Labelle Update Their Sound on Back to Now, But Not Too Much

If the omnipresent "grown and sexy" moniker applies to anybody, it's Labelle. Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and Patti Labelle have an average age of 63, but they maybe just pulled off the first great r&b/rock/adult-contemporary hybrid with Back to Now. The trio stuck their fingers in the socket of the early-'70s zeitgeist and shocked folks with their "Voulez-vous Coucher Avec Moi" routine and risqué double entendres like "I come like the pouring rain each time you call my name"; opening for the Who and the Stones sportin' glam that could make Bowie throw shade, the girls were a genre-bending phenom that couldn't debut today in a gazillion years. All praises due: Their first disc since 1976 ain't a Pharrell production with guest spots from Weezy and T-Pain. Instead, the trio called in old hands like Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and retro king Lenny Kravitz to do a surprisingly capable job re-creating the operatic gospel feel of classic albums like Nightbirds.

"Candlelight" shows off all the strings, piano, and tambourine any longtime Labelle lover would expect right out of the gate. Lyrically, "The Truth Will Set You Free" is full of ham-handed sloganeering worthy of the Black Is Beautiful era, but the horns and guitar solo earn forgiveness. Still, though Patti's pipes are always fire and always will be, trite message songs like "System" and "Tears for the World" can make her sound like a well-intentioned grandma. (Which, I guess, she is.) The one concession for the kids is "Rollout," a Wyclef-produced "Hit the Road, Jack"–themed track that's as fast as Back to Now gets—most of the divas' return is spent in the throes of glorious ballads like "Without You in My Life." And when they mix in a Cole Porter cover recorded 38 years ago ("Miss Otis Regrets," with Keith Moon on drums), the inclusion doesn't jar you one bit. The ethereal gospel harmonizing over their patented rock-and-soul mélange alone is worth the price of admission. Modern times be damned, Labelle will never need Auto-Tune.

Labelle play the Apollo Theater December 19

 
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