“Sound Advice”, Patti Austin’s first new collection in almost 4 years, is a return to the world of pop music for Austin after nearly a decade as a missionary for traditional jazz. Austin’s amazing versatility as a singer has always made her something of a genre hopper on her solo projects, and she has long demonstrated a penchant for covering material made famous by other singers. But a Patti Austin cover of a well-known song tends to be less a ‘cover’ and more a ‘radical reconstruction’, and on “Sound Advice” Austin has chosen material broadlly and eclectically—from Dylan to McCartney; from The Rolling Stones to The Jacksons; from Sinatra to Bill Withers; from Don McLean to Brenda Russell; from Des’ree to Depeche Mode, with a couple of her own original compositions included for good measure. To such broadly chosen material, she gives readings ranging from gut-bucket gospel to rollicking rock; from spare-and-spartan acoustic to a little electro-enhanced techno-tinged pop. (The lone head-scratcher occurs on Austin’s own otherwise pleasant composition ‘Round and Round’ with the unwelcome intrusion of some kind of auto-tone sounding gimmickry—Patti Austin is the LAST singer to need anything like that.) The overall effect is more pot-luck than buffet, but fortunately Austin cooks, and well.
The biggest surprise may well be the full-bore gospel makeover treatment given to the early-90s Des’ree pop tune “You Gotta Be”. Austin (backed appriopriately by The Fire Choir) gives a fire-and-ice interpretation of this song, showing as much vocal power and raw emotion as she may have ever recorded—the result less an invocation of the original than an incineration. One listen and you know that Patti Austin is the new owner of this song.
A slightly (but only slightly) less pleasant surprise is the re-recording (a cover of a cover?) of her own acoustic version of “Lean On Me”, which Austin had recorded back in 2008 on a 3-song holiday EP released on Concord. The new version adds unnecessary layers of instrumentation (drums, bass and guitars) that detract from the spare, haunting quality of her own previous version. Sometimes there’s no need to improve perfection.
Overall, this is a very solid, very enjoyable, very listenable collection of familiar pop songs given something new. And it's great to hear Patti Austin, the consummate backing vocalist, working once again wtih backing vocalists. For fans and followers who expected (or hoped for) a continuation of Austin’s impeccable jazz interpretations “For Ella” (2002) and “Avant Gershwin” (2007) this new collection may come as a surprise, but for long-time admirers it is a reminder that Patti Austin can still serve a lot of snap and crackle with her pop.