by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
The R&B/jazz singer Oleta Adams got her big break in one of the most unlikely ways imaginable: she was playing at a bar in a Hyatt Regency in Kansas City when Tears for Fears (who were in the middle of an American tour) happened to walk in on her set. Awed by her talent, the duo would end up hiring Adams to sing on their next full-length, The Seeds of Love, Oleta sharing lead vocals with Roland Orzabal on the album’s haunting second single, “Woman in Chains,” which would just manage to reach the Top 40. Adams would also join the duo on the promotional tour for the album, both getting to serve as opening act and remaining onstage during the headliner’s set as a pianist and backing vocalist.
The exposure helped Adams land a record deal of her own with the duo’s then-label, Fontana Records. Naturally, when it came time for Adams to release her major-label debut (she’d previously issued two self-released albums on a local level in the early ‘80s), 1990’s Circle of One, she wisely brought Orzabal in to produce the disc, and Orzabal, working with Dave Bascombe, does a remarkable job as producer, resisting the urge to overdo things and keeping the arrangements sparse enough to call attention to both the sheer power of Adams’ voice and the stunning, jazzy instrumental work of her backing band.
The highlight of the album is the third single, a remake of Brenda Russell’s “Get Here.” Released at the height of the Gulf War, the single, much like the Styx’s “Show Me the Way” and George Michael’s “Mother’s Pride,” became an anthem of sorts and a popular radio request for families with loved ones serving in the military, and the track would not only become Adams’ first (and, sadly, only) Top 40 hit as a solo artist, but it would soar all the way into the Top Five.
It might seem stunning that such an organic R&B/jazz recording could do as well in the early ‘90s as “Get Here” did, but Adams’ rendition is truly a revelation; stripped of the ‘80s-adult-contemporary production that accompanied Russell’s own version, the song actually packs more punch and fire, Oleta’s vocal on the cut distinctly more emotional and passionate than Brenda’s softer delivery on the original, and the sparseness of the arrangement makes it easier to make out every little nuance, from the wormy bass work to every chime and conga accent. Even Oleta’s piano work on the cut adds to the fire, Adams playing a jazzy, almost Herbie Hancock-like solo during the instrumental break that builds in intensity in tandem with the rhythm section before gracefully leading into a powerfully-sung reprise of the bridge.
There were no follow-up hits to “Get Here” from either this album or any of Adams’ later discs, and the song remains her only Top 40 entry to date, but ironically, there are more obviously commercial cuts here than “Get Here,” and it’s a bit head-scratching how the lavishly-produced, soulful Sade-like pop of “Rhythm of Love” (penned by Orzabal with frequent Tears for Fears collaborator Nicky Holland, and the album’s second-best track) and the chugging, brassy R&B of the excellent Adams-penned title cut failed to attract much radio play.
Aside from those two cuts and the smooth-jazz of the delightful “Will We Ever Learn,” Orzabal and Bascombe keep things very organic – to the extent that over half of this disc sounds as if it were recorded live in the studio – and give Adams the freedom to indulge both her jazzier side in cuts like “You’ve Got to Give Me Room” and the stirring cover of the Benard Ighner-penned R&B standard “Everything Must Change” (first popularized by Quincy Jones on his 1974 album Body Heat and later covered by everyone from George Benson, Billy Paul, and Randy Crawford to Yvonne Elliman and Barbra Streisand) and her gospel side in cuts like “I’ve Got a Right” and “I’ve Got to Sing My Song.”
Adams has released six more albums since then to modest sales response (including a full-blown gospel album in 1997’s Come Walk with Me and a lovely Christmas album in 2006’s Christmas Time with Oleta), but she’s met with more chart success in the U.K. than here at home. (Her follow-up to Circle of One, 1993’s Evolution, even cracked the Top Ten of the U.K. album charts!) The class act that she is, Adams has also never forgotten her roots, and she’s returned to the Tears for Fears fold on several occasions, appearing on their 1995 album Raoul and the King of Spain as Orzabal’s duet partner on “Me and My Big Ideas” and also making a surprise guest appearance on the duo’s reunion tour to sing “Woman in Chains.”