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The Boston Phoenix In The House

Ultra Nate's killer club cuts

By Michael Freedberg

JULY 13, 1998:  Obviously Ultra Naté is a woman of faith. Despite the failure of her first work with producer Al Mack, she entrusts to him the title song of her new Situation Critical (Strictly Rhythm). Mack is the Brooklyn middle-roader who produced "Party Girl," Ultra Naté's contribution to the soundtrack for the film. "Party Girl" was intended to break the house-music underground's favorite diva into the "urban" radio mainstream, and Mack's reputation as a radio-oriented compromiser suited that strategy. But the song's standard-issue neo-soul vocals had little to offer. Gone from Naté's singing was all the twisted lust and loony burlesque that made her previous sessions, especially the immortal "10,000 Screaming Faggots" (produced by Baltimore's Basement Boys, creators of the Crystal Waters phenomenon), killer favorites in clubland.

No artist wants to be a cult favorite only, but it makes some sense to let Ultra Naté be Ultra Naté, and for the most part Situation Critical does so. Most of the disc is produced by Lem Springsteen, a cultish big-name house-music heavy hitter whose garage-style, pitter-patter beat has enhanced the vocal glamor of New York City house divas for almost a decade. He has never before produced Naté.

Springsteen's songs, like Naté's club-hit vocals, take on all kinds of odd shapes. He quotes from whatever strikes his fancy; in particular, on Situation Critical, one notices the Eric Claptonish, Cream-era guitar burst that redirects his and Naté's version of Ashford & Simpson's "Found a Cure" away from mere rehash. Irresistibly pensive, too, are the Nile Rodgers guitar riffs and plaintive piano figures that underpin Naté's soprano, so soft and pure, in the same vein as the immortal vocals of Chic's Alfa Anderson. Springsteen's quote-the-old-hit style seems to have affected producer D Influence as well; his contribution to the CD, "A New Kind of Medicine" (but not Naté's sassy performance of it), echoes Diana Ross's "Love Hangover."

Still, the CD's title song and the baroque-pop ballad "Release the Pressure" belong to Mack, whose production style has changed drastically since his last foray with Naté. Very much in the club-hit spirit, he uses the melody (and the slow sleaze beat) of "Love Hangover" to introduce the title song. Gone from it, too, are the hip-hoppy clichés of new-jill beat he gave Naté on "Party Girl," the Janet Jackson-ish, showy dance moves appropriate to homegirl toughness but not at all true to Naté's worldly-wise persona -- or to her jazzy musicianship. It's to his credit that Mack now accepts this. He adopts, for the beat of "Situation Critical," a deep slow boom that adds drama and perspective to Naté's dark-moments-in-your-life narrative. Neither is there anything Janet Jackson-like about the resolute guitar solo (echoes of War!!) that changes the dainty melody of "Release the Pressure" into a be-strong anthem duplicated by Naté, as she surges from a husky "feels like the walls are closing in if something don't change" to a hoarse cry of "makes you scream, makes you want to shout out loud."

Still, the enhancements that Mack lavishes on these two Naté songs fall short of the goofy joy and heady optimism of the CD's biggest success, "Free." Here Springsteen, in his truest clubdance manner, puts in place the gospel feeling of a jump-and-shout beat, adds a chorus of "do what you want, do what you wanna do" girls to cool it down to disco tempo, then delivers the entire package to Naté, who brazens her way through a sermon about "my brother is in need but can he depend on me" and "if you gave more things than you took life could be so good." Pairing "my brother's in need" with "do what you wanna do" makes no sense, but good sense is exactly what this jump-and-rejoice song does not call for. Instead, the song undulates back and forth, between conflicting feelings unresolved, just as it oscillates (unexplained and proud of it) between Springsteen's girls-and-beat and Naté's raise-your-hands and shout.

Disco often peaked on songs as unresolved as "Free," but pop music seldom does. Whether ironic in the manner of alterna-folk or solid-sender in the manner of soul, pop songs have climax and dénouement. "Free," however, is a performance in paradox. It's an experience that the Al Macks of pop music seem far from ready to confront.

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