A glossy, disarming fusion of AOR and soul.
Daryl Easlea 2010
Often known more as songwriter than an artist, Brenda Russell had already been performing for best part of a decade when she came to release her first solo album in 1979. She had a fairly colourful past; she’d grown up in a musical family, had previously sung in the Toronto version of Hair and released two albums on Elton John’s Rocket label with her then-husband Bryan Russell. An accomplished piano player and increasingly gifted writer, she signed to Tommy LiPuma’s Horizon Records. Although the imprint collapsed after the release of her single So Good, So Right, she was snapped up by A&M.
Brenda Russell, the album, is not for everyone: its union of piano-led West Coast AOR and quiet-storm soul epitomises glossy, saccharine-saturated mellowness. All of its ballads focus on an ideal view of love; or if not love, at least the 70s notion of “getting it on”, possibly illicitly. It’s all rather tasteful, made with the cream of Los Angeles’ session players, and more akin to the work of Carole Bayer Sager or Captain and Tennille than any notable soul stars of the era.
But there is something incredibly disarming about it, too. Produced by Rufus drummer André Fischer, it is bright, upbeat and, although soppy, is never lachrymose. So Good, So Right, her breakthrough track, is quite charming; it displays all the signs of her populist touch that was to culminate in the later Get Here, the massive hit for Oleta Adams. The album’s showstopper is If Only for One Night. Here, Russell soothes and cajoles her lover to spend the evening with her, offering protection and cosseting as the strings and vocals swoop ever more dramatically in the background.
It’s not all mid-paced ballads, either: Way Back When, sounding like a song in need of a musical, is fairly jaunty, and comes alive with Ed Brown’s bass solo which owes a sizeable debt of gratitude to Chic’s Bernard Edwards. Elsewhere, In the Thick of It is radio friendly, bossa-nova influenced pop.
It is little wonder that Russell’s songs have been sung by so many famous people over the years – she writes with a universal touch, and delivers her material with great warmth. If this appeals, Brenda Russell is a near-perfect album.