TEENA MARIE: ‘Emerald City’ (Soul Music Records)

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After quitting Motown under a cloud in 1982 – she ended up suing Berry Gordy’s company – Teena Marie inked a lucrative deal with Columbia’s Epic imprint in 1983. Significantly, the deal also gave her more creative freedom than she had hitherto experienced at Motown: for the first time in her career, she was able to produce her own records and shape them according to her own unique aesthetic vision. On 1986’s ‘Emerald City‘ (her third outing for Epic) she let her imagination run riot: indebted to ‘The Wizard Of Oz,’ ‘Emerald City’ was envisaged by Marie as a concept album that tells the story of a journeying female character called Pity (and which Marie outlined in a liner note on the back of the original LP cover). For most R&B fans, perhaps, the album concept was much too esoteric – in truth, though, the music wasn’t and could be enjoyed on its own terms and merits without any need to refer back to the album’s obscure narrative. Even so, the set’s two singles – the uptempo ‘Lips To Find You’ and the power ballad ‘Love Me Down Easy’ – didn’t enjoy much commercial success.

Listening to the album today – thanks to an expanded reissue from Soul Music Records – it’s clearly apparent that it hasn’t aged as well as Marie’s other albums from the same era. Its ’80s production values – cold, soulless synthesisers and heavy machine-tooled grooves powered by pounding drum machines – now sound alien and unnatural. Compensating for those deficiencies are Marie’s vocals, which ooze soul, but they can’t save the album from sounding turgid, brash and overblown. The best cuts are the bossa nova inspired ‘Batacuda Suite,’ and a closing jazz-inflected ballad ‘Sunny Skies,’ both of which possess a lightness of touch and subtlety that’s absent from the rest of the album. Two significant movie soundtrack songs from the same timeframe can be found in the reissue’s five generous bonus cuts – ’14K’ from ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Lead Me On’ from ‘Top Gun.’ It’s a good thing that one of Teena Marie’s most ambitious musical projects is back in circulation again but in terms of creativity, it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of ‘Irons In The Fire’ and ‘It Must Be Magic.’

(CW) 3/5