Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pulse - A Tale Of 2 Albums

The return of Toni Braxton is one of 2010's most welcome surprises. I loved her first three albums and still blast classics like "You're Making Me High", "I Don't Want To" and "He Wasn't Man Enough" all the time. There's just something about that deep, soulful voice that gets to me. She's a total throwback to a time when divas could actually sing and talent counted for something. Which is one of the reasons I was so disappointed when "Pulse" first leaked a few months ago. The material was patchy and, to be honest, beneath her. It was almost as if she had rifled through the demos Beyoncé and Rihanna rejected in a desperate bid for relevance. Toni doesn't need to talk her way through songs about texting her man in a nightclub - reference to the so bad it's hilarious "Don't Talk, Just Text" - leave that stuff for the girls who can't sing like Cassie and Ciara. As it turns out, someone at Atlantic Records obviously agreed with me because "Pulse" was given a last minute overhaul. Half of the original tracklist was axed and new songs were commissioned. The end result is a strong collection of largely mid-tempo urban pop songs that hold up to anything in Toni's amazing back catalogue. However, it leaves us with the unusual situation of having two very different versions of the one album.

THE ORIGINAL VERSION

"Pulse" originally had the following tracklist:

1. Pulse
2. Stay
3. Yesterday
4. Hands Tied
5. Clockwork
6. I Hate Love
7. It's You

8. Wardrobe
9. Lookin' At Me
10. Don't Call, Just Text
11. My Ring
12. Make My Heart
13. Melt
14. Yesterday ft. Trey Songz

The songs in red were scrapped, while "My Ring" was renamed "The Wave". This is a rare example of a record company actually getting it right - with one glaring exception. "It's You" is an absolute gem and one of the few tracks on either version of the album with real hit potential. If you like your mid-tempo pop piano driven and pretty, with a belter of a chorus, then I highly recommend hunting this down. I'm less fussed about the rest of the songs that were cut. "I Hate Love" and "Melt" are nice but it feels like Toni was covering old ground. I've already mentioned "Don't Call, Just Text", while "Clockwork" is just another slow jam about the diva's sizzling bedroom antics. Interestingly, most of axed songs were the Rihanna/Beyoncé B-sides. Team Braxton clearly made a decision to follow a more traditional route and "Pulse" is so much better for it. Toni has returned to her R'n'B roots with an album that perfectly showcases her powerful pipes.

The original album cover

THE FINAL VERSION

Here is my track by track review of the final version of "Pulse".

Yesterday

The album's lead single reached a not so lofty #112 in America, which is surprising given its quality. I blame the ridiculous video (below) which finds Toni lounging around on a plastic table like the world's laziest pole dancer. Tamar has a lot to answer for! Apart from that, "Yesterday" is rather lovely. Sure, it's another in a long line of "Halo" rip offs but who cares when it's done this well? DJ Frank E's production is intricate and delicate, while Toni really gets her teeth into the lyrics. She can play the woman scorned as well as anyone in pop. If pretty ballads aren't your thing, check out the fabulous Fred Falke remix.

Make My Heart

"Make My Heart" should have been thrown into the same bin as "Don't Call, Just Text". Toni's attempt to get down with the kids is an epic fail and it's got nothing to do with her age. The stunning diva still looks 25 and could easily pull off a club anthem but this just sounds like the homeless homosexual's "Single Ladies". Lucas Secon is a great producer and I love the brass but this has all been done before and better. And don't even get me started on that video. Whoever chose this as a single needs to find a new job.

Hands Tied

Now this is old school. "Hands Tied" is a juicy R'n'B groove that allows Toni to show off her vocal range. I can almost see the power grabs and hair flicks when I listen it. The song is a nice throwback for fans but it's missing the big hook it needs to raise it to the next level. "Hands Tied" won't win over too many newcomers but nobody is making this kind of music at the moment - probably because it requires vocal talent - and there is definitely a market for quality R'n'B. I just wouldn't have picked it as a single.

Woman

I've already examined Toni's shocking decision to cover Dulta in
an earlier post. I'm still coming to terms with it!

If I Have To Wait

And the award for my favourite song on "Pulse" goes to the utterly gorgeous "If I Have To Wait". Toni switches things up with an unexpected excursion into gentle pop/rock. I love the sentiment of this song. It's so self-destructive and depressing yet simultaneously touching and romantic. If that makes any sense. I hope Toni explores this sound again in the future. Her voice sounds amazing against the soft wave of guitars and the vocal acrobatics at the end are a nice touch.

Lookin' At You

Lucas Secon returns for the second time and it's another fizzer. I'm a bit worried because this guy has a song on "Aphrodite" and I really hope he hasn't unloaded an equally dull club banger on poor Kylie. Again, the song isn't awful but Rihanna and Beyoncé just do it better. "Lookin' At You" needed a bigger chorus or a vocal hook to work. Instead it falls flat and sounds more than a little embarrassing.

Wardrobe

This is another track that I would deleted. It's pleasant enough but completely unremarkable.


