Valerie Simpson - Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again

Valerie Simpson
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There's an interesting story behind the title track to Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again. In her annotation for the song, Valerie Simpson recalls what happened when she and Nick Ashford met with a label executive on one particular occasion. "We actually got the 'dinosaur' feeling once in a major record company's office -- while waiting for an appointment with a top exec. We didn't get the deal but we got this song out of it." The fact that Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson -- one of the most celebrated songwriting duos of the 20th century -- could be so readily dismissed underscores how longevity doesn't translate to respect or loyalty where the music business is concerned. However, great strength can sprout from rejection. Simpson continues, "For anyone who feels like they are no longer useful or who questions what offerings they can still make, this song says: Be encouraged."

There's an interesting story behind the title track to Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again. In her annotation for the song, Valerie Simpson recalls what happened when she and Nick Ashford met with a label executive on one particular occasion. "We actually got the 'dinosaur' feeling once in a major record company's office -- while waiting for an appointment with a top exec. We didn't get the deal but we got this song out of it." The fact that Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson -- one of the most celebrated songwriting duos of the 20th century -- could be so readily dismissed underscores how longevity doesn't translate to respect or loyalty where the music business is concerned. However, great strength can sprout from rejection. Simpson continues, "For anyone who feels like they are no longer useful or who questions what offerings they can still make, this song says: Be encouraged."

The sentiment behind "Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again" threads through the set's eleven songs in numerous ways, for much of the album is about coming to terms with certain feelings -- loss, desire, unrequited love, positivity, self-acceptance. Simpson has doubtless reconciled some of those very feelings over the past year. Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again is her first studio project since Nick Ashford's passing in August 2011, though her beloved life partner is still present throughout the proceedings. "He put his heart and soul and some powerful lyrics into this album for me," writes Simpson in the CD booklet's foreword.

Recorded over a period of eleven years, the album resumes Simpson's solo career from 1972. Though she and Ashford had long become an accomplished songwriting duo by the early-'70s, her two albums for Motown, Exposed (1971) and Valerie Simpson (1972), pre-dated the duo's career as recording artists. Production methods and standards have obviously changed over the last four decades, but two elements link Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again back to its 40-year-old predecessors -- Valerie Simpson's expressive voice and her remarkable talent on keys.

Simpson's singular approach to the piano is highlighted here on two very distinct recordings: First is an instrumental of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" that owes its arrangement to the late Richard Tee ("My favorite keyboardist," notes Simpson). Expounding on a live version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" that Tee recorded with the group Stuff in 1980, Simpson keeps the instrumentation scaled down. Drums, piano, and percussion drive the rhythm and melody. The song's anthemic chorus is briefly sung by Ashford & Simpson but otherwise it's a joyous re-working of a classic. "Trying to Be Perfect" is an altogether different showcase for Simpson, wherein she's only accompanied by Mike Phillips on sax and Ivan Hampden on drums. It's a musically naked piece that accentuates the vulnerability in Ashford's lyrics. The intensity of Simpson's piano-playing correlates to the palpable emotion in her voice. "Please accept me as I am, not what I might become, cause at this point in my life I'm far beyond trying to be perfect," she sings. She intones each word with powerful self-awareness, the sort that often only comes with years of hard-earned experience.

The mutual respect Simpson shares with fellow music icons is evident on the album's two duets. "Make It Up As We Go" seems extracted from a black and white movie. French horns cushion the singer's voice during the first two verses. Ben Brown's upright bass conjures a sense of mystery behind the fantasy that unfolds in the lyrics. The voice of Nina Simone then enters the story line, with Simpson's xylophone further embellishing the dream-like atmosphere of the song. As Simpson notes in the booklet, "Make It Up As We Go" features the last vocal that Simone ever recorded before she passed away in 2003. The artist herself even played piano on the track. Among the song's many merits, Simpson's arrangement with Joseph Joubert is the epitome of understated sophistication.

Roberta Flack joins Simpson on "Turn Around the Square," a song that could easily translate to film thanks to the two vocalists' character-driven performances. With a title conceived by Dr. Maya Angelou, Ashford's story targets a self-righteous hypocrite who denies her past. "To hear you tell it today, it was all church and no play. You never strayed, had no desire. Said God would take you higher," Flack sings. Simpson retorts with an equally piercing set of lines. Ashford & Simpson's songs have often depicted a situation where a lover or a friend is called out for their transgressions (think "No One Gets the Prize" or "Did You Read the Morning Paper" by Diana Ross). "Turn Around the Square" is a welcome addition to the duo's distinctive storytelling.

The breezy sway of "Count Your Losses" concludes an album whose moods go from sensual ("Sometime Thing") to buoyant ("Heaven") to motivational ("Do It For Yourself"). It's arguably the album's most satisfying moment, the reward for joining Simpson on her full-length musical excursion. The simplicity of the arrangement brings Simpson's voice front and center while the words flow languidly from her lips like honey. "Things don't always work out for the wrong or right reasons. You'll get over it, just like the change of the seasons," she sings before a Brazilian-inspired rhythm sets in. It's refreshing to hear Simpson sing within such a context, one that she'll hopefully explore even further on future releases.

Ultimately, Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again serves as a reminder that alongside Ashford & Simpson's incomparable legacy, there's ample room for Valerie Simpson's solo talent to shine. Unlike the dinosaurs of the album title though, that talent isn't coming back: it's always been right here with us.

Christian John Wikane

 
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