Years before Destiny’s Child bemoaned their cash-flow-deficient boyfriends and shortly after TLC declared they weren’t too proud to beg, there were the Sisters With Voices, a.k.a. SWV. A trio that met in school and cultivated their harmonies in a church sanctuary, Leanne “Lelee” Lyons, Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George and Cheryl “Coko” Clemons expanded those gospel-flecked serenades into attention from Teddy Riley and a deal with the RCA label, resulting in three back-to-back hit CDs. Thanks to songs that combined their sweet and sultry vocals with subtly-sexy lyrics and street-savvy beats (“Anything,” “Weak” “Right Here,” “Use Your Heart,” “Rain,” “Can We”) , SWV caught on strong with both male and females fans and made an impact with their catchy contributions to the era of “New Jill Swing.”
But as we've all seen, over-abundances of ego, emotions and estrogen can drive even the hottest girl groups apart, and shortly after dropping 1997’s ironically-titled effort, Release Some Tension, SWV did just that----by splitting up. In a 1999 interview with Yahoo! Music, Ms. Clemons chalked up the disbanding to the aftermath of a cold war: “There was no communication. There was no unity. And I can’t work like that.” Coko released a solo CD that same year and continued lending her vocals to various urban and gospel projects while Taj and Lelee concentrated on family and pursued interests outside of the music industry. Although the trio collaborated briefly and stoked rumors of a reunion after recording together TV One’s Taj-centered reality series, “I Married a Baller,” that full-fledged homecoming wouldn’t be realized until their fourth and latest CD, I Missed Us, a collection of songs that energetically updates their signature sound.
Since 20 years have passed between their eponymous 1992 debut, It’s About Time, and now, everything about Taj, Coko and Lelee has matured, from their more elegant (and less urbanized) appearances, to their increased vocal resonance (there’s a lot more triangulating of the leads today than during the 1990s) to the grown-woman subject matter of their songs(no more sex-centered double-entendres or “what your girl don’t know won’t hurt her”-type songs). Board-controllers Cainon Lamb and Bryan-Michael Cox are careful to modernize SWV for a new era of fans without offending their original ones, evidenced in the “Right Here”-recalling buoyancy in “Co-Sign,” the saucy self-assurance of “Do Ya” and “The Best Years,” where a long-ago ex’s efforts to rebound fall flat: “I ain’t gonna lie/for awhile I was bitter/got sick to my stomach every time I saw you with her. I know she was on those texts and late-night phone calls/When you had an emergency and rushed out of home/ I know she was on the other side of the phone/now you stand here saying you love me still/ I guess the grass ain’t greener yeah….”
The balance of positive and negative sentiments also remains the same, although SWV now opts for being slyly suggestive instead of openly sexual (“Show Off,” “Use Me”). “All About You” could easily be entitled “Anything Pt. 2,” with its adoring, Hi-Five interpolating lyrics (“Oh so long, we’ve been together, and I’ve never felt so good”), hip-hop-heavy groove and Wu-Tang-esque exclamations, and “Keep You Home” is as tear-stained as 1996’s “Fine Time,” laced with Lenny Williams-styled wails and regrets about the toxic turn of the relationship as they seethe over a cheating chump of a man: “Boy you think you know, but you have no idea/how I love you so and I need you here. Boy you think you know, but you have no idea/how I’m dying slow, slow, trying to keep you home.”
SWV’s return to the airwaves isn’t exactly a full-on rebirth of the trio, but it is a rich revitalization of their fondly-remembered and often-imitated style. Listeners who enjoyed their 1990s hits should find it easy to pick up where they left off, greeting the ladies like a long-lost group of roommates who are eager to catch up, reconcile their past mistakes to their present milestones and meaningfully embrace; glad to discover, before it became too late to do so, that they indeed Missed Us. Warmly Recommended.
By Melody Charles