Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Donna Summer Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Donna Summer (1982, Geffen)

A –

Disappointed by the lukewarm sales response to The Wanderer and its three singles, Geffen insisted she be produced by the then-red-hot Quincy Jones for her second disc for the label. Proving that label executives don’t always know best, the tactic ironically backfired, the album both failing to chart as high or yield as many Top 40 hits as The Wanderer, and Summer, who’d conceded grudgingly to Jones’ involvement, would never make another album with him. While it’s true that the album is not nearly as magical as either of the albums that bookend it and it’s obvious that Summer’s own input has been diminished here – not in the least since her writing contributions are limited to just two co-writes – it’s not a failure, either, and the album – especially the first side – is still pretty good. The soulful “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” co-written by Quincy himself and Rod Temperton (“Thriller,” “Rock with You”), would deservedly become a Top Ten hit, while the ballad “The Woman in Me” (co-written by former Carpenters lyricist John Bettis) would also squeak into the Top 40. The anthemic “State of Independence” [actually a cover of, oddly enough, a song by Vangelis (“Chariots of Fire”) and Yes frontman Jon Anderson] is a very fun gospel-laced cut with an all-star choir featuring the likes of Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and Stevie Wonder, but it would strangely miss the Top 40, while Jones and Summer also elicit great songs from the pens of future Mr. Mister frontman Richard Page (the gorgeous “Mystery of Love”) and The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen (who offers up the delightful rocker “Protection” and also plays the guitar solo on the cut.) [Fun trivia: the latter song was only written after Jon Landau begged Bruce to hang on to the song he’d originally written specifically for Summer to use on this album, “Cover Me,” a move that would later result in a Top Ten hit for Springsteen.]

She Works Hard for the Money (1983, Mercury)

A

Summer still owed PolyGram (which had acquired Casablanca) another disc, so Summer technically cut this one-off disc for Mercury as a mere contractual obligation. Yet she seems quite re-energized here, perhaps due to the creative guidance of producer Michael Omartian (best known for his work with Christopher Cross, Amy Grant, and Peter Cetera), who, in contrast to Quincy Jones’ search for outside material for the previous disc, encourages Summer to write here, Omartian and Summer jointly penning eight of the nine tracks here, the remaining cut penned by Summer herself. The title cut, of course, would become a Top Three hit and one of Summer’s signature tunes, but while that may be the only recognizable song here on first listen, the other tracks here are extremely underrated. “Stop, Look, and Listen,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Love Has a Mind of Its Own,” “I Do Believe (I Fell in Love),” and the Musical Youth duet “Unconditional Love” are all overflowing with passion both from a compositional and vocal standpoint, and Summer seems invested in this material in a way she hasn’t been in years. PolyGram had to be thrilled; Geffen had to be jealous.

Cats Without Claws (1984, Geffen)

B

Perhaps realizing their mistake in trying to force a producer onto Summer, Geffen gave the former disco diva the green light to work with Omartian again for her return to the label, Summer and Omartian wisely not deviating much from the winning formula of their last collaboration. While it’s true there’s no knockout single here comparable to the title cut of She Works Hard for the Money, this is still a far better disc than either critics or even Geffen itself gave it credit for at the time, and with some stronger promotion and better single selection, this disc had the potential to fare better than it did. “Oh Billy Please” (Summer’s own choice for the lead-off single, though Geffen ended up not even releasing it as a single at all), the island-flavored “I’m Free,” the deceptively catchy “Eyes,” “It’s Not the Way,” and “Supernatural Love” are all quite appealing listens. The synth-pop-styled remake of the Drifters’ 1959 classic “There Goes My Baby” is quite well-crafted and would just barely miss the Top Twenty, but, while it’s a highlight of the disc, it also seems like a strange track for Geffen to have picked as the lead-off single from an album coming out in the mid-Eighties, when ‘50s nostalgia was rather passé. It may be slightly less hooky and exuberant than She Works Hard for the Money, but this is still a fine and very underrated album and is far preferable to any of her subsequent albums of new material except for Another Place and Time.

