SADE (HELEN FOLASADE ADU) — Diamond Life (review)

SADE (HELEN FOLASADE ADU) — Diamond Life album cover Album · 1984 · RnB Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
In light of Adele’s phenomenal success in recent times I was reminded that Sade made a similarly astonishing splash when she and her namesake band burst upon the music scene in the mid 80s. Like Adele, Ms. Adu shocked the populace not with blazing pyrotechnics, gaudy costumes or blatantly outrageous lyrics but with high-quality songs she’d played a big part in writing sung with passion and presented with a regal aura of class. Funny how the normally-fickle public at large will respond so enthusiastically to the basic ingredients of greatness when they’re delivered to their ears in an honest package and without unnecessary or distracting frills. Right in the midst of the suffocating MTV-instigated plague of phoniness a bright light of elegant reality rose from the confused morass music was mired in that defied all the trends and brought some sanity with it. That beam of hope was Sade and a sizeable host of us grabbed onto them like shipwreck survivors clinging to a life raft.

Still, it took a while for the record industry pukes to recognize the obvious fact that this group was special because of their basic simplicity. Their debut album, “Diamond Life,” was released without fanfare in England in July of ’84 but it wasn’t until February of the following year that the clownish powers-that-were in the USA caught on and put it out for stateside consumption. By that time it’d topped the charts in most European countries and was a #2 disc in the UK so we here in the states were, by default, the Johnny-come-lately’s to the Sade bandwagon not due to being snobbish but because of a lack of vision on the part of the shortsighted overlords that ran the labels. But once we got to experience what most of the rest of the civilized world had already discovered we embraced Sade’s charms without blinking and they became a sensation overnight. One listen to “Diamond Life” will tell you why.

On the disc I have the album opens unassumingly with “Cherry Pie” wherein Paul Denman’s bass line initiates a strong Latin funk groove, laying a firm foundation that introduces what will distinguish the band’s sound from that of their plasticized competitors, svelte front woman Helen Folasade Adu’s inimitable voice. The group’s clever arrangement does a lot to beef up an average composition, allowing it to develop slowly into a more aggressive track. “Frankie’s First Affair” is better. It’s a smooth-flowing semi-ballad bolstered smartly by driving drums and percussion and where Andrew Hale’s piano and Stewart Matthewman’s sax coyly compliment Adu’s assertive singing. “Hang On to Your Love” is next; the first cut that truly showcases their dance-inducing ability to cast a spell on their listeners, carrying them relentlessly along like an ocean current. The tune’s hook line imbeds itself in your brain and sets up permanent residence while Stewart’s bright keyboards add a touch of excitement. For “I Will Be Your Friend” a swaying samba influence is employed. It’s hard to criticize a number that contains such high fidelity but it fails to make a lasting impression.

On “Sally” a sultry mood places emphasis on Sade’s knack of conveying genuine emotion and she doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to display the many facets of her vocal gifts. “Smooth Operator” follows and, as they say, it had hit written all over it from the first note onward. It climbed to #5 on the Billboard singles chart (it’s also worth mentioning the accompanying video that provided a breath of fresh air on MTV) because of its irresistible beat and the infectious melody lines that snagged you the moment you heard it. It’s a classic that actually deserves that connotation. “When Am I Going to Make a Living” has a perky feel and striking vocal harmonies that effectively set this track apart from the rest of the album. There’s a palpable South African atmosphere running through this song that I find constantly alluring. The only cover tune on the record is their take on Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together.” Forceful congas propel this R&B number and the Hammond-like keyboard punctuations make things interesting for a while but the track never really kicks into gear. Sade’s voice is unusually thin, which doesn’t help matters, and I must entertain the thought that it was some record exec’s brilliant idea to include this and not the group’s. (FYI, a fine rendition can be found on Steve Winwood’s 2003 “About Time” CD.) They close out with the sublime “Your Love is King,” another impossible-to-ignore song made so via its complete capture of Adu’s sexy personality and her inherent coolness. It’s a wonderful example of how a singer’s intuitive phrasing can make a huge difference in the impact a tune can create. Then and now Sade continues to prove herself a master at that particular art.

“Diamond Life” restored my faith that sometimes (but not always) the cream will find a way to ascend to the top. Circa 1985 I was thoroughly disillusioned by the cocky posturing and rampant insincerity that was thriving and proliferating in the popular music universe. Worse, it was being nurtured by a jaded public that just couldn’t seem to get enough of the inane videos they voluntarily tuned in to ogle 24/7. I was so disgusted that I started listening to talk radio on my way to and from work. Sade’s success gave me reason to believe that somewhere underneath all the glam and glitter real music was still being written, performed, recorded and appreciated. “Diamond Life” is no masterpiece but that can’t diminish its huge significance in music history for arriving in the nick of time to remind us in the jazz-related community that all was not lost.
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