Vanessa Bell Armstrong - The Experience (2009)

Vanessa Bell Armstrong
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Definitely one of the stronger interpreters in the world of modern contemporary gospel, Vanessa Bell Armstrong almost needs no introduction. While working with Thomas Whitfield in the 1980s, Armstrong had one of the most unbreakable and unrestrained runs of success with albums like Peace Be Still and Chosen . And with her Aretha-styled runs, her Anita Baker jazzy swoops and her deliciously raspy Broadway-ish vocal theatrics, Armstrong entered into an impressive, lucrative contract with Jive Records in 1987 - thrusting her even more so into the mainstream with crossover hits like "You Bring Out the Best In Me" and "Pressing On." But two decades later, much of today's generation have no clue where Ann Nesby, Kim Burrell and Nikki Ross got their vocal inspirations from. The Experience, Vanessa's second full-length live recording to date, is a labor of love for album producer and gospel giant Donald Lawrence.

Definitely one of the stronger interpreters in the world of modern contemporary gospel, Vanessa Bell Armstrong almost needs no introduction. While working with Thomas Whitfield in the 1980s, Armstrong had one of the most unbreakable and unrestrained runs of success with albums like Peace Be Still and Chosen . And with her Aretha-styled runs, her Anita Baker jazzy swoops and her deliciously raspy Broadway-ish vocal theatrics, Armstrong entered into an impressive, lucrative contract with Jive Records in 1987 - thrusting her even more so into the mainstream with crossover hits like "You Bring Out the Best In Me" and "Pressing On." But two decades later, much of today's generation have no clue where Ann Nesby, Kim Burrell and Nikki Ross got their vocal inspirations from. The Experience, Vanessa's second full-length live recording to date, is a labor of love for album producer and gospel giant Donald Lawrence. He, a longtime VBA fan, aimed to recapture the spark Armstrong inhabited on her early projects by creating a careful memory-lane scrapbook with newly-scribed selections reflecting her strong gospel roots.

The Experience's greatest epiphany is her brilliant make over of "Good News," a song once discovered on Aretha Franklin's So Damn Happy album. The tempo's tweaking along with a soulful strut and dazzling "prayer still works" vamp gives Armstrong enough courage to make an Aretha song even more irresistible. She does flutter her chops across hearty remakes of classics like "What He's Done For Me" and "Any Way You Bless Me." One of the throwbacks, the duet with Rance Allen on "You Bring Out The Best In Me" remains the most anticipated, but it rocks and reels with an overdose of gutsy ad-libs and braying charisma. Luckily, Lawrence was kind enough to insert a sweet, mellow 80-second reprise of the chorus paying homage to the classic ‘80s textures and hoping to rekindle some of the prouder moments from the original version. Big perks extend to Vashawn Mitchell's emotional "Good News." It's also a revived tune, taken from Mitchell's own recording collection, but it fits well atop the symphonic flounces from the Nashville String Machine and Armstrong's relaxed vocal swooning. Fulfilling the album's rewarding moments are a set of Lawrence-penned ballads and comparable offerings including "The Greatest Power," "Hand of the Lord" and the moving Lawrence-like string-laden anthem "The Blood." Even VBA contributes her own composition, rehashing the simple structures of Walking Miracle's "It's Over Now," allowing her enough room to improvise and showcase her melisma action.

What IS missing in this career revisit is the perfect soul burner and the spirited uptempo rocker that made her first live entry Desire of My Heart so impressionable. While the incomparable power ballad remains Armstrong's strongest vehicle in her musical arsenal, her ability to interpret almost any song, regardless of the tempo or style, remains her most rewarding quality. To witness her on something upbeat and more gutsy, instead of a plethora of worshippy tracks, would have been a strong asset to the album. Sure her vocals are raspier, edgier and even meaner than ever, but she's still well versed with the stuff she works with. For what it's worth, The Experience is a nice visit from a gospel legend possessing enough soul and grace to be called an authentic performer. We just wished it was given the same kind of royal treatment and pompous extravagance Donald Lawrence gave his Tri City Singers' Finale retreat. Recommended

By J. Matthew Cobb

 
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