Style and grace have always been the calling card of female super-group En Vogue, but on their new album, aptly tilted Masterpiece Theatre, a funky kind of wisdom blows through each track, making the new effort their most surprising and refreshing work yet. The 13 song opus, complete with quirky classical influences and underpinnings, seems to have brought the group back full circle, but also takes a freaky step or two into the future. By joining forces once again with the acclaimed producing duo who helmed their smash debut album and other En Vogue classics, Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron and Maxine Jones are kicking off the new millennium as veteran superstars all the wiser for the journey.
‘If you listen to the record, each track tells a story,’ says Terry. ‘I think we’ve put a lot of the drama that has gone on in our lives, a lot of love’s ups and downs, and come out the better for it.’ Splashy, catch-all R&B like ‘Riddle’ and ‘No No No (Can’t Come Back)’ are served up with typical En Vogue sass, but you can also feel the pain in songs such as ‘Falling In Love,’ and the heart wrenching ‘Sad But True’, which contains a snippet of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonota.’ Throw in the Carmen-meets-modern-urban-love tale-twist of ‘Those Dogs,’ (complete with sample of ‘Vizet’ from Carmen and rap from Eclypse) and you’ve got the makings of a fun and complex album. ‘I think we’ve all gone through about every phase of love one can go through, good and bad,’ says Terry. ‘Every experience is reflected in these songs. And we have a good time turning them out.’
Maxine points out that one of her favorites on the album, ‘Beat Of Love,’ also captures a ‘turn-of-the-century’ feel the girls were trying to achieve. ‘For me it almost has a space age sensibility. It’s more spiritual than some of our other stuff. For me this whole album has more of a spiritual bent. It’s more inside of me. And I think it gets more inside of the listener, as opposed to a harder, brasher sound.’
But the playful side of En Vogue is much evident on the new disk, as well. One track, the operatic ‘I Love You More,’ comes complete with a spoken word intro that bemoans the modern romance. ‘Girl meets boy, girl falls in love, girl falls out of love…girl has no clue, girl watches Oprah…’ ‘It was the producers’ idea to call it Masterpiece Theatre,’ says Cindy. ‘We do it with a wink, but we think it fits with the themes of the record and how the songs come at you.’ Such hi-jinx can be heard on the song ‘I Love You More’ which includes a taste from none other than the Godfather theme.
Maxine adds that having the producing team on board for the whole disk relieved some of the stress of recording. ‘We were able to take more time on this album. Also it wasn’t like we had to sit around and think ‘what are we going to sound like.’ They know us through and through. It freed us to do what we do best.’
What En Vogue have been doing best is creating a mosaic of hits in their unmistakable voice, re-setting the clock for female pop and R&B groups for more than a decade. Since their 1990 debut they’ve released three full length multi-platinum albums, one best selling EP, and a slew of history making videos that have carried the torch for the ever-fashionable look and sound of one of pop’s most venerated and imitated institutions, the girl group.
Their acclaimed debut disc, 1990’s Born To Sing, launched three consecutive #1 hits, including the memorable ‘Hold On.’ The album sold a breathtaking three million copies, christening the then-foursome as the new female force to be reckoned with. Their 1992 follow-up album, Funky Divas, is now considered a pop and R&B classic, and featured the unforgettable smashes ‘My Lovin’ (Never Gonna Get It)’ and the dazzling ‘Free Your Mind, with the video earning three MTV video award nominations. The album went on to sell more than three million copies and was nominated for five Grammy awards. With their audience clamoring for more, En Vogue released a six song EP in 1993, Runaway Love, which featured a cover of Salt N’ Pepa’s ‘Whatta Man.’ They also completed a sold out tour with superstar Luther Vandross, that included shows in England, Germany, the Netherlands and France.
Family obligations saw the group take a break in 1995 (both Cindy and Maxine have children), but in 1997, their contribution to the Set It Off soundtrack, ‘Don’t Let Go (Love)’ garnered them a #2 hit on Billboard’s Top Singles chart. Soon after Dawn Robinson left the group to pursue a solo career, and in May of ’97 the girls released their third full length album EV3. They closed out the century with Best Of En Vogue, a greatest hits collection that capped their incredible first decade.
Now, in the year 2000, Masterpiece Theatre stands as their most ambitious work to date. ‘I feel like we went back home on this album,’ says Maxine. ‘It its ambitious, but were happy to still be doing this, especially with what we have learned under our belts.’ Cindy seconds the notion. ‘I’m at a place in my life where my priorities our my family and my career. There is a lot more to sing about now.’
One listen to songs like ‘Love Won’t Take Me Out’ with its almost Gilbert and Sullivan vocal exchange, or the wistful ‘Whatever Will Be Will Be,’ and you realize that En Vogue has chosen growth over comfort on Masterpiece Theatre. ‘We wanted to do something a little different than what you are hearing on the radio,’ says Terry. ‘But it’s still us. We’ve always like to challenge ourselves. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and where we are going.’