As the title suggests, the En Vogue of EV3 are now one singer short of a quartet, but that hardly puts the group at a numerical disadvantage. In fact, it may be easier to find departed member Dawn Robinson’s name in the liner notes than it is to hear a difference between the old and new En Vogue.
But is that a tribute to the trio’s singing skill, or a reflection of its dependence on production and packaging? Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron, and Maxine Jones might each be strong enough on her own, but what comes across isn’t individual star power so much as a flair for group singing. Isn’t that how it goes, though? Girl groups have traditionally been producer’s pets, and En Vogue are no exception, working here with Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy (who essentially created the group), as well as Babyface, David Foster, and Organized Noise.
No surprise, then, that although the women get top billing, the arrangements are the real stars. ”Don’t Let Go (Love),” first heard on the Set It Off soundtrack, is the most obvious example, since the interplay between lead and background vocals is as disciplined as it is dramatic. But it’s hardly the only one.
For instance, while the lyrics to Babyface’s ”Whatever” depict a state of frustrated desire, they barely approach the eloquence of the song’s sound. As if the slow-simmering groove weren’t tease enough, the production keeps the lead vocals so compressed that they never quite come to a boil, a combination that leaves the track almost aching with desire — even if it leaves the singers in the background.
”Let It Flow” pushes that a little too far, placing so much emphasis on its funkified rhythm bed that the rest of the song is an afterthought. Not that there’s anything wrong with working a groove, but considering how baldly the backing tracks steal from the Slave classic ”Slide,” producers Foster and McElroy could have at least created a semi-catchy chorus. (Also, a composer’s credit for their source would have been nice.)
That’s not to say these women always come across as backup singers. ”Right Direction” owes more to its sassy lead vocals than to its blend of bottleneck guitar and Southern funk, while the singing in ”Sitting by Heaven’s Door” is so effortless and inspired that it seems more like an impromptu collaboration than a careful arrangement.
But any hopes that En Vogue might someday attain autonomy are shattered by the utter banality of their original tunes. A gospel-style a cappella treatment makes it easy to forgive ”Does Anybody Hear Me” its greeting-card blandishments, but the trite melody and ungrammatical platitudes of ”Eyes of a Child” make it painfully apparent just how much these three need the guiding hand of a good songwriter and producer. C+