The recent release of singer/songwriter Kipper Jones sophomore project, Keep It Pushin', eighteen years after his 1990 debut, Ordinary Love, underscores several recent music industry phenomena of note. Jones project highlights how these are the best and worst days for industry veteran artists and songwriters. Best, because the industry's democratization of music through Internet expansion has increased direct consumer access to artists and their downloadable creative goods, removing the labels as middlemen. This cultural shift has allowed successful, established songwriters like Jones to step out of the shadows of liner note celebrity onto a more public stage as a recording talent. A gifted, once maverick singer/songwriter dropped by a major label (Virgin Records) after releasing a critically-acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful debut, is exactly who this indie revolution should benefit.
The recent release of singer/songwriter Kipper Jones sophomore project, Keep It Pushin', eighteen years after his 1990 debut, Ordinary Love, underscores several recent music industry phenomena of note. Jones project highlights how these are the best and worst days for industry veteran artists and songwriters. Best, because the industry's democratization of music through Internet expansion has increased direct consumer access to artists and their downloadable creative goods, removing the labels as middlemen. This cultural shift has allowed successful, established songwriters like Jones to step out of the shadows of liner note celebrity onto a more public stage as a recording talent. A gifted, once maverick singer/songwriter dropped by a major label (Virgin Records) after releasing a critically-acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful debut, is exactly who this indie revolution should benefit. A quadruple threat, with production and arranger credits on peak projects for Boyz II Men, Brian McKnight and Chante Moore, should be even better primed for-and maybe even deserved of-greatness. Within such an idyllic context, with his proven skills and seasoning, Jones, should now be poised to become a recording star rather than sell star-making hits to others. After all, this is the same Kipper Jones who co-wrote Brandy's star-turning first hit, "Baby," and wrote Vanessa Williams into R&B history with the hits "The Right Stuff" and "Comfort Zone." And yet, the perfect industry storm matched with Jones's perfected talents has produced a sophomore project that delivers more rain than thunder.
Don't get me wrong, the album isn't bad, far from it. Keep It Pushin' emphasizes Jones's strength as a writer and arranger of intelligently written, sturdily constructed songs. For instance, a song like the Shaun Martin produced "In Her Presence" strongly benefits from Jones's keen melodic sensibilities. The J Scott produced "The Missing Piece" is an elegant chamber piece embellished by discrete bass and organ interplay. There's the swinging Jake Carter and Trevor Job produced "Good Time," the inspiring, Supe produced "Faith," and the Focus produced catchy-though familiar-stepper's groove "Put The Music Back In Love." The honorable mentions are the best produced on Pushin', though only the latter three offering any real kick out of this otherwise plaintive set.
The cream, "Faith," is a punchy little number armed with slyly sophisticated counterpoint, interesting use of trombones and a creatively manipulated bassline. A hint at how much better this album could have been, "Faith" is the kind of up-tempo ditty an early Luther Vandross might have recorded under famed producer/saxophonist Marcus Miller. That said, most of Keep It Pushin' compositionally suffers from the redundant use of monotonous drum samples, Fender Rhodes and electric bass guitar. Rarely are other instruments introduced, or rather introduced well, with the notable exception of saxophonist Jason Davis's glowing guest spot on "Summer Days."
Kipper is a deft vocalist in the grand soul stylist tradition. Gratefully, Mr. Jones liberal use of jazz and gospel styling techniques salvages from desolation the near unrelenting indigo mood of this project. Conscious of his limited natural range, Jones scats, agilely phrases and makes ample use of his falsetto-ala-Curtis Mayfield to fine effect. When singing natural, Jones's tone has the huskiness of Bobby Womack and the authorial ring of EWF's Maurice White. It would have been interesting to hear such a unique voice in a better, more ideal musical setting than this project affords him.
The problem with Keep It Pushin' is that it succumbs to the worst of recent industry veteran trends, the flip side of a musical democracy. The recording quality of veterans' recent products is not always as-shall we say-"substantial" as the products of their gloried past. Some of these deficiencies are because of the artists' newfound creative freedom, which often result in ego-centric releases absent the judicious benefits of restraint, collaboration and measured dissent. Despite egalitarian technological innovations in home recording studios, other artists' weaknesses can largely be attributed to limited access to-or mastery of-state-of-the-art production and recording equipment. As a result, many recent veteran artists' albums too often sound dated, have a demo-like quality or are desperately in need of someone to say to them as gently but as firmly as possible, "that mix ain't ready yet, it's missing something." Unless I have received a pre-mixed, un-mastered recording (I've been assured that I haven't), several of the songs on Keep It Pushin' are underwhelming in technological prowess, gutting its creative conclusion. Sometimes even on the best of the bunch, astutely arranged background vocals routinely get swallowed whole in the mix and leads occasionally vacillate in decipherability. The smoky, atmospheric approach to Pushin' is the once successful, now woefully out-dated, neo-soul of Chico Debarge's 1997 comeback, Long Time No See, itself a retro homage to Marvin Gaye. So, in Keep It Pushin', we get a poorly produced retro album of a retro album.
The production issues aren't all Kipper Jones's fault. Given his pedigree, Jones could have, and perhaps should have, produced the tracks for Keep It Pushin'. Jones writes, arranges and produces all the vocals on Keep It Pushin'. Though the mixes of most of this project can each be found a bit wanting, producer ernie g. has the distinction of cultivating the most ailing and under-produced tunes on Pushin'. Still, with Mr. Jones experienced ear, I'm not too quick about letting the artist off the hook for green lighting this final, disappointing mix.
These are admittedly harsh words to describe an indie project that does indeed have its charms. From a lesser artist, maybe I could have turned a deaf ear or several to the issues plaguing Keep It Pushin'. However, Kipper Jones isn't a lesser artist; he's written and produced some of the best R&B of the last two decades. That I am calling several tunes on Keep It Pushin' under-produced and using terms like "out-dated" to describe the work of a Motown trained songwriter who has frequently collaborated with such legendary talents as Keith Crouch and Rahsaan Patterson, only makes Jones's offeringthat much more bewildering. If anyone should have critical access to friendly, musically informed ears, it's Jones. And if anyone should know the inside outs and the invaluableness of high-end music production, it's this 20 year veteran. Yet, after several frustrating listens on three different stereo systems, I think it's time that I largely follow Mr. Jones's advice and Keep It Pushin'. Very mildly recommended
--L. Michael Gipson