All Systems Go (1987, Geffen)

C

Summer’s final outing for Geffen was also both her lowest-charting album yet and her least successful for Geffen from an artistic standpoint as well, mainly owing to two factors. First, Summer seems a little less focused here than she did on the two Omartian albums, and she seems to want to move in a more self-consciously R&B-oriented direction yet doesn’t want to entirely abandon her pop and adult-contemporary audiences, resulting in a slightly confusing disc that tries to be noticeably harder-edged than Cats Without Claws at the same time that it includes a duet with Starship’s Mickey Thomas. Secondly, there are just too many cooks in the kitchen here, Summer having begun the album with former collaborator Harold Faltermeyer (who had since made a name for himself as the songwriter behind Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” and the performer behind the hit instrumental “Axel F” from the soundtrack of Beverly Hills Cop) producing, but Faltermeyer’s soundtrack commitments meant that he couldn’t finish the project on schedule, and Geffen would instead bring in other parties, like Richard Perry and Rick Chudacoff (co-writer and producer of Robbie Dupree’s “Steal Away”), to helm additional material. There are some good cuts here, namely “Dinner with Gershwin,” penned by Brenda Russell of “Piano in the Dark” fame, and “Fascination,” penned by David Tyson (who wrote Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet”) and Eddie Schwartz (the writer of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”), but as a whole, the album is just too spotty and disoriented to hold up to any of Summer’s previous discs.

Another Place and Time (1989, Atlantic)

A

Comically enough, Geffen would turn this album down, Summer taking the masters with her and signing a new deal with Atlantic and promptly scoring her highest-charting album in five years and her biggest hit single in six years. It’s also a major artistic success as well, Summer teaming up here with the British songwriting/production team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman, who’d practically invented a new brand of disco for the late ‘80s and wrote and/or produced a series of major club hits for the likes of Rick Astley (including “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever”), Kylie Minogue, Bananarama (including “I Heard a Rumour” and their Number One cover of Shocking Blue’s “Venus”), and Dead or Alive. It’s an incredibly inspired pairing, and Summer sounds right at home working with them, the material also proving to be her best set of songs since She Works Hard for the Money, with songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Hurt,” “When Love Takes Over You,” “Breakaway,” and the passionate “Love’s About to Change My Heart” proving to be true highlights of Summer’s ‘80s work. The disc also spawned a massive comeback hit in the neo-disco of the Top Ten hit “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” which is every bit as good, if not better, than the best Stock-Aitken-Waterman productions for Minogue like “Never Too Late” and “Hand on My Heart.” While the Stock-Aitken-Waterman sound may have been commercially out of vogue in the ‘90s, it’s still a shame that Summer never worked with them again, because it’s nearly every bit as strong a pairing as Summer and Moroder, and this album is easily one of Summer’s three best post-Casablanca outings and should not be missed.

Mistaken Identity (1991, Atlantic)

C –  

While Summer was a natural to have a comeback hit in the late ‘80s with the disco-influenced dance-pop of producers like Stock, Aitken, and Waterman in vogue, it was probably inevitable that Summer’s ‘90s output would be met with little response. The musical climate had simply changed too much – grunge rock had officially taken off, and even the world of R&B had been taken over by the sounds of hip-hop and New Jack Swing. Summer’s first outing of the ‘90s consequently takes on a more self-consciously urban sound, and it’s a rare experiment from Summer that doesn’t work, her personality getting completely lost in the process. While she did score a minor Hot 100 hit in the modern beats of the now-quite-dated-sounding “When Love Cries,” the album – produced by Keith Diamond, best known for his extensive work with Billy Ocean during the ‘80s – fares far better with its ballads, and Summer’s vocal talents are able to salvage the disc with her passionate rendering of cuts like “Heaven’s Just a Whisper Away” and “Friends Unknown.” Still, overlooking Lady of the Night, this is easily her least essential album yet.

