Jaki Graham - When a Woman Loves
When one speaks of 1980s British soul artists who made a striking impact on American airwaves, amongst the first names to come up are likely those with strings of hits such as Loose Ends, Junior, and Mica Paris. One exceptional member of that coterie, however, often is overlooked. Birmingham-born Jaki Graham may not have crossed over as strongly where chart numbers were concerned, but her influence on both UK and US contemporaries was of subtle greatness. With her original 1984 recording of the ethereal Derek Bramble-written and -produced “Heaven Knows,” a song which six years later became the launching pad for none other than Lalah Hathaway’s career, Graham established a bona fide style of pure R&B balladry interwoven with a modern soul grooviness which was taken to great heights by subsequently iconic talents like Sade and Lisa Stansfield.
Graham’s seven albums between the mid-‘80s and late ‘90s found her a legion of fans in various corners of the universe, ranging from dance floors in America, where club reconstructions of her Chaka Khan remake “Ain’t Nobody” and the catchy “Absolute E-Sensual” topped the listings to Japan and Scandinavia, territories which popularized her soulful dance anthems “Hold On” and her smoothly funky interpretation of “The Look of Love,” respectively, and of course her homeland, where her run of six consecutive top-20 singles landed her in the Guinness Book of Records as the first black British female artist to accomplish the feat.
When a Woman Loves, Graham’s first R&B album in 20 years, finds the chanteuse in the same sterling vocal form which she has retained throughout consistent touring over the last two decades (as well as on readings of American songbook repertoire on 2012’s For Sentimental Reasons). The 14 tracks that comprise the new set touch on the varied musical modes in which her voice has resonated with audiences in the past, but with more profound versatility than she was sometimes afforded exploration of under major-label auspices. Many of the selections can be heard as either timeless or throwbacks, depending on the angle from which the listener is engaged. While the title cut has an unmistakable ‘80s synth-funk vibe percolating under the memorable melody, the pacifyingly paced arrangement of “Through the Rain” gives her a window to modulate between vocal calmness and power that defies relegation to any singular time period.
The opening “Sometimes” is exemplary of Graham’s straight ahead yet diversified approach to delivery. There’s no need for showy histrionics or affected trickery; just an even-keeled relating of both hardship and hope. When her voice builds from soft to fiery, the transition is naturally occuring, and that suits the pop-minded refrain, dance undertones, and rhythmic R&B structure of the tune optimally. On the insinuating “About Your Love,” her cool and velvety tones merge with the romantic keyboard waves and classic synth groove in such a way as to induce pillow talk and the most pleasant of dreams.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of When a Woman Loves presents itself in the penultimate track, “Song Inside Me.” “I don’t wanna die with this song inside me, I just want the chance that every soul deserves,” she pleas with humble conviction to a melancholy piano backing. “How many of us look back on this journey without regretting what it might have been/All I ask is a chance to tell my story.” Not very often is life at large encapsulated in such a simply human way in song. Considerably brighter and more upbeat in melody and arrangement, “Leftover Tears” is nonetheless an equally pensive number, albeit focused specifically on a romance gone awry. To bluesy guitar strains Graham tells a familiar tale of mixed emotions in relatable terms: “I deleted your number four weeks ago/‘Cause I thought I wasn’t gonna see you no more…Now you’ve got me switchin’ lanes/Lately you’ve been on my mind, talkin’ all the time, and I don’t know why.”
There are really only two entries that fall a bit short on When a Woman Loves. While Graham’s remake of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” is solid in execution, the production and vibe is not fresh enough to distinguish it from many other covers of the much-loved 1972 hit. Meanwhile, the nostalgically titled “All Night Long (1985) is perky, but doesn’t make the most of Graham’s pipes and fails to effectively emit the same lively 1980s spirit as the aforementioned title track or the vocally and rhythmically effervescent (and also lyrically reminiscent) “Get It Right.”
In totality, When a Woman Loves is a well-rounded collection of refreshingly accessible songs regardless of one’s age or more specific genre preferences. Because the lyrics are unpretentious, the melodies and arrangements undriven at large by a target style or listening base, and—most importantly—the vocalist at the helm is sincere in all aspects in conveying the feelings at the root of each tune, the result is a steady stream of magnetic sounds that won’t tire with time. Highly recommended.