Music Reviews: Melissa Etheridge, Elle Varner
Return of the divas
4th Street Feeling
Fearless Love revisited Melissa’s song-kill mode when the feisty return-to-rock was released two years ago, but her latest album really takes the beloved icon back to her roots. All the way back, in fact, to Kansas City (the disc’s title is a nod to where she grew up). She’s road-tripping through her hometown on the opening cut, a roots song with a harmonica solo and the kind of rawness that elicits late-’80s Etheridge. She longs for the simple life on the title track, and after this past year – when her nasty custody battle went public – who can blame her? That angst and frustration finds an outlet: “Shout Now,” referencing betrayal and a “bad dream” over an aggressive mix – a liberating shake-off.
“The Shadow of a Black Crow” has her giving into temptation as a lost child; without going all Skin on us (remember how depressed she was then?), this is Etheridge at her darkest. The piano is a nice touch to “A Disaster,” and on the romantic “I Can Wait,” she’s the voice of reason. Whereas the arena-rock sounds of U2 and Kings of Leon spurred Fearless Love, Etheridge appropriately plays off the music of her early days: the Eagles, Bruce and Bob Seger. She’s as stripped-down as she was 25 years ago on her self-titled debut, when songs like “Bring Me Some Water” made her a household name.
The bluesy “Rock and Roll Me” has her teasing the lesbians with an extended euphemism of horizontal fun: “I hope you understand what I mean,” she winks, all sexy sounding. Now where’s that water?
Cellulite and a flat chest might concern Elle Varner, as she so boldly admits on the dynamic “So Fly,” but one thing the 23-year-old shouldn’t worry about is the music on her stellar debut. Born into a musical family (her mom sang backup for Barry White), this talented neo-soul singer/songwriter has a smoky-voiced uniqueness that powers this 11-song set, from that witty piece of embrace-who-you-are self-deprecation – “How can I ever compete with 34 double Ds?” – to the country-fried smoothness of “Refill.”
Varner’s accessibility is what makes her so refreshing; with her insecurities out in the open, she sings “Not Tonight,” a moving ballad of disappointment and sadness over being gutless when it comes to approaching guys. It’s clear she’s a dreamer, because “Welcome Home” is the life she imagines for herself: Over a funk-soul groove, Varner aches for the right man and all the feelings of security that come with a relationship.
But it’s not all serious: in Estelle-sounding party vibe, she’s hammered on “Oh What a Night,” and the flirty “Sound Proof Room” suggests that four walls aren’t enough to shut out the sex sounds. Lead single “Only Wanna Give It to You” has Varner so into a boy that even new shoes can’t compare. If he doesn’t love her back, that fool’s got problems.
Could Amy Winehouse’s reincarnate be Kendra Morris? On the NYC songstress’ debut, she sings with a similar bluesy soul that embellished the late British chanteuse’s music. A potent slow-burner that sounds like a Winehouse and Lauryn Hill hybrid, “Pow” especially seems revived from the cutting-room floor of Back to Black – that’s how good it is. Morris’ unique lung-power isn’t just defined by contemporaries, however; she makes songs like “Concrete Waves” and “If You Didn’t Go” all her own, cooing with the celestial breeziness of a daydream.
With not enough Mimi on the track, the single itself – with raps that make the songbird seem like a backup singer on her own song – is anything but triumphant. The remixes, however, salvage one of the vocal goddess’ biggest letdowns: the “Vintage Throwback” rewinds to classic club-made Mariah, with re-sung vocals that should’ve been cut for the original. The “Pulse” mix is even better. Over a slamming house beat, Mariah belts over a choir that’s reminiscent of Carey in her curly-haired prime. A sweet, sweet fantasy, indeed.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.