Champaign - Modern Heart / Woman In Flames (Reissue)

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    When Champaign burst onto the scene in 1981, it appeared to be a group that was going to be around for quite awhile. With memorable lead vocalists Pauli Carman and Rene Jones, great production by Leo Graham, and a crossover smash hit in "How 'Bout Us," Champaign's debut album won critical acclaim and sold well. Unfortunately, 1981 turned out to be the commercial high point for the septet.

    When Champaign burst onto the scene in 1981, it appeared to be a group that was going to be around for quite awhile. With memorable lead vocalists Pauli Carman and Rene Jones, great production by Leo Graham, and a crossover smash hit in "How 'Bout Us," Champaign's debut album won critical acclaim and sold well. Unfortunately, 1981 turned out to be the commercial high point for the septet.

    There was high anticipation for the group's sophomore album, 1983's Modern Heart (now being reissued by FunkyTownGrooves in a 2-on-1 disc with 1984's Woman In Flames), but it was clear from the first note that the smooth, accessible sound that made Champaign's debut so engaging was a distant memory. On Modern, producer George Massenburg (Toto, Carly Simon) took the reins and positioned the group as a more generic 80s electronic light funk act. The lush, layered sound that made Champaign stand out in 1981 was now replaced by one that made the group sound like, well, everyone else. But the biggest problem was the underlying material. There were lots of things to like about Champaign's first album, but it was the fine collection of songs -- principally written by group members -- that was the essential element.  Often a debut album features the best material from years and years of songwriting, and it is tough to assemble as solid a collection in the year or two between the debut and second album.  That certainly seemed to be the case with Champaign, as Modern Heart's compositions were both underdeveloped and underwhelming. The lead single, "Try Again," benefitted from radio's anticipation, shooting to the top 10 of the R&B charts, but it and the album faded astonishingly quickly. And other than the enjoyable but out-of-place a cappella gem, "Walkin'," nothing else on the album garnered any interest whatsoever. Modern Heart needed to score big to prove that Champaign wasn't just a "one hit wonder;" instead, it landed with a thud. 

    By the time of Woman In Flames, Champaign's star had largely fallen. It was a group with talent galore (especially the great lead vocals of Carman and Jones) but no real musical identity.  Its members took production into their own hands and delivered an album that was slightly better than its predecessor, but not enough to change their downward commercial trajectory.  The bouncy "Off and On Love" certainly was a solid lead single, becoming the group's third top 10 R&B song, but the decent follow-up ballad, "This Time," stalled outside the top 40. Champaign borrowed heavily from the early 80s SOLAR sound for a nice third cut led by Jones, "Be Mine Tonight," but it failed to chart.  Unfortunately, the rest of the disc sounded like tired outtakes from Beverly Hills Cop II.  Following the commercial failure of Woman, Champaign was dropped by Columbia Records and broke up, reuniting briefly in 1991 for the decent but commercially disappointing Champaign IV.  

    In the end, Champaign was a talented group that only sporadically released material worthy of its skills.  The act's best songs from its three Columbia albums (and all their hits) are well represented in a 2004 Greatest Hits album. And beyond the hits, there are only a few other worthwhile cuts on this collection. So, for completists, this 2-on-1 collection is Cautiously Recommended.

    By Chris Rizik

     

     

       

     
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