Vanessa Fernandez – Use Me – Groove Note GRV 150-1 45 rpm stereo vinyl (2 discs), 57:31 ****:
(Vanessa Fernandez – vocals; Tim Pierce – vocals; Leland Sklar – bass; Victor Indrizzo – drums; Rafael Padilla – percussion; Jim Cox – keyboards; Stanley Behrens – harmonica)
By the age of thirty-one, Singapore-based Vanessa Fernandez had an unusual career. A decade earlier, she was a member of the hip-hop group, Urban Xchange (which became Parking Lot Pimps). Recently, she has been a disc jockey on Mediacore Radio 987FM. She is known by the moniker “Miss Vandetta” . Now, Fernandez has signed a recording contract and made an album in Los Angeles.
Groove Note Records has released Fernandez’s debut, Use Me on a very high-end two-disc 45 rpm 180-gram audiophile vinyl. Covering an assortment of high-profiled soul composers, a top-notch ensemble of studio musicians contribute to a well-crafted, accessible rhythm and blues outing. Opening Side A is the often-covered Earth Wind & Fire song “I Just Wanna Be With You”. Fernadez delivers a soulful but intimate performance (with tracked backup vocals). There is a steady rhythm, but the polished sound is not overproduced. This is not a reinvention of soul music, but a swaying celebration. “Be Thankful For What You Got”, (a gem from the early seventies written and performed by William DeVaughn) is atmospheric with a nimble electric piano solo (Jim Cox) and percussion (Rafael Padilla) combination. The vocals demonstrate sophisticated timing and phrasing. There is emphatic inflection, without overstatement. Completing the first side is a winsome take on Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover”. The addition of a plaintive harmonica meshes with the acoustic structure of the arrangements, and captures the romantic, slow-dance Motown vibe. It is familiar, but not perfunctory.
Side B has a slow-burning intensity on “Hard Times”. All of Curtis Mayfield’s urban grit is rendered with tasteful acoustic guitar riffs (Tim Pierce) and classic tempo breaks. Fernandez’s voice is tough with a sweet agility. She brings tenderness to “That Loving Feeling” (Tony Joe White) and “Simply Beautiful” (can’t leave out the Reverend Al Green). Then Side C seizes the momentum. The title cut is dynamic and works with this group. Maintaining all the grooves and hooks that Bill Withers injected into this soul classic, Fernadez exudes soulfulness (with some falsetto at the end), and the rhythmic guitar runs are fluent and straightforward. A surprise is Al Kooper’s bluesy “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” (from Blood Sweat & Tears’ first album, Child Is Father To The Man). This cover is less electric than the original (acoustic guitar, harmonica) but Fernandez brings a smoldering glow to the take. She astutely chooses not to mimic Kooper’s over-the-top ending vocal stretch, instead opting for alley-cat coolness. Another unexpected track is a version of Queen’s “Cool Cat” (from Hot Space). Fernadez adapts the song to her wistfully heated vocal style.
Side D finds another Mayfield show-stopper, “Here But I’m Gone”. A slow, pulsating funk/groove is a counterpoint to the desperation plea of this inner-city narrative. Another crisp arrangement, it features vintage stops and another Pierce guitar solo. An alternate mix of ”Be Thankful What You Got” is the finale. The steady work of veterans Leland Sklar (bass) and Victor Indrizzo (drums) anchor the band for most of the album.
Groove Note producer Ying Tan chose wisely in bringing this project to Oceanway Recording. Recorded direct to analogue in five sessions (by Grammy-nominated engineer Michael C. Ross), the album was re-mastered (Bernie Grundman) directly from the original 30 ips ¼ inch master. The recording is exemplary high resolution with excellent instrumental detail. Fernandez’s voice is vibrant and not overwhelmed by low-compression. This is an auspicious debut!
Side A: I Just Wanna Be With You; Be Thankful For What You Got; Distant Lover
Side B: Hard Times; That Loving Feeling; Simply Beautiful;
Side C: Use Me; I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know; Cool Cat
Side D: Here But I’m Gone; Be Thankful For What You Got (alternate mix)