Shelea - Love Fell On Me (2013)

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The 1980s and 90s were notable for a number of musical developments, and one of the biggest was the evolution of the female singer on urban radio. Anita Baker created a soulful prototype while Whitney Houston brought in more pop elements, but both opened the door for dozens of talented singers who graced UAC radio with two decades of great songs. And for fans of those halcyon days of strong adult female vocalists, Love Fell On Me, the debut album from singer-songwriter Shelea, is like the tastiest of comfort food. But the satisfaction of hearing an album full of rich production, great vocals, and a collection of songs that touch on danceable R&B, jazzy midtempos and big ballads – the template that saw female vocalists through the better part of two decades -- is combined with a bit of shock in the stunning realization that there is absolutely nothing like it on radio and there hasn’t been for several years. 

The 1980s and 90s were notable for a number of musical developments, and one of the biggest was the evolution of the female singer on urban radio. Anita Baker created a soulful prototype while Whitney Houston brought in more pop elements, but both opened the door for dozens of talented singers who graced UAC radio with two decades of great songs. And for fans of those halcyon days of strong adult female vocalists, Love Fell On Me, the debut album from singer-songwriter Shelea, is like the tastiest of comfort food. But the satisfaction of hearing an album full of rich production, great vocals, and a collection of songs that touch on danceable R&B, jazzy midtempos and big ballads – the template that saw female vocalists through the better part of two decades -- is combined with a bit of shock in the stunning realization that there is absolutely nothing like it on radio and there hasn’t been for several years. 

It’s easy to see early Whitney all over this type of album (and, of course, Shelea gained some notoriety for her YouTube tribute to Houston after the death of the megastar), but a more recent comparison would be the shining work in the 90s by singers ranging from Tamia to Toni Braxton to Deborah Cox. At its best, Love Fell On Me recalls dozens of albums from that era that, in some ways, seem a lifetime ago, but which, in their almost timeless approach, sound as fresh in 2013 as they did when first released.

Shelea certainly has a sense of history in her approach to Love Fell On Me, and a look at the talent that came along to help on the album shows her desire to recreate a classic sound. Brian McKnight, Stevie Wonder (who has served as a mentor to Shelea) and Narada Michael Walden all help on individual cuts. And Shelea, along with producer Tony Shepperd (Lionel Richie, Diana Ross), meticulously capture an era when the voices of soulful women dominated radio, but with a twist: Shelea the composer brings a decidedly female perspective to her songs, giving them a more vulnerable, searching quality than the largely male-written songs of many of her musical idols. So the celebration of love found on the Whitney-like “Love The Way You Love Me” is contrasted with the intensely personal, 21st Century feminine melancholy of songs of loss like “Seeing You” and “Goodnight Instead of Goodbye.”

Love Fell On Me is undoubtedly a ballad-heavy affair, but is sequenced nicely, with Shelea mixing in more upbeat material, sometimes with a few surprises. “Independence Day” is a rock-infused number that shows a level of attitude not found elsewhere on the rather traditional album.  And the disc’s opening number, “City of Angels” is a muscular tribute to and indictment of life and love in Los Angeles.

Listeners may recognize the title track, which was featured in the Angela Bassett movie, Jump The Broom. It appears twice here, first in a cool, jazz-influenced version featuring Wonder on harmonica and later in an equally attractive adult R&B version that has the feel of Braxton, circa 1995. The latter, along with the bouncy “Never Thought I’d Say It” and the album’s best cut, the midtempo “I’ll Never Let You Go,” harken back to the brilliant LA Reid/Babyface productions of the 90s and, led by Shelea’s gentle but sweet voice (which is more restrained on this album than on many of her impressive, churchier-sounding videos on YouTube), give the album a timeless aura.

Shelea is a talent who could’ve been a star a generation ago. But what’s more encouraging is that she’s bringing a classic pop/soul vision and strong songwriting skills to a modern adult audience starving for both.  With Love Fell On Me, both Shelea and her distribution label, Sony Red, are placing a bet that there are music fans looking for traditional song structure, full-bodied production and the kind of singer who was a mainstay of popular radio not so long ago but who is an endangered species now. My guess is that this is a gamble that will pay off, and Shelea will find a welcoming audience. The ageless approach that would have made Love Fell On Me a hit in 1995 could well make it the sleeper hit of 2013. Highly Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 

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