Boy George, Lisa Stansfield, and Sheila E. all released albums in the last few months after some time of either inactivity or little press or fanfare. To say that George, Stansfield or Sheila E. were unemployed is not accurate: Boy George has developed a great side gig as a respected DJ and still puts out dance singles; Sheila E. on the other hand has become a highly sought-after session drummer, and even toured with Ringo Starr; Stansfield, on the other hand, dropped out of pop music and made sporadic appearances throughout the late 2000s as an actress. Still, even though no one could accuse the three of being lazy, it isn’t like their music was blowing up the pop charts. And though none of the records will restore their sales, they do show that even past their prime they can still make some great music.
At the height of their careers, Boy George, Lisa Stansfield, and Sheila E. were celebrated for their dance-pop records. Dance music now is much different, and instead of aping the current synth-driven sounds of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, they all decide to craft music that isn’t necessarily directed to the dance floor.
Stylistically, Boy George makes the biggest departure with This Is What I Do, his first studio album in almost two decades (not counting compilations and occasional guest spots on other artists’ records). What’s surprising is how much his voice changed – it’s much thicker and huskier now, with an appealing rasp. And even though there are moments when he strains to hit notes (his upper register has gotten pretty tight), his more-limited voice adds gravitas and poignancy.
Those hoping for thumping will be disappointed: This Is What I Do is a collection of reggae-inflected ballads and guitar-based pop. The lower-fi setting compliments the singer’s bluesy vocals. I’ve always maintained that Boy George is one of the finest blue-eyed soul singers of his generation. The issue was his image often overshadowed his estimable talents. But on these relatively stripped down songs, his now-throaty voice is allowed to shine. The problem is that even though the album is solid, it’s somewhat mundane and monotonous, and the songs tend to run into each other. It’s a shame that Boy George didn’t mix things up a bit – on his underrated 1995 album Cheapness & Beauty, he sang glammy rock numbers that stood side-by-side with country knee-slappers, and heart-stopping piano ballads. On This Is What I Do, he seems stuck in the guitar-heavy reggae-pop with little variation. Still, the songs are competently constructed, making for a solid set.
Like Boy George, Lisa Stansfield also showed that for great contemporary soul, one should look to the UK. And though her career has been reduced to her global smash “All Around the World,” she has been a consistent performer of soul-based dance pop. On Seven, her 8th LP (and first in 10 years), she shows that she’s aging gracefully, barely missing a step. Like Boy George’s new work, Seven also eschews the highly synthetic sounds of current dance-pop or R&B. Instead, she’s much more relaxed and funky – most of the songs feel like grasps at 70’s pop-funk. The one true dance number “Can’t Dance” has shades of Chic or Patrice Rushen with its plucking guitar, thumbing bass and hand claps. It’s a shame that Stansfield abandoned the dance club totally because Seven would’ve benefitted with a little jolt of energy, and in her prime, Stansfield was one of the best dance-pop singers out there. Still, her voice is remarkable – supple and gloriously languid.
On her latest, modestly titled, Sheila E. Icon, the drummer-singer has put together her strongest LP since her excellent 1985 album Sheila E. in Romance 1600. A creative and innovative artist, she blends funk, pop, Latin pop, hip-hop, soul, dance – and instead of coming off as disorganized, the album is a sonic buffet – with something for every Sheila E. fan. And though she’s very much an artist in her own right, she’ll never escape the looming influence of Prince (he appears on the salsa-soul song “Leader of the Band”), and his purple fingerprints are all over this record – especially in the Minneapolis funk “I’ll Give You That.”
Like many modern urban-pop records, Sheila E. Icon is littered with guest stars, but instead of merely being stunt casting, the featured performers are well-integrated in the music. Rap legend MC Lyte makes a welcome appearance (here’s hoping she’ll follow suit and put out a major label release soon, too). And fellow Prince protegé Eddie M also appears, as does neo-soul star Ledisi. But the most endearing guest star is Sheila E.’s own mother who appears on a home-made recording, duetting with her daughter on the standard “Now Is the Hour” – it doesn’t fit into the album, but it’s a lovely way to close out a great album.
It’s easy to think of Sheila E., Lisa Stansfield, and Boy George as has-beens – content to tour on nostalgia tours. But these new albums show that they still have staying power.