Abdul's 'Spellbound' spotlights production


Remember the lawsuit that was filed against Paula Abdul's record company last month? In it, backup singer Yvette Marine claimed that she had unjustly been denied credit for singing lead on three tracks from Abdul's "Forever Your Girl" album; in addition to a big chunk of cash, Marine's suit demanded that labels "accurately crediting" her work be added to all copies of the album.

Until all the facts are in, it's hard to say whether there's any real merit to this case. But if you ask me, Marine is making a lot of fuss over very little. Because when you get down to it, the singing is the least important part of a Paula Abdul album.

Or so it seems with "Spellbound" (Virgin/Captive 91611), Abdul's new album that it arrives in record stores today. Although the album has much to recommend it, from the dance-beat insistence of "Rock House" to the wistful balladry of "Will You Marry Me," it could hardly be considered a singer's showcase.

Mind you, that's not to say Abdul can't sing. Although hers is neither the strongest nor the most versatile voice in popular music today, she does get the job done. Moreover, her vocal skills have improved considerably since "Forever Your Girl," with Abdul handling dance tunes and ballads with equal aplomb.

None of that, though, changes the fact that the real center of this album is the production, not the singing. No matter how skillfully Abdul negotiates the melodic subtleties of "Rush Rush," what holds our attention is the arrangement, a gentle symphony of chirping synths and burbling percussion.

Abdul does have her moments, though. "Vibeology," for instance, may seem just a showcase for the retro-soul smarts of producers V. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Lord, but Abdul's exhortations are witty, energetic and surprisingly soulful; it's almost a shame to hear them overpowered by the groove. Even better is "Will You Marry Me," a wistful little love song that recalls the best of Bacharach and David largely because of the way Abdul evokes Dionne Warwick's offhand charm.

That's not the only echo on the album, either, for much of "Spellbound" shows an appalling lack of originality. "My Foolish Heart," for instance, sounds like a refugee from

Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation," while "Alright Tonight" is equipped with a bouncy tropical arrangement that owes more than a little to Paul Simon's "Graceland" album. Perhaps the oddest nod to another artist is "The Promise of a New Day," which does its damnedest to come across like a Prince song -- an odd effort, considering that the album also boasts an actual (if pseudonymous) Prince composition, "U."

Besides, since when does anyone turn to Abdul for originality? What made "Forever Your Girl" so likable wasn't that it broke any new ground, but that it smoothed the rough spots out of territory others had already covered. Abdul is a popularizer, someone who understands how to take the insistent energy of club music and simplify it to Top-40 terms.

Which is precisely what "Spellbound" does. It may be derivative, and owe more to production devices than vocal ability, but it works. And isn't that all anybody really wants from a pop album, anyway?

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