Teena Marie Irons in the Fire Review

Album. Released 1980.  

BBC Review

Swooning romance, infectious melodies and insistent dance floor classics.

Daryl Easlea 2012

Teena Marie was one of the great soul voices. Although she never gained the widespread critical recognition of her peers, Lady T(ee) held a special place in the heart of dancers, lovers and aficionados, her voice at turns expressive, soaring and understated.

Something of a child prodigy, Marie Christine Brockert was signed by Berry Gordy to Motown’s Gordy imprint in the mid-70s, and she finally found an appropriate producer in the shape of Motown bad boy Rick James. Impressed with her musical ability, James opted to produce her instead of Diana Ross. She enjoyed huge success with her debut album, 1979’s Wild and Peaceful, and its attendant single, I’m a Sucker For Your Love. By the time of her third album, 1980’s Irons in the Fire, James had moved on – virtually everything here is produced, arranged and written by Teena herself.

She worked with the cream of Motown’s studio players and a variety of respected session guests on this set, and it’s I Need Your Lovin’ that shines as its showstopper. Built around Stone City Band member Allen McGrier’s taut bass line, it captures all the rush and joie de vivre of the period when ‘disco’ mutated into ‘dance music’. It also gave Teena her first US top 40 hit, and reached number 28 in the UK.

Irons in the Fire plays to her considerable strengths, and Teena was not one to shy away from a complex melody or arrangement: witness the intricate, Latin-influenced and percussion-heavy Chains. You Make Love Like Springtime is the down-tempo standout – appearing in two parts across the original second side (and extended on the 2011 CD reissue), it is the epitome of floating, shimmering jazz-funk. Tune in Tomorrow, with James Jamerson playing upright bass over a languid groove, seemed ever-present on late-night soul shows in the early-80s. Although Teena scats over the increasingly frenetic playing, her impeccable restraint keeps everything in good measure.

Teena was to depart Motown acrimoniously in 1982 after a dispute about unreleased material, before successfully recording for Epic throughout the 80s. At the time of her death – at the age of 54 in 2010 – she was enjoying a renaissance with the previous year’s Congo Square album. Irons in the Fire finds her at an early peak, and it’s a collection which brims with swooning romance, infectious melodies and insistent dance floor classics.

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