The British are forever devising ways to scale the American pop charts, some more successful than others. The young vocalist Lisa Stansfield, for instance, currently enjoys the Top 40 hit "Change," a tune drawn from a commercially savvy album steeped in American soul and R&B traditions. Julia Fordham and Beverley Craven have similar ambitions, though their music is rooted more in pop and folk.
Lisa Stansfield: 'Real Love'
Not to take anything away from Stansfield's voice, a lusty alto that glides effortlessly from sassy R&B to silken soul, but what stands out most about her album "Real Love" (Arista) is how perfectly in sync it is with the recent success of Mariah Carey and Anita Baker. Though she lacks Carey's octave-leaping range and Baker's emotional wherewithal, Stansfield isn't a lightweight in either department, and her songwriting talent helps even the score.
On "Real Love," Stansfield's third album, she's reunited with co-songwriters, instrumentalists and arrangers Ian Devany and Andy Morris, and together they create 13 tracks that shamelessly evoke '70s soul and dance music and offer a few appealing twists. So enamored of the disco era is Stansfield that the album occasionally seems a veritable celebration of mechanically rigid rhythms and swirling synth-swept arrangements that would make even Barry White feel a bit woozy; faint echoes of once fashionable and funky wah-wah guitars and half-spoken, half-sung lyrics only reinforce that impression.
At their worst, the arrangements border on parodies of the disco era, if such a thing is possible, particularly when Stansfield's voice is wasted on a lyric as shallow and as repetitive as "Make Love to Ya." Far more often, though, she succeeds in stylishly updating '70s soul by shrewdly alluding to its stylistic trademarks rather than emphasizing them, and though her forays into more contemporary pop are sometimes a bit too reminiscent of recordings by Prince, Soul II Soul and Baker, they're almost always entertaining.
And sometimes they're more than that. On "All Woman," the album's most moving performance, Stansfield ventures far beyond the usual radio fodder to explore the darker side of a working-class relationship, a portrait that is, by turns, despairing, defiant and optimistic. Later, she strikes a similar chord on "Soul Deep," neatly summing up in the course of three short verses the power of self-love. There are other substantial songs too, involving bruised romantics of one sort or another, including the nicely understated love ballad "Tenderly" and the scalding "Symptoms of Loneliness and Heartache." On the latter, Stansfield fairly spits out the lyric: "You're laughing at my words right now/ but you'll end up a tired and lonely man/ You tell me love is nothing but wasted time/ Well, I'm telling you it's the only way of life."
When the themes become more tritely romantic and frothy, Stansfield can at least be counted on to invest them with plenty of power and melismatic panache, making "Time to Make You Mine" and a few other R&B updates sure-fire radio fare. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)
Julia Fordham: 'Swept'
By contrast, Fordham's new album, "Swept" (Virgin), would benefit nicely from a little frothiness and fun -- anything to relieve the album's self-absorbed moodiness and monotony. Despite the shimmering production and Fordham's pure and often affecting voice, "Swept" suffers from an almost fatal sullenness.
Fordham has been widely quoted as saying that heartache inspires her best songwriting, and she clearly has a flair for turning angst into artful pop. However, like Toni Childs's recent album "House of Hope," the songs on "Swept" are so emotionally diffused, and the arrangements so stubbornly atmospheric, that the album remains curiously unmoving. On her previous two recordings Fordham addressed similar matters of the heart -- the doubts, the fears, the joys, the expectations -- yet her lyrics often reflected a wry, ironic and sometimes even witty perspective. Not this time around. Here she's content much of the time to merely wallow in sentiment, singing in a confessional, pristine tone without much passion or purpose. There are a few exceptions, notably "Betrayed," which despite its gloomy refrain packs an emotional wallop, and the refreshingly insouciant "Rainbow Heart." (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)
Beverley Craven's new self-titled album (on Epic) has several distinct advantages over the Stansfield and Fordham recordings -- a top-notch band that features past and present members of Fairport Convention, including guitarist Simon Nichols and drummer Dave Mattacks; a variety of material that gracefully embraces folk, pop, rock and reggae; and several lyrics that look interesting even on paper.
"Woman to Woman," for example, centers on jealousy, but of an unexpected sort: "Every time you get a new boyfriend/ I don't see you for weeks on end/ when I call 'cos I need to talk/ I feel like I'm taking up your time ... / If it falls apart and he breaks your heart/ there'll be tears on the telephone again."
Craven is similarly frank, even blunt, on "Two of a Kind," a song about co-dependency, but elsewhere the music is tempered by her warm soprano voice, insinuating keyboard arrangements and unabashed love songs. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8163.)