Back to Now

The Baltimore Sun

Labelle [Verve Records] ***


Well, it's better late than never. The last time Labelle, the legendary trio of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, recorded an album together was in 1976. The year before, after toiling on the rock and R&B; circuits for more than a decade, the powerhouse threesome topped the pop charts with the disco-funk classic "Lady Marmalade." But the sudden success proved to be too much. So the longtime friends hung up their famed space-cadet get-ups and went their separate ways.

"Miss Patti," as she calls herself these days, became a soul diva supreme, winning Grammys and scoring gold and platinum. Hendryx and Dash maintained quieter careers, doing session work and some solo projects. Now seemingly for no reason, the three have reunited in the studio to record again.

Back to Now, in stores today, isn't the wild rock-soul-funk hybrid their classic '70s albums were. But that was another place and time. The new music and lyrics, most written by the sorely underrated Hendryx, echo the sentiments of wiser women who are still fierce.

Although an array of producers oversaw the 10 tracks (Lenny Kravitz, Wyclef Jean and Kenny Gamble chief among them), the album maintains an inviting, gospel-suffused flow.

Kravitz, the ever-stylish retro rocker, contributes the best tracks on the album. He surrounds Labelle's still-stirring vocals with sympathetic, no-frills arrangements reminiscent of the group's early '70s soul albums. With its sweeping strings and twangy, churchy rhythm, "Candlelight" is among the CD's best cuts.

Jean is behind the album's first single, the obligatory go-girl anthem "Rollout." It's an overly polished, trendy track that feels tacked on. Hendryx takes over the lead on "Truth Will Set You Free," a rock-soul number whose arrangement sounds too antiseptic.

Emotional ballads such as "Dear Rosa," a moving, clear-eyed tribute to Rosa Parks, give the album its strength. As a reminder of the group's over-the-top style of yesterday, a previously unreleased 1970 reworking of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" closes Back to Now. A few full-throttle dance cuts would have made the album even better. But beyond that, the women still possess the roof-raising voices that cemented their legend more than 30 years ago.

Download these:: "Candlelight," "Superlover," "System," "Dear Rosa," "Miss Otis Regrets."

Rashod D. Ollison

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