Monday, October 31, 2011

Sheena Easton: The Singles Of 1987 | 'No Sound But A Heart'

With 11 top 40 hits, six 10s, seven albums and two Grammy Awards since her auspicious launch with "Morning Train" in 1981, Sheena Easton was an established pop artist by 1987. But all was not well with her longtime record company EMI America, which was in the process of being absorbed into the larger EMI Manhattan label.

Following the tepid success of 1985 album Do You and subsequent soundtrack singles "It's Christmas All Over the World"; and "So Far So Good" and "Natural Love" from hit flick About Last Night, Sheena recorded No Sound But A Heart, her eighth studio album.

To say that the project was a middle-of-the-road snore is perhaps being generous. While it offered a few easy, breezy songs, for the most part, production from Keith Diamond, Narada Michael Walden, Nick Martinelli, David Leonard and even Phil Ramone was blasé, fill-in-the-blanks standard '80s AC. At best it was uninspired, at worst, a full-length project replete with filler material.

The first single was the exception, but certainly did nothing to help. "Eternity," written and produced by Prince, was wildly experimental, with dreamy layers of harmony, dissonant chord progressions, recognizable Prince production... and a chorus that just didn't quite mesh. There was a certain regal demeanor to the track, but at the same time, it was perhaps overly ambitious for top 40 radio and for sure strayed from Sheena's template of instantaneous pop hooks and/or consummate ballad vocals.

I recall listening to a 1987 radio interview at top 40 WAVA/Washington, where the morning guys played "Eternity"—with Sheena sitting alongside in the studio—and they literally burst into regales of laughter when the song finished, saying, "Okaaaaay..." Despite beautiful packaging from EMI with a fold-out poster, the single was an outright flop. (All the same, "Eternity" finished 1987 at No. 1 on my TTT chart.)

More grueling, with EMI's corporate conundrum, No Sound But A Heart was delayed from its intended February release in the U.S., then held until June... and finally—a Sheena follower's worst nightmare—the album was shelved. (It was released in 1999 by One Way Records, marking its first official entree to the U.S. market.) The set was issued in 1987 in Canada, Mexico and Asia, but I can tell you, it was no easy task to find the LP in the States.

Of course, eventually, I did. At some point a year or so later, I was actually on a date with some dude that I had already determined fairly bland. We were passing time at a record store in D.C.'s Georgetown that carried used albums. As I'm leafing through the E's, as always, my hand stopped. I was paralyzed. In front of me was the fucking holy grail: a promo copy of No Sound But A Heart, with full artwork, new & never played.

Man, I remember this so clearly. I bought the album, handling it as if I had purchased an original Rembrandt, and promptly ended the date with some lame excuse... Based on where I lived at the time, it must have been 1989. It had started raining outside, ever so gently, and in my bedroom, I played the album in the dark, savoring every song, each line, note by note. It was a beautiful thing.

Meanwhile, back to 1987, other artists were lapping up tracks from Sheena's unreleased No Sound, including Crystal Gayle & Gary Morris with "Wanna Give My Love" & "What If We Fall In Love," Pia Zadora on "Floating Hearts," Patti LaBelle with "Still In Love" and I'll be damned if Celine Dion wouldn't cover "The Last to Know" on her first English-language album, Unison, in 1990.

What's odd is that no other artist covered "Still Willing To Try," easily the best track on the album and a shoulda-been smash. I recall that Sheena sang it on Johnny Carson at some point, and I was armed with the equipment necessary to record it directly from the broadcast. What an enchanting ballad and truly among Sheena's all-time classics.

Among the album's other songs "No Ordinary Love," "Wanna Give My Love," "Still in Love" and the title track were pleasant, if not hitworthy, while "Floating Hearts" was truly among the lamest Sheena ever recorded.

Thank god in July, Prince made good for the misstep of "Eternity," by inviting Sheena to duet on "U Got the Look," the first single from his album Sign “☮” the Times, which was an enormous success, reaching No. 2 on the singles chart.

Unfortunately, Sheena was not credited on the single, so never got official credit in the chart books—a crime (yes, our girl was robbed!)—especially considering that "U Got the Look" was nominated for a Grammy for Best Duo or Group. The video clip featured a hot-looking Sheena with teased hair taunting Prince, which was also included in Prince's movie Sign “☮” the Times.

This third collaboration between Sheena and Prince, following "Sugar Walls" and "Eternity" would not be their last. Prince would call upon her for another duet in two years. But while 1987 was bittersweet with the failure of No Sound But A Heart, 1988 was downright desolate, as Sheena was AWOL from the charts while she shopped for a new label deal.

Coming up: Sheena gets red-hot sexy and returns to the top 10, while crossing to R&B and dance, as well.