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Friday, March 9, 2018

Norma Jean: Norma Jean


1) Saturday; 2) Having A Party; 3) I Believe In You; 4) Sorcerer; 5) So I Get Hurt Again; 6) This Is The Love; 7) I Like Love.

General verdict: Well... gotta say I much prefer chick-less Chic to Chic-less Chic (sorry, couldn't resist).

Although separate reviews for everybody who has ever been a part-time member of Chic would mean taking this band way too seriously — we will still make a brief detour to give a few com­ments on the first and last solo album by Norma Jean Wright, the band's original and arguably best lead vocalist who took her leave in early 1978 in hopes of building up a successful career as a solo artist. Nobody can blame her — even her partners in crime never did, and the departure was on such amicable terms that Edwards and Rodgers actually wrote most of the songs for her solo album, and played on it, which pretty much makes Norma Jean a Chic album in all but name. Alas, despite some mild early successes on the R&B charts, that career never properly took off — in the end, Norma Jean lost everything and gained next to nothing.

Actually, the record, now available on CD (only released officially in the UK, though), is not precisely the kind of album you would expect from Chic. Although the material is more or less evenly divided between slow ballads and fast dance numbers, there is a sensuous, sentimental vibe to all of its tracks — which is, I guess, not so surprising when coming from a former front­woman who was revered and remembered for her sensuous and sentimental singing rather than her dance moves or rebellious behavior. A very typical example is ʽSaturdayʼ, the biggest (and only) hit — it is a dance groove, and it is redeemed by the usual quality bassline from Bernard, but if this were a Chic song, Bernard and/or Nile would be far less restrained: here, they make it clear that they are content to stay on as rigorous Protectors Of The Groove and nothing else. The main hook isn't even ensconced in the lead vocal — it is formed by the ghostly-romantic "I just can't wait till Saturday" refrain, which is... corny. The best thing about the song is David Fried­man's vibraphone solo, possibly a nostalgic throwback to the tinkly-dinkly keyboard solo on ʽDance, Dance, Danceʼ.

Everything that follows is nice, but nothing more. Bernard and Nile may have been happy to help, but they couldn't be blamed for keeping their best stuff for their own project — consequently, such dance grooves as ʽSorcererʼ and ʽI Like Loveʼ are fairly unremarkable. Worse, Norma Jean herself never rises to the heights of ʽEverybody Danceʼ: sometimes she tries to sound tougher than her vocal registers and human nature recommend her to be (ʽSorcererʼ), and at other times she goes too far in the screamy-soulful direction, again, without really having the power for that. With all due respect, her most natural (or, at least, most attention-grabbing) tone is a sexy purr, and it never appears on these songs. Throw in a near-complete lack of hooks for the ballads, and what you get is just an average batch of very typical late Seventies' pop material — with very good intentions, but disappointing results.

The album's sole unexpected bit of creativity comes in the form of a tight disco rearrangement of Sam Cooke's ʽHaving A Partyʼ — something very much in the spirit of the times, but in this particular case, a total failure, because you can actually feel that the slow tempo of the vocals is not well aligned with the fast tempo of the instrumental track. It's simply as if they took the original vocal track, remade it close to the original, and decided to throw out the original instru­mentation, because who needs it in 1978? Creating a somewhat cheesy and disrespectful impres­sion in the process. (For an example of a disco rearrangement of an oldie done respectfully and successfully, I refer everybody to Boney M's ʽSunnyʼ — or, hell, to Walter Murphy's ʽA Fifth Of Beethovenʼ, if we really want to get serious about it).

All in all, if you are on a quest to collect every bass groove that Bernie Edwards ever laid on tape, Norma Jean has a lot of those. Otherwise, do not bother: this is not «the great lost Chic album» as a few obsessed collectors would have you believe. (If you do locate it, make sure to get the complete 2000 reissue, which also throws on the non-album single ʽHigh Societyʼ, released a year later — arguably, it's got the single best groove of 'em all).

1 comment:

  1. I was shocked and delighted for a second when I saw you reviewing a Norma Jean album, before I noticed it was from 1978 and featured a very different smile on the cover than the one on "Bless The Martyr And Kiss The Child." Oh well, maybe someday...