Friday, March 11, 2011

Maxwell's Hidden Gem

. . . Or maybe that should be gems – given what we get to see (or rather, not see) of Maxwell in the music video I share this evening and from which the above screen cap is taken!

But seriously, "Music Night" this evening at The Wild Reed highlights "Luxury: Cococure," a track from
neo soul singer-songwriter Maxwell's album Embrya – described by one critic as "incredibly romantic, unusual, and a hidden gem."

Notes Wikipedia:

Released June 30, 1998 on Columbia Records, Embyra is the second studio album by R&B and neo soul musician Maxwell. As with his previous album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, Maxwell collaborated with Stuart Matthewman, a long-time cohort of Sade. With a lesser jazz emphasis, Embrya continues the trend towards heavy basslines and string arrangements, and it focuses on themes such as love and spirituality. However, the album features more of an emphasis on groove than melodies. Its production sound contains bassy, electronic and slight syncopated beats. Maxwell has defined the album's title as "an approaching growing transition thought to be contained but destined for broader perception."

"Luxury: Cococure" (which can be heard here) was the first and only single from the album, and the music video for it features Maxwell in the rather unusual setting of a bath tub! But, hey, no complaints from me!

Following is a snippet of this video and a review by Kit O'Toole of
Embrya. Enjoy!

Maxwell's Embrya Remains A Romantic Hidden Gem

By Kit O'Toole
June 23, 2008

During the 90s, the “Neo-Soul” movement hit the music scene, heralded by Erykah Badu's excellent album Baduizm. Like-minded artists followed in her footsteps – D'Angelo, Angie Stone, and Jill Scott, to name just a few. One such artist, Maxwell, earned critical acclaim with his semi-concept album Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, which chronicles a relationship from beginning to (presumably) happy ending.

When he released his follow-up studio album, Embrya, in 1998, fans were puzzled by its shift in tone – still romantic, but lyrically obtuse. Using unconventional instrumentation like ukuleles further hampered its accessibility. Virtually impossible to categorize, Embrya received little airplay, spawned only one single (“Luxury: Cococure”), and quickly faded from the music charts. Ten years later, the album deserves a second listen. While somewhat eccentric, Embrya remains incredibly romantic, unusual, and a hidden gem.

Like Urban Hang Suite, Embrya was intended as a concept album, although each of the songs can stand on its own. The best summarization of this concept is water: every song possesses a floating, drifting sound, as if the songs were recorded underwater. Sound unusual? Yes, but the beautiful chord changes and unusual arrangements make the sound possible. In fact, it resembles an album Marvin Gaye could have made if he combined the romanticism and sexuality of Let's Get It On with the cerebral qualities of What's Going On.

The titles of some songs seem somewhat pretentious – ”Everwanting: To Want You to Want” and “I'm You: You Are Me and We Are You (Pt. Me & You)” are two obvious examples – but look beyond them to hear some sensual Neo-Soul. “Drowndeep: Hula” uses the unlikely combination of soul and Hawaiian music, accompanied by Maxwell's delicate vocal, to create an almost otherworldly sound. “Gravity: Pushing to Pull” uses an unusual electronic sound to create a swaying beat.

If you prefer Maxwell's traditional sound, look no further than the track “Eachhoureachsecondeacheachminuteeachday: Of My Life.” The title is a mouthful, but Maxwell's falsetto vocals and mid-tempo soul grooves make this song resemble an Urban Hang Suite outtake.

“Matrimony: Maybe You” continues his fascination with commitment and old-fashioned romance. For those who enjoyed Maxwell's version of Kate Bush's “This Woman's Work” from the Unplugged EP, try “Know These Things: Shouldn't You,” featuring a sparse arrangement and Maxwell's lilting voice.

Perhaps one reason Embrya was overlooked was its unfortunate choice for lead single, “Luxury: Cococure,” a strange track which included abstract lyrics, a baffling title, and a weird video of Maxwell taking a bath while making faces. No wonder the album was misinterpreted as avant-garde or an unsuccessful experiment.

Another issue was its unclassifiable genre. Its mixture of soul, rock, world music, classical, and other influences prevented it from getting frequent airplay on R&B stations. After Embrya, Maxwell kept a low profile until 2001, when he released Now, a solid yet more conventional collection of Neo-Soul. How unfortunate that the Embrya experience clearly discouraged him from experimenting further with his sound.

Embrya may not be easily accessible due to its obtuse titles and vague concept album quality. Do not let those issues prevent you from giving this album a listen. In fact, several listens are required to appreciate the songs' multi-layered, beautiful qualities. Just put on a pair of headphones, turn up the volume, and become lost in the sensual, romantic, and yes, watery world of Embrya.

For more of Maxwell at The Wild Reed, see:
Rockin' with Maxwell
Maxwell's Welcome Return
Maxwell in Concert
The Return of Maxwell

Musical artists previously featured at The Wild Reed:
Ivri Lider, Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, Jane Clifton, Enigma, Yvonne Elliman, Lenny Kravitz, Marty Rhone, Don Henley, Propeller Heads and Shirley Bassey, Stephen Gately, Nat King Cole, Enrique Iglesias, Helen Reddy, Australian Crawl, PJ and Duncan, Cass Elliot, The Church, Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, Wall of Voodoo, Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, Pink Floyd, Kate Ceberano, Judith Durham, Wendy Matthews, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1927, Mavis Staples, Maxwell, Joan Baez, Dave Stewart & Friends, Tee Set, Darren Hayes, Suede, Wet, Wet, Wet, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Cruel Sea, Shirley Bassey, Loretta Lynn & Jack White, Maria Callas, Foo Fighters, Rosanne Cash, Jenny Morris, Scissor Sisters, Kate Bush, Rufus Wainwright, and Dusty Springfield.

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