BWW Reviews: Lauren Robert's Debut CD Dazzles With Original Blues, R&B and Gospel Songs
Music CD Review by Stephen Hanks
When Lauren Robert blew the roof off during her early August show at Iridium Jazz Club, her 12-song set of blues, R&B and gospel tunes included four original songs off her recently-released CD, Listen-I Mean It (www.cdbaby.com/artist/LaurenRobert). But if her live show was just offering a titillating CD tease, the disc itself is a soulful seduction-a 15-song package of power, passion, intimacy, vulnerability, and risk, all wrapped in lyrical expressiveness, melodic intensity, and some of the best blues/rock/gospel singing to come down the pike since Janis asked the Lord to buy her a Mercedes Benz.
Robert has seen a lot more life than Joplin did (although probably a lot fewer drugs) and that's why every song on her CD reeks with a been-there/done-that honesty about the desire for connection, the yearning for love, and how to cope when you're not getting any of it. But instead of being relentlessly morose regarding the vagaries and disappointments of life and love, this attractive blue-eyed blonde is unapologetically in-your-face without being intimidating. In the disc's opening track, "Look Out Love," a hard-driving, boogie-inducing blues rocker that could be a dance favorite at any club, Robert sings: "You gotta look out love, I'm gonna grab you by the balls this time." And somehow when she sings those words, you don't find yourself reaching for your crotch.
Given her performing experience and varied accomplishments as a singer, songwriter, and playwright, it's astonishing that this is Robert's first solo CD and that she hasn't garnered more national recognition, say along the lines of Eden Brent, Susan Tedeschi or Janiva Magness. She's a former Epic Records recording artist whose original songs have been produced by Stephen Bray, who has worked with Madonna. She has performed at clubs and festivals all over the country and in Paris, has performed with Doctor John and the late Donna Summer, and for 14 years she was the lead singer of the popular Louisiana Zydeco-funk band Mojo Hand, led by her ex-husband Slats Klug. And in 2004, her intense and compelling original musical .22 Caliber Mouth was presented at The O'Neill Musical Theater Conference, where Robert won the Georgia Bogardus-Holof Award for best lyrics in a musical.
But with all the success in that resume, there's got to be a lot of struggle, disappointment and angst, all of which are clearly exposed for all to hear in Robert's music and lyrics, which reflects a personality that is alternately introverted and extroverted, passive-aggressive (the "Listen-I Mean It" exhortation on the CD cover is a Post-It note that obscures her photo, which is also on the lyrics booklet), and hopelessly romantic despite the hard-edged and melancholy messages in the songs. Hence, she's a natural at blues and gospel.
While the melodies and arrangements are consistently solid (thanks to the musicianship, engineering and mixing of Dan Dolan), and Robert's vocals conjure up a mix of Tina Turner and Joplin (perhaps without the upper-register wail of a "Cry Baby"), it's her heartfelt, evocative, and self-revealing lyrics that are the revelation of the disc, especially on the down-tempo numbers. She goes into nightclub chanteuse mode on "Don't Kiss Me," a languid ballad (originally written for .22 Caliber Mouth), about resisting seduction because she's been burned too many times. "Don't kiss me/Here's where you shouldn't go/I can't risk the shame of this dangerous game/So my answer is no/Don't kiss me/Not till you show me your heart/It's been such a long time, since I dared mine/You'll break me apart."
On the solid R&B ballad "In the Moment," Robert asks, "Why, faced with endings do I begin?/My heart that was cold/Starts to hunger for contact and love/Oh, I know about losing, now I want to win/And the fight is right here . . . and it's now that I'm thinking of/ I can't hide anymore/Fate has opened the door and I'm going in/Yes, I'm in the moment, the moment is me." "Shipwrecks" (also from .22 Caliber Mouth and co-written with Klug) is a beautiful, haunting ballad about a couple clinging for life when their relationship is drowning. On the first few bars, Robert sounds a bit like a "Wind Beneath My Wings" vintage Bette Midler (although Robert's song is not nearly as gratingly schmaltzy) when she sings, "(Still) on we go/Through the cold/ Gasping while we try to keep a tender hold/And we both know, both of us see/We're in waters where we shouldn't be . . . Are you my chance, are you willing to risk/Going down in this ocean of strife/Cling to a moment of grace/That we find in the face/Of the terrible . . . terrible shipwrecks of life." If this song isn't eventually covered by a major artist (Bette?), I'll eat my iPhone. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Robert cites Tremaine Hawkins, Cee-Cee and B.B. Wynans, Donny Hathaway, and The Clark Sisters as her gospel music inspirations and it shows on "It's Gonna Be Alright," a song about suffering with heartbreak in love, but being inspired to live another day. Actually, this number feels like a cool blues/gospel medley if you count the extended "That's How the Blues Can Be" intro: "It's the picture in your mind when you see them with somebody else/That's how the blues mess with me/It's the bottom of the bottle/And you know you got there by yourself/Yeah, that's how the blues can be." Robert follows this superbly with the up-tempo gospel song "You Will Be Forever Changed," and if you listen to this on your car CD, you'll hit the gas and head straight to the nearest revival meeting.
There were a few flaws in this otherwise polished collection. After an incredibly strong first half, the 15-song package lost some momentum midstream with the gospel number "Show Me the Way," and the jazzy "Hold On." Not bad songs, but they aren't up to the quality of the rest of the set. Under the heading "less would have been more," Robert's CD would have been stronger with just 12-13 selections, but when you've waited this long to show off your babies, it must be tough to decide which ones get sacrificed to the music production gods. Given its message, the title track-which isn't one of the stronger songs on the disc-might have made more sense as the CD's lead number. The funk-rocker "Turn Around and Look" has cool horn arrangements and a powerful Robert vocal, but it was similar in sound and tempo to "Look Out Love," so those songs needed more separation in the track order. The up-tempo R&B song "My Body Said Yes" featured slick instrumentals and a neat lyric about not getting into a relationship based on lust over love, but the arrangement faltered after a strong start. And there were two disembodied "piano interludes" from Tommy C. James-who was otherwise stellar throughout-where you couldn't discern if the keyboard riffs were the end of one song or the beginning of another.
But those critical bits are mere quibbles against the totality of Robert's magnificent maiden CD voyage. Other highlights are the funky and jazzy "Bad for Danny," about being obsessed with a dead lover (or perhaps one that left for another woman), the introspective, torchy, "Why Not Me," and the powerful R&B ballad "Just a Little Word," where Robert supplies her own background vocals (as she does very effectively on many of the tracks). And while "Listen-I Mean It" may be the disc's title, the lyrics of the penultimate track "The Noise That Fire Makes"-about the passion she yearns for from a lover-may be even more symbolic of what Lauren Robert is about as a vocalist, songwriter and individual.
You know the noise that fire makes
As it burns and changes what it takes
To keep it alive
Giving me life giving light
Lauren Robert is certainly making noise with this debut CD, brightly burning with talent and artistic passion that is giving light with every word and every note.