The second half of the 1980s introduced an array of talented male R&B groups. Ensembles such as After 7, Ready for the World, and Guy each contributed distinctive sounds to the urban-contemporary landscape, whether it be smooth harmonies ("Ready or Not"), electro-funk slow-jams ("Love You Down"), or infectious New Jack Swing ("Groove Me"). One of the most successful acts to consistently reach soul and pop listeners alike was Surface. Consisting of lead singer Bernard Jackson, keyboardist Dave "Pic" Conley, and late drummer David Townsend, the trio wrote, produced, and arranged all of its own material.
Distinguishing themselves with a sublime blend of romantic production values, subtly permeating melodies, and Jackson's softly captivating vocals, Surface established a refreshingly mellow style amidst the often excessive sonic trenches of their contemporaries. Their 1987 self-titled debut LP, newly reissued on CD by Funky Town Grooves, stands the test of time as an expertly crafted collection of both emotionally satiating ballads and physically hard-to-resist uptempo tunes. From the onset of the penetrating bass line and velvet voicing of "Let's Try Again," the mood is both sophisticated and real. The perennial favorite, "Happy"—which climbed to #2 R&B and #20 Pop on the Billboard charts, expands upon the late-night vibe with a lightly percussive edge. The minor chord progressions of the reflective "We're All Searchin'," the nostalgic "Lately" (another top 10 R&B hit) and the seductive "Gotta Make Love Tonight" round out the quiet-storm portion of the disc.
The second half of Surface revs up the flow with five grooves that are simultaneously hook-friendly and dance floor-savvy. The Summery "Who Loves You" provides a smooth transition from the slower side with its finespun keyboard lines and gently coaxing vocal phrasing. It's followed by the electro-tinged arrangements of "You're Fine" (first recorded by Sister Sledge in 1985), "Lady Wants a Man," and "Girls Were Made to Love." Aside from inducing head-nodding and flashbacks to a time when breakdancing ruled the land, they offer lyrics of a higher caliber than the standard sing-song fodder of many club-geared tunes. In a funky, accented delivery which bears striking contrast to his usual understated approach, Jackson advises, "The lady wants a man, and they respect a man who knows just who they are...that's in control and not afraid of saying no."
The album closes with the atmospheric boogie of "Feels So Good," washed with fluid synths and a calming flute solo. Bringing to mind the 1983 dance hit "Falling in Love" (recorded by Conley's first incarnation of Surface), it's an apropos closer—melding the group's mellifluous sensibilities with its kinetic prowess. As bonus material, FTG has included extended and instrumental mixes of "Happy," "Lately," and "Let's Try Again," previously available only on original 12" vinyl releases. Highly Recommended.
by Justin Kantor