Random Song Reviews – 3/1-3/7/2022


R. Kelly – Bump N’ Grind

Let’s attempt to set aside the elephant in the room and solely focus on this awful song…. oh, who am I kidding? This is R. Kelly we’re talking about here, convicted sex offender and all-around terrible person. He’s certainly not the first atrocious human being to score a #1 hit… but he’s perhaps the first to blatantly tell us who he was in his music, so much so that listening to his output will make the listener feel complicit. That he was able to make sex romps for so long while news of his criminal activity persisted through the decades is a fact we all will have to live with.

Looking back at his first chart topper, 1994’s “Bump N’ Grind,” it’s impossible to separate the art from the artist. His desperately horny persona was a perfect fit for the pervasive style of R&B that was trendy at the time. The music was extreme, emotional, passionate, but, I would argue, not always completely genuine. I’ve written about this recently when reviewing hits from Silk and Boyz II Men. Some acts were aware that the music was ridiculous and funny, and that was part of the appeal. And for a while, that’s what R. Kelly was doing, too. This is a guy who made “Trapped In the Closet,” for god’s sake. He knew what was going on. From the acapella intro that everyone remembers to that incessantly repetitive refrain, “Bump N’ Grind” dives head first into that experience, and it introduced the entire world to R. Kelly. But the song is one-note, overwrought, and not nearly as engrossing as other similar hits of the time. And, as Kelly’s actions came to light, the humorous aspect of “Bump N’ Grind” completely vanished.

Score: 2/10

All-4-One – I Swear

Can we all just take a moment to chuckle at the fact that All-4-One was basically an R&B vehicle for John Michael Montgomery songs that were too twangy for 90s pop radio? Not only did they take “I Swear” all the way to #1 on the Hot 100, but their only other Top Ten song was ANOTHER Montgomery country hit, the superior “I Can Love You Like That.”

Due to my age in 1994, and probably because I was raised in the Texas Panhandle, I heard the original country version of “I Swear” first; it likely happened while riding with my mom in the car. I didn’t even know about All-4-One, or their then-ubiquitous cover of the song, for several years. The country version maintains a special place in my heart, probably for nostalgic reasons, and also because it’s way, way better than All-4-One’s version. “I Swear” in Montgomery’s hands is a typical country ballad. It’s filled with earnest lyrics about devotion and soaked in pedal steel. But it also feels genuine, and that all comes down to Montgomery’s world-weary delivery. He truly sounds like he’s ready to settle down and, for better or worse, til death do they part, love his girl with every beat of his heart.

In comparison, All-4-One’s cover sounds like a sappy cash grab, swallowed by the pop ballad production tropes of its era. Those are courtesy of David Foster, the same guy who built an arrangement for another pop hit with origins on the country charts, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” With that one, Foster’s staid choices are saved by Houston’s otherworldly vocal performance. Sadly, All-4-One, a then-newcomer vocal group, cannot rescue Foster this time around.

It’s not really fair to compare All-4-One (or anyone, really) to Whitney Houston. Instead we should compare them to other vocal groups that were all the rage in 1994. But after sex-soaked #1 singles from Silk and R. Kelly, All-4-One were relatively safe and radio-friendly. They were more like Boyz II Men, but with less vocal talent, to be frank. With “I Swear” the quartet plays it fairly straight, delivering the song without much flair or vamping. All the guys were pretty young, and their delivery gives that away; they hit all the notes and have a knack for four-part harmony, but they sound timid and unremarkable. Meanwhile, Foster lays on the sentimental gloop via snaps, cymbals, keyboard plink-plonking, and a syrupy soft-focus sax solo.

After All-4-One flirted with the Hot 100, via two songs from the same Nashville star, they faded into obscurity, and eventually the 90s nostalgia touring circuit. If there’s a country version of that tour, I think I’d rather see John Michael Montgomery, or at least hear his version. I swear.

Score: 3/10

Lisa Loeb – Stay (I Missed You)

Lisa Loeb’s only chart topper perfectly represents a moment in time. In the early 90s alt-rock had infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist almost completely, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the Hot 100. There’s a number of reasons for that, some of which have to do with Billboard’s rules for the chart at the time. But probably the biggest reason is a lot of that music wasn’t really designed for a mainstream audience. Bands like Nirvana and Alice In Chains were loud and confrontational, and artists like Celine Dion and Boyz II Men made songs that were more accessible. With her biggest hit, Loeb seemed to bridge the gap, if only in a very nebulous sense.

“Stay” is the most enduring song from the Reality Bites soundtrack; the film is also a product of its time, but we won’t get into that. The track’s core melody is undeniably catchy and pretty, yet the song structure is a bit unorganized, at least for a pop hit. Loeb sings conflictingly about a confusing point in a romantic relationship. The song successfully found a home on several radio formats at the time; it worked as a pleasant adult-contempo track, a pop song, and, yes, an alternative radio track. But instead of being loud and abrasive, “Stay” was a bit of a precursor to the staid Lilith Fair trend that happened later in the decade. Lisa Loeb was the first of a wave of female singer-songwriter types that ran adjacent to what was happening in alternative rock, sometimes sounding more plaintive and honest than aloof and angsty. “Stay” is the closest representation of the alt-rock boom on Billboard’s biggest chart, and it sounds nothing like the music from the biggest bands of that period.

I like the song, but somewhat indifferently. In 1994, this style of acoustic pop was probably pretty unique; Lisa Loeb (and her thick-rimmed glasses) was a new kind of musician that echoed the Laurel Canyon sounds from the 1970s more than the emotive balladeers of her own time. Without the success of “Stay” we probably wouldn’t have signature 90s hits from Natalie Imbruglia, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole and the like. But the song itself, while pleasant to listen to, doesn’t really move me. I suppose I enjoy pop’s more histrionic moments than I would like to admit; for me, the track plays it a little too straight, and it comes and goes with little resonance. “Stay” is perfectly fine and an important cultural touchstone, but as a standalone song, I could take it or leave it.

Score: 6/10


Portugal. The Man – What, Me Worry?

Who actively chooses to listen to this? I blame Beck for this stale amalgamation of disco-tinged, orchestra-sampling boredom destined for supermarket PA systems. It sounds like something in the lineage of Midnite Vultures, but far less interesting. Maybe actually I should blame Pharrell Williams and his deathless hit “Happy”, because “What, Me Worry?”, as the title implies, is a derivative, formless pastiche of feel-good mashed potatoes, as forgettable as a bad issue of Mad Magazine. Perhaps I shouldn’t be pointing fingers, because the song actually could be from a number of influences, all of which combine into something designed for the current, risk-averse era of alternative radio we’re living in. It’s a song so unbelievably boring and unmemorable that the artificial joy the song attempts to evoke actually makes me quite sad.

Score: 2/10

Leave a Reply