Angie Stone - The Art of Love and War (2007)

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    Some things in life are just comfortable. Lazy-Boy recliners, homemade macaroni and cheese, an old terry cloth robe after a warm bath, even Good Times re-runs after a bad workday. These are the simple creature comforts that speak of sanctuary, of home. An Angie Stone album is kind of like that. Instantly cozy and familiar, Angie lays your head to rest on her ample musical bosom and cradles you in melodies. Her new project, The Art of Love and War, varies very little from this trademark formula, and for that "I Wanna Thank You," Ms. Stone. The Art of Love and War, the title for Angie's Stax Records debut and fourth solo project, is a bit of a misnomer: on this very complete album there's very little domestic warfare and a whole lot of loving pouring through the speakers. With Angie at the helm, even when she's all sass and head-rolling, just like with family-one can't help feel nothing but love.

    An accomplished vocalist, producer, songwriter and keyboardist, Angie has been at this game for over twenty six years and her hard-earned polish shines here. More than D'Angelo's baby's mama or Calvin Richardson's jilted mark (you gotta admit, mama loves her red-dirt, pretty boy crooners), Angie has a long and enviable musical pedigree of a veteran artist. Angie's preternatural beginnings with rap-soul hybrid The Sequence from 1981-83 led to a stint with pioneering neo-soul trio Vertical Hold in the early 1990's. Of course, Ms. Stone's most famous and arguably her best work came through a three album run beginning with Black Diamonds in 1999 with Arista and J Records. She's worked in varying capacities with seemingly everyone: Moby, Lenny Kravitz, Snoop Dogg, Toshi Kubota, Debelah Morgan, Raphael Saadiq and countless others. Time has rewarded Angie with a soothing sound so cool, calm and confident, you sometimes forget she's singing and not having an engrossing conversation in tune. Angie has stealthily been smoldering soul embers for years.

    Fans can rest assured on The Art of Love and War Ms. Stone keeps the speakers' ablaze. The stoking is much needed. Ms. Stone's last offering, Stone Love, at #14 on the Billboard 200 was her best charting to date but wasn't broadly recognized as a success. Still, despite a catchy lead single "I Wanna Thank You," Stone Love didn't yield hits as familiar to fans as "Brotha," "No More Rain" or the crossover pop-dynamo "Wish I Didn't Miss You." The new single from The Art of Love and War, "Baby," produced by Co-T, may change her recent luck. The mildly chastising tune lovingly pays tribute to Angie's musical foremother, soul singer Betty "Clean-Up Woman" Wright. "Baby" gives Ms. Wright her first glowing snapshot in the spotlight-independent from her U.K. protégé, Joss Stone. It's also her first major appearance since her 2001 comeback album, Fit for a King. "Baby" with its seamless blend of electronic music, live instrumentation and reverberations of yesterday's R&B is indicative of what listeners can expect to find throughout The Art of Love and War.

    On ...Love and War, producers DOA, Co-T and Jonathan Richmond smartly move out of Angie's way and let her signature voice "do what it do." Each producer showcases Ms. Stone's warm vocals with finger-popping, head-nodding arrangements ripe with discrete strings, grooving guitars, light key strokes and drums that sweetly bump more than throb. The producers are rightfully spare in their garnishments. Horns pop up from time to time but never as a force; a bittersweet harmonica makes an appearance; shimmering bell trees, crackling vinyl effects and gentle harmonic voices all lend to sensual flourishes on songs that are rolling with coy melodies. Only producers Idris Elba and Mike McClain make a declarative impression on the Van McCoy influenced "My People." A social commentary, the tune uses bombastic speeches and a children roll call of heroes and sheroes which notably includes the 2006-07 Rutger's Women's Basketball Team. Even the punctuating moments of "My People", however, quickly give way to a light disco jam session of percussive voices and electric guitar rifts.

    What makes these 14 tracks so sublime is Angie's smoky voice smoothing out lyrics ripe with relatable themes and content. Unaltered by time or circumstances, Ms. Stone's raspy alto impeccably survives her sudsy real-life dramas writ large on these tunes. On understated ditties like "Take Everything In," "The Reasons I Love You," "Sometimes" and "Here We Go Again," Angie's introspective lyrics sometimes speak of the complexities of grown folk's living and loves. A down-to-earth humorist, Ms. Stone is not always heady as "Sit Down" and "Play With It" reveals; sometimes she's downright sexy as in "Pop Pop" and "Wait For Me." The sister who gave us "Brotha" still demonstrates an admirable commitment to social uplift and celebratory self-love through the duets "My People" and "So Happy Being Me," sung with James Ingram and Pauletta Washington, respectively. "Go Back To Your Life," a brief acapella treat, reminds us that Angie knows how to work what she's got in perfect harmony. If "More Than a Woman" with Calvin Richardson proved the gem of Mahogany Soul, the pleading "Half a Chance" (with an un-credited sangin' tenor) is more evidence that Angie does her best work in co-gendered duets.

    None of the music on The Art of Love and War travels new territory. It's a precious album of instantly familiar music that anyone can sing along to and enjoy. For once, sticking with a signature formula is just fine with this persnickety reviewer. While I turn up Ms. Stone's latest mug of steaming hot chocolate, could you pass me that plate of mac and cheese, please? Recommended.

    --L. Michael Gipson

    Choice Cut - Jennifer Hartswick - "For You"