Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sheena Easton: The Mid-1990s | 'Freedom,' 'Home'

Following Sheena Easton's last U.S. albums My Cherie and No Strings, and an assorted lot of soundtrack contributions, by 1996, the singer had had her fill of record promotion, touring and indulging the major label machine. Notably, she adopted two kids from birth at mid-decade, Jake and Skylar, which cemented her decision to ease into an "occasional" career.

Sheena maintained ties with MCA in Japan and formed her own imprint SkyJay Trax, releasing Freedom in 1997, an album of middle-of-the-road pop songs—which, because it was aimed specifically at the market there, sounded dated at best. Included was launch single "Modern Girl '97," an attempt at updating her 1981 hit. A great idea, albeit poorly executed. Honestly, it sounded more like a morning train-wreck, with groovy production more befitting 1993 meets 1979 than anything resembling 1997.

Breezy midtempo "Love Me With Freedom" and sweet, disco-tinged "When You Speak My Name" (including a dreaded children's chorus) followed... B-level songs that were ultimately disappointing for longtime followers—and on the singles chart.

Arguably, the best song on Freedom was beautiful soaring ballad "One Man," which Sheena co-wrote with the fabulous Carol Bayer Sager and accomplished Cliff Magness, as close to perfection as the album would muster. Easton also co-wrote gospel-inflected ballad "Love Will Make You Wise," with an appreciably gritty vocal, again among the best of the bunch.

She exhibited her own freedom by co-producing nine of the 10 cuts on Freedom. Ultimately, Sheena's 13th album fared respectably, peaking at No. 53 in Japan. In time, the album was released independently in the States with a different (much improved) cover.

On the soundtrack side, Sheena's cover of "Sentimental Journey" was included on the 1996 live ensemble recording "Swing Alive! at the Hollywood Palladium" and she contributed the sweet if disposable ballad "Are There Angels?" to Shiloh, a disturbingly unpleasant movie about a family whose loving dog turns around its cruel, asswipe dad.

Then there were the two songs Sheena recorded for—of all things—the soundtrack to Barney's Great Adventure (eek!). Her lullaby "Goodnight" was just lovely, produced simply with minimal production and a soft, lilting vocal. Absolutely mesmerizing. A second ensemble track "I Love You" with Take 6, Jeffrey Osborne and a choir was serviceable, as well, though an annoying Spanish rap pretty much hijacked the tale end of the song.

In late 1998, Easton began an annual tour with holiday troupe "The Colors of Christmas," alongside the likes of Roberta Flack, Melissa Manchester, Peabo Bryson and Jeffrey Osborne. Windham Hill released an accompanying album, which included Easton/Osborne duet "The Place Where We Belong," regarded as a latter-career classic among Sheena followers, which was serviced to AC radio in the States. The Colors of Christmas also included her deletable reading of "The Lord's Prayer," a consummate reminder that above all, Sheena remained one of the finest singers the world has known.

In 1999, Home, Sheena's 14th studio album, was released by Universal/Victor for the Japanese market. The self-produced CD comprised four covers—including the dreadful Crosby Stills Nash & Young song "Our House," Paul Simon's "St. Judy's Comet," Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around"—and six tracks of new material.

Sadly, for the most part, the album was a throwaway. Funky "Something Good" and pretty ballad "Never Saw A Miracle" were mildly entertaining, and certainly better songs than single "My Treasure Is You," a frenetic disco paean that was downright silly.

And then... there's "Carry A Dream," the first single and theme song to Japanese animated flick Marco. Jesus, almighty, Sheena pulled one out with this flawless, superlative, transcendent power ballad, tailor made for her soaring soprano.

It delivered everything that Sheena-heads treasure about Easton: beautiful, tenderly delivered verses that build into a hurricane of emotion at the bridge, peaking with a final chorus that rips open the clouds, offering melodramatic money notes so satisfying that great sex pales in comparison. No, really. If "Carry A Dream" was to be Sheena Easton's swan song, what a grand finale it was. To have such a treasure this late in her career was truly a gift.

Mercy, that felt good to write. Damn! (Not to mention playing the song 15 times in a row while scribing.)

Meanwhile, Easton continued acting, including a 1992 traveling Broadway revival of Man Of La Mancha, opposite the wonderful Raul Julia (which I saw in Washington); and in New York, the cheesy redo of Grease in 1996. By that point, I was working for Billboard magazine, which finally gave me the opportunity to achieve a life's dream: to interview Sheena. And oh, what a beautiful thing it was to be.

Coming up: My personal one-on-one experiences with Sheena Easton, and her final album Fabulous!