Okay, I'm expecting some bricks for what I'm about to say: All-4-One was the most talented male vocal group to emerge in the 1990s.
I can see R&B-heads rolling their eyes now, but name an act of that period that had better harmonies and two absolutely legitimate lead singers the quality of Jamie Jones and Delious Kennedy. Of course, the biggest counterpoint to that claim is that All-4-One never had a great album in that period and, despite two #1 songs in 1994, was virtually DOA by 1997, partly due to record company problems but just as much due to self-inflicted wounds. The bland, adult contemporary direction the group took at its peak of popularlity -- especially on its mediocre second album, And the Music Speaks -- and the several year hiatus before its better third disc, On & On -- acted like a flat tire in All-4-One's race with such acts as Boyz II Men and Silk for boy group dominance. During the mid 90s, Boyz II Men was blessed with a boatload of great songs by Babyface and Jam/Lewis that gave crossover appeal while keeping a legitimate soulful vibe. At the same time, All-4-One's incredible vocal talent was largely being wasted on mild country remakes like "I Can Love You Like That" and a series of heavy-handed David Foster ballads that stripped the group of its soul/gospel roots.
So All-4-One has spent most of the last decade touring overseas on past hits and otherwise stuck in musical limbo. During the period, Jones honed his songwriting and production skills, working with several acts before really coming into his own last year (with his production team, the Heavyweights) on Wayne Brady's very well received A Long Time Coming. On it, Jones showed where he had arrived musically, taking the pop sensibilities of his All-4-One past and combining it with a greater appreciation for modern adult urban grooves. The result was a nice debut for Brady and a template for an All-4-One comeback, as Brady's success created an openness in the music world to take a fresh look at Jamie, Delious, Tony and Alfred.
The second life of All-4-One is hatched on the group's new Peak Records release, No Regrets, and happily it is a rescusitation that proves extremely worthwhile. To go the punch line, this is a career album for the group, the kind of disc that fans have been waiting for for 15 years but which has only occurred with hardship, a few years more of maturity and, most importantly, the reappropriation by the group of its own musical identity. The formulaic tracks of a decade ago seem a distant past. Partly following the recipe for success they used on their Wayne Brady project, the Heavyweights are in the house here and have produced a project that both accentuates the group's always wonderful vocals and creates a backdrop that fits modern adult pop/soul audiences like a glove.
No Regrets covers a breadth of territory well beyond any prior All-4-One album, from dramatic boy band ballads ("If Your Heart's Not In It") to Take 6-like a cappella ("You Don't Know Nothin'") to Auto-tunes driven electronic dance ("Go") to contemporary R&B ("Regrets"), along with plenty of retro pop and soul. The disc's first single, "My Child," is itself a departure: a soulful, modern track about an absent father's demand for a role in his young son's life that could be the group's first hit in over a decade. Close behind are the brilliant "If Sorry Never Comes," a 60s-style track that cleverly combines All-4-One's harmonies with a retro wall-of-sound, and "Blowin' Me Up," a tasty dance number that has the same appeal as Brady's "Back In the Day." The fact is, there isn't a bad song on No Regrets, a claim that could never be made before about an All-4-One disc.
Credit for this unadulterated success goes largely to the Heavyweights, who have replaced the by-the-numbers MOR production of past albums with the same rope-a-dope method they used on Brady's album, keeping things moving and varied, but always looking at material through their pop lens. The result is a uniformly enjoyable disc filled with quality tracks and sequenced beautifully to avoid any ruts. So even where a more traditional All-4-One ballad like "If Your Heart's Not In It" arrives, it works because it is an outlier on the disc rather than one of a half dozen formulaic love songs.
All-4-One's pop top 10 days may be long gone, but with No Regrets the group shows that it is still relevant in 2009. The disc is one of the most consistently listenable CDs so far this year, and the same 30- and 40-somethings who flocked to Brady's A Long Time Coming will find even more to like here: solid, varied songs, well produced and even more convincingly performed. No longer kids, the guys of All-4-One sound more comfortable and self-aware than in their first go-round and the confidence of their new direction bursts from the album. Here's hoping that No Regrets spells a commercial rebirth for a wiser group that seems determined to do things just right the second time around. Highly recommended.
By Chris Rizik