Before Duffy, before Adele, before Joss Stone, there was Lisa Stansfield.
In 1990, Stansfield injected the music scene with equal shots of dance and retro soul with her hit “All Around the World.” Sporting a very short hairdo with her signature spit curl, the British Stansfield proclaimed her allegiance to soul pioneers such as Barry White while updating his sound with modern dance beats. Her debut album, Affection, featured the aforementioned single as well as the follow-up, “You Can't Deny It.” But she really hit her stride with her next album, 1993's Real Love. Although not as successful as the first CD, Real Love possesses a true reverence for classic R&B, and allows Stansfield to further develop her blue-eyed soul vocals into something unique.
Beginning with the album's first track and single, “Change,” Stansfield shows off her full range, almost purring when stating, “I'll always be there/And I'll always care.” “Soul Deep” features scratchy guitar and funky drums, with the soul diva crooning in the higher ranges of her considerable voice. The track has the feel of a live recording, of seeing Stansfield perform the song in a sweaty club.
Her debt to White is seen in “Set Your Loving Free,” with strings right out of the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Just try to stay seated while listening to its catchy beat. “Time to Make You Mine” contains the same orchestral sound, but in a slower tempo. “First Joy,” in addition to those strings, also contains a funky guitar riff straight out of a James Brown recording.
Unlike the pop sound of her debut album, Stansfield explores the sensual side of her voice with such cuts as “Time to Make You Mine” and “A Little More Love,” which functions as an effective vehicle for her wide range and ability (like any good soul singer) to convey a range of emotion and longing in her voice. The CD's title track allows Stansfield to sing in a lower key, portraying frustration and longing as she sings, “Real love/Where do you come from/Real love/Stay.”
“It's Got to Be Real” nods to Philly soul with its blaring horns, yet the throbbing beat remains true to the modern sound. Kudos to the pianist on the album, too, as the seemingly simple chords drive the tempo on songs such as “I Will be Waiting” and the shuffling “Symptoms of Loneliness and Heartache.”
The true masterpiece of Real Love, however, is Stansfield's incredible performance on “All Woman,” a ballad that combines traditional R&B, the blues, and modern pop to create a showstopper. Wisely using the sparest of percussion and electronic piano, the producer places her vocals front and center. Describing a man and woman reaching a crisis point in their relationship, Stansfield skillfully conveys the emotion from both perspectives, particularly focusing on the woman. When her lover states that she just doesn't excite him anymore, the woman replies, “I may not be a lady/But I'm all woman.”
Realizing that he has unfairly neglected her, chiding her for not being a “classy lady,” the man concludes that she will “always be a lady/Cause you're all woman.” The contrast between “lady” and “woman” is quite clever, considering the subtle differences between the two words. Chills run down the spine when the song reaches the climax, strings soaring along with Stansfield's voice as she transitions from lower to upper register. It's an emotional performance worthy of a true soul diva; once could imagine Aretha Franklin singing this song.
Incredibly, Real Love did not sell as well as its predecessor, and Stansfield took a break from recording until 1997, when she released her self-titled album (and paid tribute to idol White by covering “Never Gonna Give You Up"). Since then she records sporadically and does acting work in England. But Real Love stands the test of time, still her crowning achievement. For blue-eyed soul fans, this CD is a must-own for your collection.
I will be on vacation for a week, but will return to my regular column the week of September 8.