*”Electric Cafe” is En Vogue‘s seventh studio album and like previous projects by them is themed from start to finish. Although there are no ad-libbed skits like on their first album, ‘Electric Cafe’ finds its songs connected on a more conceptual level that is expressed in the lyrics and harmonies of the tracks. The influence of electronic or techno music is prevalent throughout the album. This theme is pulled out into the very style of Terry Ellis, Rhona Bennett and Cindy Herron on the cover with their metallic garments and a neon glow behind them.
“In the writing, we bring out our life experiences. The evolution of us, and who we are as people,” added Cindy.
“For us, when we work together,” Cindy said describing their music making procedures, “When we all come together [for the ‘Electric Cafe’ album] we started with our producer Denzel Foster. He had some tracks already, that he and Thomas McElroy were considering and wanted us to hear. And we would just listen and discuss what we wanted the subject matter to be, what direction we wanted to go, or if it was something that we could even write to. So we start there, and once we come up with an idea or a direction, we just start writing. And sometimes you write more than you need to and you might throw some things out…”
“Or it may be going in a direction that you decided to change,” interjected Terry.
“And once we are all in agreement,” continued Cindy, “the verses are together and everything seems to harmonize, then we get into the booth and we start singing.”
The ladies of En Vogue urge up and coming singers and musicians to continue to hone their craft, and learn the business of the music industry.
“If you are in a group,” Terry explained, “just learn how to respect each other. Respect the differences. Respect what everyone is bringing to the table and honor that.”
The wisdom of a more mature woman should not be ignored, and respect for the contributions of the individual members of the group is a theme that stretches the length of En Vogue’s musical career.
‘Blue Sky’ starts off with a drumming beat. An uplifting song, the lyrics state, “I can hear these words inside of me/you’re gonna make it through this day.” It is apparent why they put this song as the first on the album. Its marching drums push the vibe up-tempo, however, their high pitched vocals seem rather preachy. The song is anchored by a melodic harmony that has to be Rhonda’s raspy bass-heavy voice deepening the final product and creating the balance we know as harmony. Harmony, after all, is what En Vogue is known for.
“Blue Sky’s is about getting past that point in life and looking up into the sky and there are no more clouds, only blue skies,” explains Cindy. “You are no longer standing in the rain. That’s one [song] we really love.”
‘Deja Vu,’ the second track on the ‘Electric Cafe’ album, is a song that causes reminisces and helps further establish the retro, neon, 80’s Rhythm and Blues feel. Following the production pointers of the first album, ‘Deja Vu’ also has a break in the middle of the song where fast tempo lyrics are sung and the listener gets a taste of what the ladies describe as “singing in one voice.” But this time the delivery is controlled and almost directional as it is easy to imagine them standing in a straight line and belting out these fast lyrics as they synchronized there foot taps, hand snaps, smiles and of course their one voice harmonies just as the barbershop quartets did it in the past.
Streaming a soft love story, ‘Rocket,’ weaves a space aged fantasy that takes the listener “higher than I’ve ever been.” This could turn out to be a fan favorite because it possesses a catchy beat that bumps slow, while the ladies at a faster tempo. This is one of those songs that has the potential to rock huge stadiums live with the ladies not singing this subdued album version, but really putting that feeling and emotion into each word in the lyrics.
Sticking with their love theme, the En Vogue trio show their experience on this album by infusing modern Hip Hop cadences that influence this track’s vocals and beat sequencing. This style of rhythmically singing is blended with their traditional style displayed on the song ‘Reach For Me.’
While their first album found them actually rapping on several tracks, and Cindy is quoted from a concert in San Diego stating that she “doesn’t rap,” Hip Hop’s lyrical syncopations has drifted into Rhythm and Blues and has landed here. There are a million singers in their mirrors and holding brushes that aspire to make good music. A song that can be played and not stopped. One that will be sung later from memory. The sound that they are dreaming about is displayed here. While maybe this track isn’t a roof banger, the uptempo beat can make it happen on the dance floor and any DJ worth his spit can easily weave this song into the mix. The high pitched “I’m not far away,” sounds off ripe for sampling and scratching. I feel a techno remix of this song coming “not far away.”
