Analog Planet -
Tasty as the back up band and the outstanding acoustic arrangements are, Ms. Fernandez steals the show with a voice that is as unlikely as her cover photo. While the cover shot makes her look somewhat academic and perhaps reserved, trust me, there's no governor on her voice or the rawness of the emotions she pours forth.
When appropriate she dials it down to a simmer as on a great cover of Al Kooper's Blood, Sweat and Tears classic "More Than You'll Ever Know". She even covers the somewhat obscure John Deacon-Freddie Mercury track "Cool Cat" from Queen's Hot Space album. Ms. Fernandez's performance on this slow simmer will have to convince you that she's the real deal.
Sometimes audiophile productions meet your sonic expectations but disappoint in other ways. In this case, Ms. Fernandez does not disappoint.
The Audio Beat
I first heard Use Me during The Show Newport Beach. Ying Tan, president of Groove Note and the album's producer, brought a test pressing of it to the show, and I was sitting in the center chair as he was just about to play it. Josh Bizar, the marketing director for Music Direct and Mobile Fidelity, was also in the room, and before the music began, he made a short speech about the album. I can't quote him reliably so long after the fact, but his point was that amongst so many reissues and re-reissues, the new album we were about to hear reminded us why we were audiophiles: for the music. Amen, I thought, followed by, This had better be something special.
It was. A tasty mixture of R&B and soul with simmering vocals and expert playing. However, it was only after receiving the album that I discovered the roots of the accomplishment. Ying Tan first heard Jessica Fernandez sing on YouTube, although she's a well-known vocalist and DJ in Singapore, where he lives. After reissuing many jazz and classical chestnuts on his Original Recordings Group label, Ying was interested in producing a session of new music for Groove Note, the label he founded nearly twenty years ago. Fernandez's previous recordings were rooted in ambient music and electronica, but she and Ying discovered that they shared a love of Curtis Mayfield. They initially planned an all-Mayfield session, but this evolved into a mix of tunes "associated with Curtis," as Ying put it, including songs written by Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Donny Hathaway, Al Kooper, Tony Joe White, and Bill Withers. "It took us around two years to decide on the song list," Ying told me, but "I think we got a really splendid group for this album."
At least a couple of the songs will be familiar, but the session's intimate, unplugged vibe gives deeper insight into their structure, their soul. Fernandez avoids vocal ostentation, and the songs are all the better for it. I could call Mayfield's own "Here But I'm Gone" my personal fave from Use Me, but the rest have a way of slowly getting under the skin, which is a way of saying that they are "a really splendid group" and hold together as a collection. Veteran Los Angeles session players, including Leland Sklar on bass, comprise the backing band, and, as with Fernandez's singing, they play with restraint and feeling.
Engineer Michael Ross recorded the music to 30ips 1/4" tape, and the all-analog pedigree is evident. The sound is smooth, dynamic and big, with massive weight and presence. Use Me is demo material, you won't hear a better-sounding record this year or next.
"There will definitely be a second album," Ying told me. Great news, because, like other Groove Note releases, such as Roy Gaines' remarkable I Got the T-Bone Walker Blues and Anthony Wilson's underappreciated Jack of Hearts, Use Me isn't typical audiophile fare. The spectacular sound only enhances the finely wrought, infectious music. Let the countdown to the follow-up begin.
By the age of thirty-one, Singapore-based Vanessa Fernandez had an unusual career. A decade earlier, she was a member of the hip-hop group, Urban Xchange (which became Parking Lot Pimps). Recently, she has been a disc jockey on Mediacore Radio 987FM. She is known by the moniker “Miss Vandetta” . Now, Fernandez has signed a recording contract and made an album in Los Angeles.
Fernandez’s debut, Use Me covers an assortment of high-profiled soul composers with a top-notch ensemble of studio musicians contributing to a well-crafted, accessible rhythm and blues outing. On the often-covered Earth Wind & Fire song “I Just Wanna Be With You”, Fernadez delivers a soulful but intimate performance (with tracked backup vocals). There is a steady rhythm, but the polished sound is not overproduced. This is not a reinvention of soul music, but a swaying celebration.
“Be Thankful For What You Got”, (a gem from the early seventies written and performed by William DeVaughn) is atmospheric with a nimble electric piano solo (Jim Cox) and percussion (Rafael Padilla) combination. The vocals demonstrate sophisticated timing and phrasing. There is emphatic inflection, without overstatement. Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” features a plaintive harmonica meshing with the acoustic structure of the arrangements, and capturing the romantic, slow-dance Motown vibe.
A slow-burning intensity is featured on “Hard Times”. All of Curtis Mayfield’s urban grit is rendered with tasteful acoustic guitar riffs (Tim Pierce) and classic tempo breaks. Fernandez’s voice is tough with a sweet agility. She brings tenderness to “That Loving Feeling” (Tony Joe White) and “Simply Beautiful” (can’t leave out the Reverend Al Green). "Use Me", the title cut, is dynamic and works with this group. Maintaining all the grooves and hooks that Bill Withers injected into this soul classic, Fernadez exudes soulfulness (with some falsetto at the end), and the rhythmic guitar runs are fluent and straightforward.
A surprise is Al Kooper’s bluesy “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” (from Blood Sweat & Tears’ first album, Child Is Father To The Man). This cover is less electric than the original (acoustic guitar, harmonica) but Fernandez brings a smoldering glow to the take. She astutely chooses not to mimic Kooper’s over-the-top ending vocal stretch, instead opting for alley-cat coolness. Another unexpected track is a version of Queen’s “Cool Cat” (from Hot Space). Fernadez adapts the song to her wistfully heated vocal style.
Next we find another Mayfield show-stopper, “Here But I’m Gone”. A slow, pulsating funk/groove is a counterpoint to the desperation plea of this inner-city narrative. Another crisp arrangement, it features vintage stops and another Pierce guitar solo. An alternate mix of ”Be Thankful What You Got” is the finale. The steady work of veterans Leland Sklar (bass) and Victor Indrizzo (drums) anchor the band for most of the album.
Groove Note producer Ying Tan chose wisely in bringing this project to Oceanway Recording. Recorded direct to analogue in five sessions (by Grammy-nominated engineer Michael C. Ross), the album was re-mastered (by Bernie Grundman) directly from the original Analog 30 ips ¼ inch master. The recording is exemplary high resolution with excellent instrumental detail. Fernandez’s voice is vibrant and not overwhelmed by low-compression. This is an auspicious debut!