I’m a Rainbow (1996, Mercury)

A –

An archival release originally recorded all the way back in 1981 but rejected at the time by Geffen, this would-be-double-disc might not be as strong as The Wanderer, but at the same time, it’s hard to understand why this disc was denied release, because there are some clearly commercial tracks here. (Indeed, several of these cuts would get diverted with great success to other projects. The catchy and delightful “Romeo,” for instance, would later pop up on the multi-platinum soundtrack to Flashdance, and “Highway Runner” would show up on the Fast Times to Ridgemont High soundtrack, while former Abba vocalist Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad would cover “To Turn the Stone” on her first post-Abba solo album.) “Romeo,” the slow R&B grooves of “You to Me” and “Sweet Emotions,” the neo-disco of the Joe Esposito duet “I Believe in You,” and the futuristic synth-pop of “Melanie” (reminiscent of late-period Abba) all sound like they could be singles, and the ballad “I Need Time” is a fantastic closing cut. Not all of the experiments here work, and it’d be understandable if David Geffen had wanted to pare it back to a single disc, but to reject the project outright seems somewhat puzzling given the number of solid cuts here; the album is more or less the artistic equal of the Quincy Jones-produced album that would replace it.

Crayons (2008, Burgundy)

C +

It’s not completely fair to say that Summer was never the same after she stopped working with Giorgio Moroder – Michael Omartian certainly brought her back to life on She Works Hard for the Money, as did Stock, Aitken, and Waterman on Another Place and Time – but too often Summer and her labels seemed a little confused as to how to help her navigate through the post-disco era, and that problem resurfaces on Summer’s first studio outing in seventeen years (and, sadly, the last studio album she would ever make.) You would think, having been away for so long and having little chance of scoring any sizable radio hit, that Summer – working with a giant cast of assorted producers, which makes the album fairly schizophrenic – might be content to return to her roots here, but instead she makes too many attempts here to sound modern and relevant, and cuts like “Slide Over Backwards,” the Lady Gaga-like “Fame (The Game),” the ironically largely tuneless “Mr. Music,” and the braggadocio of “The Queen Is Back” sound rather embarrassing, if not desperate. But there are some good moments here like the acoustic ballad “Sand on My Feet,” and, even better, the disco stylings of “I’m a Fire,” the fun up-tempo pop of “Stomp Your Feet” and the samba-flavored “Drivin’ Down Brazil,” the latter two both co-written by Danielle Brisebois, the New Radicals alumnus responsible for writing the Natasha Bedingfield hits “Unwritten” and “Pocketful of Sunshine.” It’s an inconsistent album, but the best moments here actually outshine the best moments from Mistaken Identity, so this is a slightly stronger note for Summer to have gone out on.  

Compilations:

The most iconic of Summer’s many hits packages is 1980’s On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II. Not surprisingly, it only contains material from her ‘70s albums [though it also tacks on the Barbra Streisand duet – and Number One hit – “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” which had previously only appeared on the Streisand album Wet, and a new song – heralding from the movie Foxes – called “On the Radio” that would become a Top Five hit in its own right], so it doesn’t capture her full career, but the song selection couldn’t be better. Like many of Summer’s previous studio albums, most of the songs segue from one into the other, which might be a slight turn-off to some listeners, but the transitions are well-executed and help to make the record particularly good to play at parties. If you’re looking for a package that captures more of her career and includes her ‘80s hits like “She Works Hard for the Money” and “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” you have two particularly good options. The 2003 single-disc package The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer is missing five of her twenty Top Forty hits (but none of them terribly egregious omissions, the highest-charting being the #21-peaking “There Goes My Baby”) but is otherwise a strong career round-up that also includes two new studio recordings [‘That’s the Way” and “Dream-A-Lot’s Theme (I Will Live for Love).”] The 1993 double-disc package The Donna Summer Anthology similarly squanders an opportunity to collect all her Top 40 hits in one place, strangely omitting “Walk Away,” “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling” and “The Woman in Me, but it does have the advantage of containing a few Top 40 hits that seldom pop up on other hits packages, such as “Cold Love” and “There Goes My Baby,” and it also contains a well-chosen crop of Summer’s more overlooked ‘70s sides like “Rumour Has It,” “Love’s Unkind,” and “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It.”