Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds made his name as one of the most successful pop writer-producers of the ’90s, rolling out hits for big names such as Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Toni Braxton and Boyz II Men, and also working with Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Madonna. However, he has made a brave departure from his R&B roots with this ’70s country/folk/soft rock-inspired covers album
I can’t imagine a better autumnal release at the moment: a plethora of pap, a binding of bland ballads for daydreamers watching falling leaves, a single tear volunteering itself in one eye. The harmonies border on the saccharine side of soulful but Edmonds diligently handles his interpretations and stays faithful to the original versions.
However, he seems too cautious – one can’t help but feel that such a prolific artist should have the confidence to leave a significantly more memorable signature on any or each of the tracks. For example, his version of Eric Clapton‘s Wonderful Tonight is almost a direct copy and seems like an aimless rendition.
Also, despite withholding any challenge to his predecessors the album begins to sound homogenous. They follow a strict Babyface-formula: dulcet shades of swing, temporal refrains rising from a choir but never raising the rafters, sumptuously syrupy cello bringing up the rear and his own textbook mid-western vocal. It’s a formula is best exemplified on Bread‘s, Diary. It isn’t moving to listen and is easily forgettable.
One exception is his playing of Spanish guitar on Jim Croce‘s Time in a Bottle. It complements the smoothness of his voice and creates a faraway atmosphere but frustratingly, at its quieter moments, sounds a like a version of Chim-Chim-Cheree from Mary Poppins. Bob Dylan‘s Knocking on Heaven’s Door has been covered by Guns N’ Roses and Dolly Parton to greater effect. This is mostly due to the pared down, composed singing and the automatic, karaoke sound of the instrumentals but perhaps genuinely good songs will always retain their power.
James Taylor‘s Shower the People is another innocuous, inert innovation that circles around itself searching for some semblance of a backbone. Dan Fogelberg‘s Longer Than gets the same treatment but its recursive orchestration suits the song well.
The two original tracks show Edmonds at his best. Not Going Nowhere reassures a child that “Daddy loves you” and will always be there. It’s compelling, especially in light of Edmonds recent divorce and it has led to a candid and vulnerable vocal performance. It remains a sickly sweet addition which belongs more to the tradition of American musicals than the pop charts.
The hyper-earnest, harmonica-entailing, Soldier Song hopes and prays that “when God called his name he did not die in vain/ I like to think he died for you and me”. It’s a precious effort, even for a tribute, and more than a little hackneyed by today’s standards.
One of the few things this album might achieve is to expose listeners to the works of these country, folk, soft-rock stars who would have otherwise been overlooked. We can be thankful that it is not another ‘standards’ album and give some kudos to his covers. It is the cashmere-covered feather-duvet of soft rock albums, just perfect when you need some comfort, a hug and a cup of cocoa but overwhelming at most other times.