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REVIEW: VERNA FRANCIS' “WHAT KIND OF A WORLD”

 

Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Saturday/Sunday, February 24, 2008.

 

There are millions of girls trying to make it as a vocalist in the music industry. Generally, they all have a visual presence, some stronger than others, and they all have some talent, again, some more than others, much more. And they have websites. And they are earnest. And generally have something to say, even it is usually the same something.

 

I mean, after a while, they blur together and it becomes harder and harder to listen to for extended periods because the themes of the music, the beats, the way they line out their melodies, it all starts sounding cookie-cutter generic. I don’t want to be snide or insensitive, but it’s hard to get enthusiastic about contestant four thousand, five hundred and sixty-eight….
 
So anyway, here comes Verna Francis, hailing out of England and doing dance music. After checking out some of her tracks on the internet, generally thirty seconds here, occasionally a minute or two there, I decide to spring for her debut project—Down To Earth, a double CD album.

 

I put the second CD in first and by the third track I am bored and about ready to pitch it out the car window: it’s one long, thumping house jam that reprises the cuts from the first CD as an extended dance floor workout.

 

I suppose if one is doing aerobics or an all-night dance marathon this makes sense. Yet every time I reached for the eject button, Verna would lay out a lyric and instead of over-singing, she would under-sing, I mean she didn’t have no histrionics with her, no string of ultra-high notes, no hollering and screaming. There is a quiet strength to her voice that is attractive, but that damn thumping—I can listen to house, but this does not appeal to me. Nevertheless, still she’s singing with a subtle strength I admire.

By the time I put the first CD in the player, I’m almost close to my destination, so I don’t really pay attention. Later, much later, something tells me to go back to the album. Specifically, it’s my inner voice telling me, "man, you couldn’t have been so stupid as to buy an album you really don’t like. "

 

Of course, I’ve got to defend myself, however lamely I rebut the argument: well, you know, when you’re searching for new music, you sometimes make mistakes. We’ve done it before, I say to myself, and we’ll probably do it again. But, my rational self is having none of those lame comebacks: "Look fool, you listened to some of this, what were you hearing?"

 

So I dig the album up and put the first disc in, and damn if I don’t find what I was hearing!
 
And what I was hearing was a combination of broken beat and funk, plus touches of deep house here and there, and very, very interesting lyrics, which Verna wrote.

 

I’m hooked. I end up checking out the first disc for about seven or eight spins—one day that’s the only thing in the CD player all day. Now, I can even listen to the straight-out, house second disc without winching.

 

So I realize what it is: I’m a sucker for song-writing. Pretty faces and pretty voices are a dime-a-dozen in the music business, but songwriting talent – especially those who can transcend the simple formula of ‘he done me wrong’/‘he love me strong’/‘mama said…’/‘god saves, trust the lord,’ and a million variations  - are rare.

So, I’ll share four of the ten songs on the album. “Earth Is The Place” is Verna’s remake of a song from a Nathan Haines’ album on which she sang and which became a big club hit.

 

You can virtually hear the sisters shouting the hook: “Cause I’m a woman!” “Keep On Dreaming” and “Look” are two positive, up-ful, love songs whose meanings go far beyond 'starry-eyed one-on-one, me and you against the world,' even though that’s literally what the songs are about.

 

Verna has a talent for articulating the spiritual essence rather than focusing purely on the physical and thus her love songs sound beat the standard love songs. And the last cut is my favorite: “What Kind Of World” which is one of the hippest ecology songs since Marvin’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).

A shout out to the production team of Felix Hopkins, trumpeter Scott Baylis and Verna Francis herself. The three of them co-wrote all of the songs except for “Earth Is The Place.” After this strong debut, I’m looking forward to their next offering.

 

I am a country girl at heart. I love nature. I was thinking of the area that I grew up in. As a child I used to climb trees, go fishing in the river, pick blackberries and apples. I visited there recently and all the fields and open spaces that I used to play in as a child had houses, superstores and factories on them. It just felt as though all the open spaces were disappearing. I know we can’t change the world, but if we look after our small corner of it, then we can make the world a better place in which to live.
—Verna Francis

http://blog.jazz-not-jazz.com/archives/2005/05/12/an-interview-with-verna-francis/

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.

 

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