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Variety marks Summer’s return
Burgundy Records/Sony BMG
“Crayons,” Donna Summer’s first full-length album since 1991, screams “comeback.” It’s a 12-song tour de force spanning a variety of pop genres from rhythm and blues to samba to dance-hall reggae to old-school disco.
The album’s variety should guarantee a wide audience and radio play across formats up and down the dial, but its ranging nature doesn’t feel like a marketing ploy as much as a big stage for Miss Summer to show off her big, exuberant voice and her songwriting talents. At the same time, the length of the artist’s songwriting hiatus appears to have left her with a lot of musical catching up to do — the dance tracks are oriented around the “oonce-oonce” rhythms that feel a bit passe in 2008.
“Crayons” opens with the rollicking dance track, “Stamp Your Feet,” reminiscent of a Donna Summer hit from the glory days of disco, with sonic flourishes that include syncopated hand clapping, flute curlicues and a high-stepping rhythmic interlude in which the star spells out “S-T-A-M-P.”
The shriek of a referee’s whistle would not be out of place amid the disco cliches, but given that Miss Summer’s moniker is “the queen of disco,” she’s able to make it work. She takes on the topic of her comeback in the campy song “The Queen Is Back,” singing, “So many years ago/ On the radio/ She crept into your soul.”
The song is unexpectedly eerie, with the portentous minor-key horror-movie strains that have been a fixture of R&B; dating back to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Miss Summer is joined by Ziggy Marley on the reggae-inspired title track. In one of the album’s occasional miscues, she puts on a kind of generic Caribbean accent, probably in an attempt to lend authenticity to her interpretation of the rapid-fire dance-hall vocal style. “Drivin’ Down Brazil” is another take on world music — a jazzy samba that name-checks Antonio Carlos Jobim even as the lyrics poke fun at a self-styled player infatuated with the Rio de Janeiro style.
The acoustic rock track “Sand on My Feet” is more of a stylistic stretch. The languid, romantic number is Miss Summer’s take on the Tracy Chapman-Edie Brickell strain of early 1990s indie rock.
The vocals are uncharacteristically bland, as if Miss Summer isn’t entirely enamored of the song. The blues-inspired track “Slide Over Backwards” also has a perfunctory feel, with harmonica, slide guitar and a rhythm track that sounds like a jaw harp played through a synthesizer.
“I’m a Fire,” a seven-minute cut, is the centerpiece of the album. It resonates with the unrelenting “oonce-oonce” dance-club rhythms and alternates between English and Spanish lyrics. “Be Myself Again,” a women-against-the-world ballad, showcases Miss Summer’s vocal range and her ability to sing with drama and emotion.
Yet just counting up the hits and misses on “Crayons” doesn’t do the album justice. Miss Summer’s return to the spotlight is welcome, and her successes here — especially “The Queen is Back” and “Fame (The Game)”— drown out the few duds.
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