BLACK ROSE (1980)
1) Never Should've Started; 2) Julie; 3) Take It From The Boys; 3) We All Fly Home; 4) 88 Degrees; 5) You Know It; 6) Young And Pretty; 7) Fast Company.
Cher as an «anonymous» member of a fresh young rock band? Come on, you're not fooling anyone — in fact, in 1991, when the album was finally prepared for CD release, the Spectrum label recklessly slapped Cher's face and name on the front cover. But in 1980, somebody somewhere thought that it might be a good idea to re-model Cher after Blondie — a naughty girl fronting a band of dashing, hot-blooded young men: they provide the innovative modern music and she provides the... umm... atmosphere, or something like that.
The basic partnership was between Cher and Les Dudek, an aspiring guitarist who'd already had several unsuccessful solo albums to his name and had played with Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller, among others — meaning that, even though he was eight years younger than Cher herself, there was really no talk of any truly «modernistic» New Wave approach here. The rest of the «Black Rose» band were not that different, either — mostly some unknown session players, occasionally aided by the same players from Toto that had already contributed to previous Cher albums. Who knows, maybe if she'd bothered to find herself a less bland team, the project might have been more successful, or, at the very least, Black Rose might have become one of those «cult» records that certain types of people are fond of rediscovering and reevaluating.
As it is, it's not too bad, but heck, if you're risking your neck on a project like this, you really shouldn't be calling the first track on your first album ʽNever Should've Startedʼ, right? Most of the songs sound like relatively safe, family-friendly late 1970s pop-rock, far heavier on the keyboards than necessary and neither too heavy on the hooks (bad news for lovers of pop) nor on the anger / kick-ass aspect (not surprising, since Cher was never that much of a certified rocker). But on the positive side, there are hooks, and everything is surprisingly listenable, not to mention that it's kinda fun to see Cher loosen up: on ʽNever Should've Startedʼ, she goes from a perturbed falsetto in the quiet first section to a Debbie Harry-like wild cat as the song picks up steam, and that's probably more of a transformation within one song than on any other tune from any previous stage of her career. If only the guitar work were up to that level, and the synthesizers were not so obnoxious, this could have started something.
Arguably the main highlight is ʽJulieʼ, notoriously written by major glam-rock songwriter Mike Chapman with lyrics provided by Bernie Taupin himself (that is where you end when you temporarily suspend your relationship with Elton) — you can sort of tell this ain't no ordinary enterprise with lines like "Well now I know / Julie you're the shape of sin / But I can strut like Bowie / When the line dance begins", not to mention Cher openly calling the protagonist a "lying bitch" (yes, we all know how strongly Bernie feels about women). Throw in the most modern-sounding arrangement on the whole album, with big electronic drums, weirdly warbled guitars, and a subtle robotic effect on Cher's vocals — and you just might have something there. Why wasn't this track released as a single? If you're gonna go odd on your audience, you might as well go all the way.
The other songs all trot along nicely, but there isn't much I could say about them. Cher barks and snaps as best as she can to imitate a tough rock'n'roll girl (especially on ʽTake It From The Boysʼ), but this is never outbalanced with any sense of humor or irony; and when the best riff on the album (ʽFast Companyʼ), upon being turned over to your core memory department, turns out to be a minor variation on Mick Ronson's riff on Bowie's ʽHang On To Yourselfʼ, you know they just aren't doing a very good job nohow. The Dudek dude takes lead vocals on one song (ʽYou Knowʼ), dueting with Cher, but he's one of those deadpan-sincere-sounding romantic guys with a decent set of pipes that all seem like inferior clones of Lou Gramm, so no.
Not that, had they kept it up, this could not have turned into something more impressive... then again, they'd probably have to replace most of the players and start bringing in more daring and competent songwriters, and that would end up an impossibility anyway. Still, whatever be, kudos to Cher anyway for taking the wise decision to break out of the disco trap (an easy decision, considering the overall backlash of 1980) and to not go all electro-pop or «modern R&B» on our asses (a much harder decision, considering that would have probably been the most natural choice for her at the moment, following in the footsteps of many other «divas»). At the very least, this is kind of like a white stone instead of a black one in her career, even if it still does not deserve a proper thumbs up. But look up ʽJulieʼ if you have three and a half minutes of free time.