Hero

Now this is more like it. Yes, it sounds like a Ryan Tedder production (it's not) but I'm still sick for synth driven ballads and "Hero" is something of a monster. I love the melodramatic lyrics ("my heart never had a hero") and bombastic production (bringing in the orchestra was a nice touch). Toni is just so much more at home when she's wailing like a crazy woman. She needs to release this as a single. Radio would lap it up and despite the content, I'm sure Ms Braxton would find a way to be semi-naked in the video. It's not very original but "Hero" is a rare example of a knock off that matches the quality of the song/genre it's imitating.

No Way

The guitars make another appearance on this subtle gem. The lyrics are pretty and the diva's vocal delivery is admirably low key. I can't see "No Way" burning up the charts but this is my idea of high quality filler. It's cute, simple and showcases the versatility of Toni's voice.

Pulse

Chuck Harmony (the man behind Rihanna's "Russian Roulette") produced the album's title track and it is something of a corker unlike Riri's dull suicide anthem. The difference is that Toni actually has soul and she serves it up in spades on "Pulse". What a relief that the years haven't wearied her voice one iota. Whitney and Christina must be jealous. The chorus could be bigger but I think this is pretty special.

Why Won't You Love Me

Think of this as a sequel of sorts to "If I Have To Wait". The lyrics are almost as heartbreaking/pathetic but this isn't as elegantly constructed or memorable. That said, I love the subtle production and Toni's pouty voice is in its element. It's a fitting conclusion to a low key but ultimately satisfying album by one of music's lost superstars.


BONUS TRACKS

Yesterday ft Trey Songz

I vastly prefer this version of "Yesterday" to the original. Trey's voice drives me wild and tranforming the song into a duet is a masterstroke.

Stay

This stunning anthem has been wasted as a bonus track. It's one of the best songs on the album and could easily be a single. I love the lyrics and piano driven production. "Stay" is effortlessly catchy and classy. Definitely worth downloading.

Rewind

Boring.

The Wave

"The Wave" is pretty tragic but I find it amusing and find myself listening to it more often than I care to admit. Any song that begins with the line "they see me walkin' through the mall wit' my man, tryin' to get at him any which way they can" has to be worth a listen. Right?

Caught (Don't Take Your Hat Off) ft Mo'Nique

Mo'Nique makes this track pop. Her spoken interlude is fierce, particular when she quotes Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable"!


7.5/10

"Pulse" is in stores now. Check out the Trey Songz remix of "Yesterday" below. Toni's desperate antics are a joy to behold. Oh and Brooke Hogan makes an unexpected cameo as her love rival. You can buy that kind of class!

9 comments:

John said...

I think I'm going to need as much time to absorb your review as it took you to write it. We are normally in sync on tracks, but you don't like two of my favorite tracks on here. "Make My Heart" is a fun jam and nothing more, and I love her for it. And "Wardrobe" bridges the canyon between Secrets from the 90s and what she's doing today. It would fit into either era, and her performance is classy yet playful.

undisco_me said...

I had no idea Tamar has a reality show coming soon with the other sisters.

D'luv said...

No kidding -- my word verification is "fists." Only at PTA...

Anyway, the good news is that Toni's album debuted at #9 last week on the U.S. album chart and only dropped to #22 this week!

By comparison, Courtney Hole's three-week trajectory has been #15-#82-#146.

Shane said...

No love for Get Loose?
That is a amazing tune that should be an itunes bonus track, if not an album track.
Great song.

Sexbox said...

I like "make My Heart"! The videos and remixes from this project have also been stunning. Also, I think you should point out that "Yesterday" charted very well on the RnB charts in the US. That chart actually does count.....not like the dance charts LOL. I am sure if Toni and Atlantic play their cards right she will have another Gold album (at least....nowadays that is quite the accomplishment!)

Mr. Will-W. said...

hahahaha Toni has always been desperate ever since The Heat, lookin' for any old reason to wear minimal fabric. ever seen that grammys dress she wore that look like tooth floss? i love her though.

hey! and "i am... sasha fierce" is totally two albums in one, i don't see you lecturing Beyonce on the duality!! ahem... :p

Mike said...

John - "Wardrobe" is so dull. It doesn't bring me back to "Secrets" at all...

Gordon - Tamar has a reality show on the way?

*dies*

D'Luv - I'm glad Toni isn't a total flop. Hopefully they will release a decent 4th single and it will hang around for a while.

Shane - "Get Loose" is great. I just didn't mention it because it wasn't on the original promo copy of "Pulse" that I received. But it is better than 90% of the other uptempo jams.

Sexbox - Toni is the new Toy Toy with her stunning RnB $ucce$$!

Will - There was a reason for SF being a double album and it wasn't desperation after negative publicity when the album leaked!

Anonymous said...

"Caught" is amazing. Definitely deserves more praise than it got in this review!

the writer said...

Maybe i have lost the ability to listen to rnb, especialy to midtempos and ballads like those at Toni's album. I can't explain why i only liked the 2 uptempo tracks Lookin' At Me and Make My Heart.