Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sheena Easton: The Singles Of 1991 | 'What Comes Naturally'

In 1991, The New York Times wrote, "No one ever became a musician for job security. But in recent years, the length of the average pop career has dwindled fast. The 1980s and 1990 brought record sales to new peaks while performers tended to flash and burn out. Some deserve one-hit wonder status; few have much to say beyond a fifth album."

Considering that this same year, Sheena Easton was delivering her 10th studio album after renewed success with 1989's gold-selling MCA bow The Lover In Me, it persistently amazes me that the singer has never merited the historic credit she deserves for such extraordinary endurance.

Let's sum it up: In 1991, 10 years after launching her career with global chart-topping "Morning Train," Sheena had delivered seven top 10 U.S. hits, with a total of 25 top 40 hits in territories around the world. Winner of two Grammy awards and four additional nominations, plus an Oscar nod. Sales of 20 million albums worldwide. The only artist to ever score top 5's at top 40, AC, dance, country and R&B—a record that stands today. Like Olivia Newton-John, her sound evolved with time, from cute singalong pop and velvety ballads to R&B-tinged dance and more mature, impeccably delivered love songs—as she propelled from the girl next door to the vamp you eye through her bedroom window.

Perspective: 'N Sync may have sold 26 million copies of its first three U.S. albums between 1998 and 2001, but except for a Christmas set, that was the full extent of its studio output. In only three years, the hottest-selling pop act was burned out.

The fact that Sheena was destined to squeeze one more top 40 hit from her 1991 10th studio album What Comes Naturally is quite the feat. At 32, she was pushing the confines of the pop arena—though, ironically, overt sexuality overtook her musicality, to my grave disappointment. Despite an ongoing spate of releases that would continue throughout the 1990s, it's fair to say this was to be her final commercially viable set.

Sheena was aligned with a number of producers and songwriters du-jour, including Oliver Leiber (who would make Paula Abdul famous), Ian Prince, Antonia Armato and Siedah Garrett. Prince also contributed two throwaway tracks, ballady "Somebody" and grating cacophonous "Manic Panic."

In addition, Sheena was credited as co-songwriter on pretty ballad "The Next Time," midtempo dance track "The First Touch of Love" and silly, giddy "Half A Heart."

The title track and first single was a contemporary R&B new jack swing dance jam, packed with instrumental ticks, horns, orchestral hits, urban background vocals and a fluttery vocal from Sheena. Uh, she also rapped. It was catchy but gimmicky, accompanied by a music video that bordered on soft porn. Boobs, cleavage and lots of writhing, as her newly adorned long straight red hair whipped and Sheena wriggled. I was not particularly amused. She was too good a singer to resort to such a tawdry ploy.

All the same, "What Comes Naturally" reached No. 19 on the Hot 100, and grazed the top 40 at both R&B and Dance. In Australia, the song reached No. 4.

Still, I was apparently put off enough by Sheena's sexually driven persona (the album's cover image didn't help) that 1991 marked the first year on my own chart that she didn't peak at No. 1 for the year with new material: "Naturally" stopped short at No. 4, trumped by Corona's "Temptation" at No. 1, Mariah Carey's "Emotion" and—quite telling—Celine Dion's first English hit "Where Does My Heart Beat Now."

The follow-up to "Naturally" was another new jack swing dance track, "You Can Swing It." I was madly in love with this song; it was fun, hip, melodic, upbeat and catchy as hell. Apparently, the view was not shared. It was a flop at all formats. MCA didn't even bother with a video clip.

Third single "To Anyone" was a brilliant choice by the record label, returning Sheena to the grandiose ballads that helped make her famous. Co-written by Matthew Wilder and produced by Ric Wake, the melodramatic heartbreak song builds to a thunderous skyscraping climax, with a vocal that dismisses all the production tricks of the trade, focusing squarely on Sheena's consummate vocal.

Truly, except for Celine, there are few artists I can imagine delivering this tour de force with such passion and gut-wrenching anguish. "Anyone who's ever been in love knows why I'm crying," she sings... It remains my No. 1 go-to track whenever my soul aches, and a song I still listen to most every week. Every week. Twenty years... that amounts to about 1,050 spins, in addition to the 891375801435 times I played it in 1991... and it's still as affecting as the first time I heard it.

What Comes Naturally was Sheena's final album to chart in the U.S., peaking at No. 90. It was followed by her critically acclaimed standards No Strings in 1993 and a return to AC with My Cherie in 1995—her final two sets released in the States, before a string of Japanese one-off singles and lukewarm albums.

But after more than a decade in a business that the New York Times declared a loss leader for anyone counting on job security, Sheena's talent had propelled her into enough of a name brand to soon co-opt her success into numerous acting gigs, a Las Vegas residency and today, tour stops of her choosing. I'd say Sheena Easton made the right choice for a career.

Next up: The rest of the story.