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The Best She's Got

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Anita Baker

Rhythm of Love

(Elektra)

It's a bitch being a romantic in a cynical age; you use up half your energy proving that you're not hopelessly naive. Then you use half of what's left differentiating love from an intense night of carnal passion. So when Anita Baker soared high above those obstacles and eloquently redefined urbane romanticism with her 1986 recording Rapture, it was a watershed event.

Rapture was about adult love. It was about maintaining faith in "forever" even if a couple of those everlasting loves turned out to be merely temporary. And unlike the fairy tale so prevalent in pop music--that love conquers all--Baker's vision of love embodied both emotional and material wealth; her stylish clothing and accessories suggested that you could have your success and keep your soul, a radical notion in the mid-80s, long before hip hop and indie rock turned rugged individualism into cash cows. Backing her self-consciously retro vocal stylings with tasteful, of-the-moment pop jazz, she accomplished the still-rare feat of merging past and present aesthetics. Taken together, Baker's music spoke to love as a strength, not a weakness. It was definitely something you could get caught in the rapture of.

With that record Baker assured herself a spot in black music history, but she also raised expectations well beyond anybody's reach. Her 1988 follow-up, Giving Him the Best That I Got, offered a few textural experiments but mostly came off like a slack sophomore effort (though in fact it was her third record). On her 1990 recording Compositions she got completely lost in her jazzy pretensions: though deeply influenced by the phrasing of jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, Baker is not a jazz singer by any stretch of the imagination, and positioning herself as "jazz'' miscasts her music. After two flops she seemed destined for the nostalgia circuit. Instead she took time off to have children--girlfriend's got a life, too, you know--and watched Oleta Adams and Toni Braxton make millions echoing her style before returning to the studio.

Rhythm of Life is a strong comeback. On her third and fourth albums Baker had taken a more minimalist approach, which pushed her over the line from highbrow to pretentious. (Like many high-minded pop singers, she has often seemed to consider austerity rather than precision the primary artistic impulse.) On Rhythm of Life Baker gets back to the things that made Rapture so great. The arrangements are tighter and effectively subdued, which allows her to wrap her creamy voice around the most inviting long vowels and turn them into a warm, ecstatic sigh.

Baker hasn't really abandoned her jazzy ambitions, but she keeps them in check. The first single, "Body and Soul," shares a title with one of jazz's most enduring classics, but that's all: Baker and her producers apparently resisted the urge to employ one of those increasingly common electronic sleights of hand and include a Coleman Hawkins solo on the track. Jazzschmaltz producer Tommy LiPuma oversees three tracks, including a rendition of "The Look of Love" that's far too faithful to the Dionne Warwick version. But his achingly dark and surprisingly sparse backdrop contributes to the power of "Sometimes I Wonder Why." George Duke's lush sound helps Baker turn in an effective rendition of "My Funny Valentine."

The most powerful song on the record is Baker's cover of Carly Simon and Michael McDonald's "You Belong to Me." Baker gives the song a complete makeover, slowing the tempo and rearranging the tune. Instead of the shrill longing and fear that McDonald and Simon brought to lines like "You don't have to prove to me that you're beautiful to strangers," Baker purrs them with confidence, almost sympathetic gentleness. The song becomes a reassurance rather than an assertion; she knows her man ain't goin' nowhere.

Love's holistic aspect is implicit in Baker's best work, but on the title track, which leads off the CD, she's much more up-front about it. The song opens with a spoken intro by Baker in which she says, "Sometimes this old world spins too fast and you lose not only your balance but your rhythm. It's at times like this you need to stop and find your rhythm. Because life has a rhythm, Mother Nature has a rhythm, and love, oh yes, love has a rhythm." This music may not set the world on fire, but it damned sure could start a few flames.

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