The title song, ‘Electric Cafe’ pushes the retro disco and electronic theme with the voices of the singers altered to sound like they are singing through a well-tuned transistor radio. Definitely a candidate for a techno remix. The lyrics are fun and playful, nostalgic of the nuclear family commercials during the 50s and 60s.
“‘Electric Cafe’ is very different,” stated Rhona. “It’s kind of soul-punk. The approach to the vocals is different. It’s just a different record and we had fun playing it.”
Birthing a new style, ‘Life’ introduces En Vogue’s ‘One Voice’ singing style, where the ladies of En Vogue sing together harmonizing each lyric for the entire song. The second verse switches speed with a hyper beat, and the verse urges the listener to act on their opportunities and “embrace your life because God is in every breath you take.” Here, the producers go ahead and take the music towards that techno sound that is expected of a group of this caliber to embrace the world and its various musical markets.
‘Love The Way’ is a disco inspired track that has the classic Rhythm and Blues structure with clear vocals and a deep empty track, that is filled with the chorus. Following the chorus, the listener is pulled through a garden of lyrical explanations of why En Vogue loves the way you love her.
“It feels good to me,” the chorus sings before leaving the listener once again drifting in the space of the empty beat as a lover would when remembering the events of the previous night. Pushing the technology and electronic aspects, the lyrics of this song describes a wild ride embarked upon if you and En Vogue were in love.
“Let’s go off into outer space/rocket thrust, Milky-Way, / Venus, Mars, love your thang / in outer galaxies!”
I am positive that the lyrics written above are incorrect, but this is what I heard when I listened. This also raises the point that this hidden gem of a verse might be overlooked until it is played a million times and then the listener has that ‘ah hah’ moment of understanding and clarity.
What makes a great verse? One that is easy to sing, easy to remember, causes emotion, triggers memories or is it one that is difficult to understand like a puzzle? Someone could argue each one, and they all would be right. The true measure is a combination of each.
With a puzzle lyric, the listener must unravel the hidden meaning behind the lyric that sometimes includes deciphering the words themselves to get the truth behind the meaning. This concept is prevalent in Diana Ross’ ‘Upside Down’ in its most simplistic form and also in Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bills Bills Bills,’ with a faster tempo. With both of these songs, the listener gets more information the deeper they listen and the more times they hear it.
At first glance, this task of disassembling songs might seem like a death sentence for any potential hit. It is unless the rhythms of the song can glide the listener through the song long enough for the listener to naturally develop an understanding, so they can have that moment of clarity.
From outer space into the ‘Oceans Deep,’ this voyage of technological concepts blended through the filter of love just keeps moving. The beginning of the track, ‘Oceans Deep,’ has a distorted call for revolution by some unidentified military leader as En Vogue seeks to “turn war into peace.”
The concepts of songs that end wars are prevalent through music and literature. In anime, the character of Lynn Minmay from the 80’s series ‘Robotech’ must sing a song during a pitched battle that changes the mindset of the enemy and turns the battle for the forces of good. Throughout En Vogue’s career, they have pushed their music towards this goal of positive change. A good example is the ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ from their first album ‘Born To Sing’ released in 1990 with its military inspired theme that coincided the beginnings of the ‘Gulf War.’ Is the power of a super-group’s clear vocals enough to change the mindset of a warmongering nation?
‘Have a Seat’ continues with the ‘soda pop and milkshake restaurant during the Motown era’ vibe that En Vogue has generated with this ‘Electric Cafe’ album. Just as you think the song is going to wine into the end, a surprise verse from Snoop Dogg and his rhythmic flow lift new ‘life’ into the song as if three Snoops sung at the same time. Snoop talks just the right amount of trash before he turns it around and speaks genuine gentleman spit with a gangster accent that fits the vibe of the song.
