Vanessa Williams’s The Real Thing was pitched to me by Slant Magazine‘s music editor as “department store music,” a description that manages to undersell the banality of the production (courtesy of Babyface, Keith Thomas, Rob Mathes, and Rex Rideout): The pacing on the album is so languid and the arrangements so staid that it would put every last shopper at JC Penney and Sears right to sleep, and neither of those stores could withstand such a blow to their profit margins in the current economy. It’s tempting to say Real Thing sounds instead like music for a Hallmark store, what with the chintzy chime flourishes on nearly every track and tepid piano work that’s foregrounded in the mixes, but that feels vaguely insulting to Precious Moments figurines and Beanie Babies.
However lovely a voice Williams may have—and it’s worth noting that her voice has lost none of its pitch-perfect clarity or its rich, pure tone over the years—and however competent an interpreter she may have proven herself on her recent string of jazz-pop albums, she’s simply undone here by the lifeless production and schmaltzy songs. The bossa nova inflections on “Hello Like Before” and “Just Friends” do nothing to enliven their clichéd platitudes, while “I Fell In” reunites Williams with the songwriting team behind the bland adult contemporary staple “Save the Best for Last” with similarly soulless results. Tracks like “Come on Strong” and “Loving You” lack the spontaneity and improvisation in their arrangements that would make for even halfway-interesting jazz; like the rest of the album, they’re inert.
Maybe it’s a matter of Williams’s having expended her reserves of conviction and swagger on Ugly Betty, but she just doesn’t do anything to overcome this unfashionable, irrelevant material. With the moment for albums of pop standards from veteran artists like Rod Stewart, Michael MacDonald, and Cyndi Lauper having passed, and with crooners like Michael Buble and Norah Jones no longer selling as well as they once did, it’s impossible to imagine that there’s a market for Real Thing. Even at Hallmark.