Say the name Vanessa Williams today and people think of another name: Wilhelmina Slater. Long before Williams' outrageous turn on Ugly Betty, though, she enjoyed a successful music career. And since her 1988 debut, The Right Stuff, she has earned multiple Grammy nominations and several stints in Broadway musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and Into the Woods. She is perhaps best known for her 1991 smash “Save the Best for Last,” but she has recorded several albums since then. Her latest effort, The Real Thing, marks a return to her musical roots with a laid-back collection of jazz, bossa nova, and R&B slow jams.
Those expecting the sass of early cuts like “The Right Stuff” may be disappointed in the dominantly smooth tone of this album. Ever since “Save the Best for Last,” however, Williams has drifted toward smooth R&B and ballads, beginning with 1994's The Sweetest Days. The Real Thing, her first for the Concord Music Group, continues this trend, the result being a pleasant accompaniment for a romantic evening.
Williams fares best on the Latin tracks, such as the title song. Written by Stevie Wonder for Sergio Mendes, “The Real Thing” still hits all the right sensual notes. “Close to You,” a Bebel Gilberto tune, is a particular highlight and Williams' enjoyment while singing it is evident, especially when she breaks into some Portuguese. Even Bill Withers' classic “Hello Like Before” receives a Latin makeover, with Williams smoothly crooning the lyrics over a gentle acoustic guitar.
Babyface contributes two tracks, “Just Friends” (The Real Thing's first single) and “Loving You,” the former being the best. Her vocals blend beautifully with Babyface's throughout the track. “If There Were No Song” begins as an unremarkable ballad, only to transform into a Cuban-tinged number. If she had recorded the entire song using the horns and elaborate percussion, the tune would have stood out even more.
Obviously Williams knows where her greatest success lies — her romantic ballads. She even re-teams with her “Save the Best for Last” composer, Phil Galdston, on “I Fell In,” which lacks the memorable lyrics of their first hit collaboration. “Breathless” remains the most-likely candidate for scoring another hit single, mainly due to her passionate vocals. Nods to her jazz leanings include covers of “Come on Strong” and “Lazy Afternoon,” as well as duets with Javier Colon on the sexy “October Sky,” which nicely combines jazz and R&B to produce a pretty slow jam.
The Real Thing encompasses a heartfelt collection of songs close to Williams' heart, as she explains in the CD liner notes. While the album could benefit from more variations in tempo and mood, it demonstrates Williams' growth as a singer and chanteuse. Overall, The Real Thing creates the perfect mood for lazy summer nights.
For more information on Vanessa Williams, visit her official site, Concord Music Group artist page, and MySpace Music page. Videos for “Breathless,” “Just Friends,” and “Close to You” are available on YouTube.
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