Sisters from another planet

Pub date October 29, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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A few weekends back, I rose at the crack of dawn to see Allen Toussaint perform at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan for the venue’s 10th anniversary celebrations. Although it was Sunday morning and the show was free, nary any Negroes on site for the New Orleans master. However shameful this lack, the show was well worth it, especially for Toussaint’s mesmerizing extended version of "Southern Nights," replete with rich anecdotes about midcentury black life in Louisiana’s parishes. Right before this transcendent trip, a middle-aged lady fan down front cried out for him to perform the Labelle hit he produced, "Lady Marmalade." Toussaint obliged with a few lines before jokingly gesturing into the air before him, "Take it, Patti!"

Upon listening to the just-released Back to Now (Verve), I’m reminded of the trickster-ish spirit Toussaint reanimated around that song, as well as the reaffirmation of the quality of talent that’s always been summoned to work with the three titanesses of Labelle: Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx, and Patti LaBelle. In the 30-plus years since the era’s premier woman rock trio disbanded, there has been a short list of female, or female-fronted, acts that could bring something sonically strong to the arena Labelle dominated in the early 1970s, but none could top them. Right now the only promising heiresses really worth discussing are Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Leela James, Nikka Costa, the Noisettes’ Shingai Shoniwa, Janelle Monáe, and Fantasia, but most of these have suffered the indifference of the public to a degree and, worse, been thwarted repeatedly by the industry. The merciful window of sonic vitality and relative aesthetic freedom Labelle once enjoyed during my childhood now seems like a chimera. Almost as if their hallowed career operates on a silver ship far out in parallel space — we can thus glean stardust of Labelle’s body of work, though their vessel is too many light years away to tilt this planet back on its rightful axis.

Talkin’ ’bout bold as love: the all-girl band’s new Back to Now — don’t call it a comeback, but a reconstruction — will hopefully serve as a beacon to light the way along the hard path young female artists are forced to tread. Kicking off with Hendryx in fine songwriting form on "Candlelight" — a twang ballad spurred to the brink of disco-country and ably handled from Lenny Kravitz’s production chair — this new disc contains no filler save the debut single. To these ears, Wyclef Jean’s "Roll Out" is the weak link — don’t want any Akon-sounding mess in my grown-woman funk, but I understand the biniss need to kowtow to Ringtone Nation. I am positively certain that when Gentleman Toussaint cut my favorite single, "What Can I Do for You," with Labelle in 1974, he never envisioned such a pass.

Fortunately, "Superlover" comes next to cleanse the palate, contemplative in its easing of the group’s patented sound in the direction of hallowed love testaments like "Isn’t It a Shame." Kravitz has finally met his match and found his métier while manning the knobs for this project. When I first learned of his presence the year before last, it seemed fitting that he should be summoned alongside Gamble and Huff, not merely because his best work owes a debt to classic Philly and Chi-Town soul, but because one figures correctly that his respect for icons of Labelle’s caliber would bring the best out of him. The sublime, delicately bouncy funk of Hendryx’s next superb shot, "System," could be the key to his ultimate discovery of his voice.

One knows Kravitz must have salivated over the unearthed 1970 track "Miss Otis Regrets," which includes the late Stones associate Nicky Hopkins on piano and Who drummer Keith Moon. It’s a magnificent album closer, but its back-to-the-future feedback loop in conversation with Hendryx’s own compositions only underscores the fact that she remains the great enigma of late 20th century vanguard pop and Afrofuturist rock, one of an elite few of the most undersung song-catchers way past overdue to be seriously studied by music and culture scholars. Should Labelle’s ever-loving vodun fail in the marketplace, Back to Now has more than justified their redrawing of their circle.