna Judd ("My Everything"). Largely produced by McKinney, with several tracks co-written and produced by Nisan Stewart ("Walk Around Heaven"). (DBW)

In 2006, Hendryx made major writing and producing contributions to the film Preaching To The Choir and the attendant soundtrack album - LaBelle sang the theme song in the film but it's not on the CD.

Miss Patti's Christmas (LaBelle: 2007)
Produced by Jam & Lewis. (DBW)

Back To Now (2008)
The first full-album reunion of LaBelle, Hendryx and Dash. Production from Gamble & Huff (a heavy-duty funk cover of "Truth Will Set You Free," originally by Mother's Finest) and Lenny Kravitz among others, and generally they strike a balance between retro and modern soul so that the tracks sound timeless (Wyclef Jean's gimmicky "Rollout" excepted). Sax, guitar, strings and synth all get their due without being overused. In fact, some of the songs are left over from the 70s: "System" and Cole Porter's loopy "Miss Otis Regrets" were originally intended for a scrapped post-Chameleon LP. Most of the songs are new, though, and thankfully Hendryx did much of the writing ("Candlelight," a mellow instant classic), often commenting on social issues: the 2006 Rosa Parks tribute "Dear Rosa"; "Tears Of The World." Despite spending the past three decades apart, the vocalists never sound like three solo artists in the same room, blending their voices hauntingly at times, while at others Dash and Hendryx hang back and let Patti show how brilliant she can be when she sinks her teeth into a tune ("Without You In My Life"). (DBW)

Mutatis Mutandis (Hendryx: 2011)
Mostly soul/funk - from the fiery "Black Boys" to the easygoing "Let's Give Love A Try" - backed by Ronnie Drayton (guitar), Etienne Stadwijk (keys), Warren McRae (bass) and Trevor Gale (drums) - and it's nothing fancy but it works. Much of the disc is political, some obvious "Republicans are bad, mmkay?" stuff ("The Ballad Of Rush Limbaugh"; the horn-backed, call-and-response "Tea Party") as well as more subtle, effective fare ("Mad As Hell, Pt. 1"; "Temple Of Heaven," with a grooving nod to "Bang A Gong"). Best is a loop-based, appropriately ghostly version of Billie Holiday's signature song "Strange Fruit"; otherwise, it's good to hear Hendryx at work but she's not at her mindbending best. (DBW)


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