The only problem with this song is that Snoop doesn’t start until 2 minutes into the song and only has one verse. Even the verses of the ladies pick up a bit after Snoop’s verse. They get conceited speaking on how hot and wonderful they are in a sassy way singing, “I know I’m hard to watch because I’m so freakin hot, yeah yeah yeah! Bet your girlfriend doesn’t dress like me, but you’ll never come close, baby, have a seat!” delivered in a cute, high-pitched style.
Moving away from the direct love life dramas displayed in the previous songs, “I’m Good” is a self-reflective track that seeks to raise the self-esteem of the listener who may have gone through a bad break up or a rocky time in a relationship, but has survived and is moving on.
After being good by themselves, the ladies of En Vogue enter ‘So Serious’ as seemingly jealous ex-girlfriends. Let me explain, the song starts with the line, “This is a man’s world…so they say.” They move on into verses that basically repeat what every abusive boyfriend said just before the woman runs off being ‘Good’. The man is described as being serious and mad but the ex-girlfriend says that he can not do anything without her. He can’t stand as tall, he can’t fight his battles, and the world won’t function correctly without her by his side.
This is another point of wisdom that these women share that suggests that a man needs his women. This can be interpreted further to mean that the men of our nation, need the undescribed and undefined strength of the woman for them to be the best men and achieve heights higher than they could alone.
“For me, [So Serious] was fun to write,” explained Terry, “because we were writing from the perspective of self-empowerment for the female, as a female who is standing by her man and acknowledging the backbone of that relationship.”
While the lyrics were written with one concept in mind, it brings up the unsaid double standard in our society where women can say things that men are shunned and punished for saying. The sounds of another hip En Vogue harmony won’t cover up the cringe-worthiness of song lyrics deserving of the Acrimony soundtrack, focused on the final scenes of the movie where Henson’s character is wearing the wedding dress. Now repeat those lyrics as the main character approaches her ex-husband with an ax in hand.
The before mentioned ‘undefined’ role of the woman in this song can be easily misinterpreted as an ultra-feminist message that puts down the man, but for life to happen, there needs both the man and the woman. Each figure in that union has to strengthen, uplift and improve the other. Between them is love, and that love is described throughout the songs on this ‘Electric Cafe’ album.
Ending the album is ‘Have a Seat’ which sounds very anti-man without Snoop’s laid-back delivery. With the consistent influx of feminine ideals, it’s refreshing to receive the masculine perspective on this album. The three main male features, Snoop Dogg with vocals on ‘Have a Seat,’ Raphael Saadiq credited with composition and production on ‘I’m Good,’ and Ne-Yo is credited as one of the writers for ‘Rocket’. However, only Snoop actually voices his own opinions on the album and exists as a well-placed interlude. The scene he describes is one of patience and understanding while dealing with the woman in his life. Without him, the song is conceited and speaks from a one-sided point of view.
Not appearing on the album is a bonus track ‘Luv My Thangz’ that was held for exclusive Target customers, but after listening to it on YouTube.com, I advise picking this gem up as well. This song has become one of my favorites mainly because like lots of En Vogue fans, I find myself with urges to engage in online shopping so that the ‘the things I love’ can arrive at my home, in a box. ‘Luv My Thangz’ can also be found in the ‘singles and ep’s’ section in the music streaming service Tidal.
In conclusion, the production team of Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, responsible for memorable tracks from artists such as Club Nouveau, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Alexander O’Neal, Regina Belle, and Madonna, remain consistent with this album and its formulaic messages. Foster and McElroy embed them deep within the tracks and the lyrics of the album until the music, the theme of the album and the concepts for each song blend into one continuous piece. This shows great growth as they move away from comical skits that littered the first few albums and support the theme of electronic music by actually including those ideas in the music, lyrics, and styling of the group.
“We simply want to say, ‘Thank you,’ stated Cindy at the end of the ‘Love My Thangs’ track on YouTube.com, “We have so much gratitude for all of the support that you guys have been giving us for so long and thank you for your patience, your excitement and inquiring about new music from us. That keeps us focused. We hope you love the new record.”
Do you like the new album? Comment below and let’s continue the conversation! I’d love to hear your point of view.
For more information about En Vogue go to www.envoguemusic.com.