Sheena Is a Disco Beast
Sheena Easton’s hi-NRG cover album — fierce or fumbling?
Sheena Easton comes out of that old tradition that values cover songs. Accordingly, her discography is full of them, and her final studio album Fabulous (2000) was composed almost entirely of hi-NRG renditions of soul and R&B hits from before her own career took off. It’s a hybrid that promises fun — but cover albums are tricky. Like dance floors, they’re prone to get blood on them, and it’s usually the covering musician’s.
Sheena Easton debuted in 1981 with Take My Time. The album had hits in “Modern Girl” and “9 to 5,” but she would go on to have many more, releasing an album almost every year for a decade. Working with legends like Prince and Nile Rogers, she explored a constellation of pop styles, appeared regularly on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and appeared in film and television. There she is as herself on ALF . . . There she is mashing lips with Don Johnson on Miami Vice . . . By the end of the nineties, she no longer commanded as much attention, but she was still releasing albums and still lending her voice to hits by other artists.
Fabulous’s covers are mostly from the seventies. Examples include the soulful “Never Can Say Goodbye,” released by Jackson 5 in 1971 and blessed by Isaac Hayes later the same year on Black Moses, and the upbeat R&B “Best of My Love” from the 1977 album Rejoice by The Emotions. Selections from outside the seventies include “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” a Franki Valli single from 1967, and “Love Is in Control,” a Donna Summer single that climbed the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. Every last one of the earlier versions of these songs is a must-listen that touches something inside and makes it thrill, but how do they hold up when Easton injects them with Popstar NRG Drink?
For the most part, not very well. The intent was clearly to take on a new style, get glammed up and have some fun — so any critic runs the risk of taking the album too seriously — but four on the floor, sanitized production and cheesy sound effects don’t do anything to give these tunes a new buzz. On the contrary, the new style detracts from the groove, soul and funk that made the original versions so vital. Easton and her team of producers and musicians have boldly transformed these hits, but the results have less get-up-and-go than Aerobicize Mania 29: Europarty to Death.
One example is “Giving Up, Giving In.” This number was written by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and popularized by The Three Degrees as a single off their 1978 album New Dimensions. It’s a disco wonder with slinky bass, sass appeal and a delightful dance routine for live performances. Easton’s video for the single is exciting in its own way. SheenaWeb describes it as “very 70s retro, in the style of Studio 54, with Sheena going from room to room including a transvestite room, a muscle man room and ‘everybody having a boogie room,’” but the song itself is flat and lifeless, a mere pastiche of a boogie.
Other artists have covered these songs better, just not in hi-NRG. Lauryn Hill made “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” her own on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) through her trademark mix of neo-soul and hip-hop, and Muse made it new by switching from greasy lounge music to noisy alt-rock for the chorus in 2002. The key to covers is getting inside them and making them your own, even if your own is a lot like the original, as in the case of En Vogue inserting “Best of My Love” into a medley. Easton can do this — has done this many times — but hi-NRG was never her own.
“Easton and her team of producers and musicians have boldly transformed these hits, but the results have less get-up-and-go than Aerobicize Mania 29: Europarty to Death.”
The core Hi-NRG sound tends to drone, so it benefits from external influences. I first encountered this genre label with regard to Alexandra Stan’s Saxobeats (2011), which benefits from dashes of electroswing, but going back further, the lineage of top-tier hi-NRG often comes with something more: the New Wave spunk of Dead or Alive’s Nude (1988), the popcraft and harmonies of Bananarama’s Pop Life (1991). Many artists from Kylie Minogue and Rihanna to Bloc Party and Blur (via a Pet Shop Boys remix) have dabbled in, borrowed from and overlapped hi-NRG but wisely avoided full albums falling hard in that category. Mixing it up keeps the music engaging, but while Fabulous may be serviceable for club DJs (SheenaNews reports that Easton promoted the album at G-A-Y in London), it lacks distinguishing touches.
Then in the last half of the album — bam! — I suddenly find myself enjoying the music. I catch myself singing along, doubt my senses and think it can’t be true, that this must be the same inert BGM as before, only to affirm that yes, it is indeed true, something undeniably good is happening. I snatch up the CD and check the back cover. The track is “You Never Gave Me the Chance,” one of the album’s two original compositions. It’s a ballad penned by Ian Masterson and Terry Ronald and it allows Easton’s voice to shine the way it has so often throughout her career.
The Scottish singer has always been able to do ballads. My personal favorites are “Almost Over You” off Best Kept Secret (1983), “For Your Eyes Only” for the 1981 James Bond film of the same name and “The Arms of Orion” with Prince on the Batman soundtrack (1986). She did so many ballads that MCA Records released a collection of them in 2000 and even that omitted some of the best. Easton’s voice is delicate but sonorous, emotive and powerful — perfect for an eighties pop swelling of emotion. Aristotle would have said songs like this are the final cause of Easton’s voice. They’re the purpose of her voice, why it exists, making “You Never Gave Me the Chance” Fabulous’s only highlight.
Fabulous isn’t an awful album — it has a certain chintzy appeal — but overall it compares unfavorably with anything relevant: the original hits, other big-name hi-NRG and Easton’s earlier work. This one will stay in my collection because even one good track can justify an album’s existence, but the real value here is the track list. Look it up, then go explore the songs as performed by other artists.