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.
1980’s Irons in the Fire, Teena’s third full-length, was her personal favorite of all her albums, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not only arguably the finest disc she ever made for Motown, if not perhaps even the best album in her entire discography, but it’s also the moment when Teena first truly started to take full creative control over her own product. Of the eight proper songs included here (the ninth track is a reprise of an earlier cut), Teena wrote seven of them entirely herself, also handling the bulk of the rhythm, vocal, and horn arrangements as well. Even more significantly, there is no Rick James or Richard Rudolph this time around to oversee the proceedings – instead, Teena’s opted to produce the album on her own and allows herself the freedom to handle piano and keyboard duties on several tracks in the process. Few other artists within the Motown family, female or otherwise, could claim to have this vast an amount of creative control over their records (even the company’s biggest female star, Diana Ross, didn’t begin to produce her own records until leaving Motown in 1981 and signing with RCA), but any hesitation the label may have had in granting Marie that freedom had to be alleviated when Irons in the Fire became her biggest album yet, not only reaching the R&B Top Ten but reaching #38 on the Billboard Top 200 and yielding her first Top 40 pop hit, the hook-heavy “I Need Your Lovin’,” Teena’s catchiest song to date, which expertly combines lushly-orchestrated disco with heavy funk (powered by Allan McGrier’s awe-inspiringly elastic bass work) and compares favorably to such similarly-flavored – if softer – sides Quincy Jones was producing around the same time, like the Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp!” and George Benson’s “Give Me the Night.”
You would think that opening Irons in the Fire with that well-crafted hit single might work against the album, but surprisingly, the disc avoids taking any significant dip in quality from that point onwards, and the surrounding album cuts that round out the package are nearly every bit as delicious, particularly the dance sides, which all rank as Teena’s best up-tempo songs to date. Strip the vocals off of the wormy funk of “First Class Love,” and the track could nearly pass for a backing track from the criminally underrated Zapp of “More Bounce to the Ounce” fame. McGrier’s bass work is a marvel throughout the album, and he once again steals the show on “Chains,” the muscular acapella opening of which is well ahead of its time and foreshadows the sound that En Vogue would ride to fame a full decade later. The stuttered bossa-nova-tinged jazz-funk of the vaguely Al Jarreau-like “You Make Love like Springtime” is simply great fun, while the reprise of the cut that closes the album is even more heavily Latin-flavored and ends the disc on a particularly vibrant note.
Compared to the quality of the dance jams, the ballads pale a bit in comparison, but they’re all superior to any of the ballads from Lady T and nicely show off Teena’s continuing growth as a ballad singer. The title cut boasts a beautifully-arranged orchestration and a plinking piano motif that recurs throughout the song and adds quite a bit to the track’s sultry ambience. “Young Love” similarly has a beautiful hook that more than compensates for the song’s overt lushness. “Tune in Tomorrow,” the most appealing of the ballads here, is Teena’s most jazz-oriented ballad since “I’m Gonna Have My Cake (and Eat It Too)” from her debut album and also features the legendary “Funk Brother” James Jamerson, Jr. on bass.
Teena’s final album for Gordy, 1981's It Must Be Magic (like its predecessor, entirely self-produced and nearly entirely self-written, too, with the exception of two co-writes), is nearly every bit as note-perfect as Irons in the Fire and remains one of her most essential studio albums. Once again, it’s the dance jams that steal the record, but the passionate balladry of the closing cut “Yes Indeed” might very well be her best non-jazz-oriented ballad yet and concludes the album on a breathtaking note indeed.
But, oh, those dance grooves! If the album has any significant flaw, it’s that the sequencing is slightly imperfect and the first two songs should have swapped places; Teena might have been wiser to open the disc with the artistic brilliance of “Revolution,” which begins as a powerful piano ballad before unexpectedly shifting gears twenty seconds into the cut and morphing into a gently-funky R&B-jazz side with a killer lead-guitar lick that repeats throughout the song. But the brass-heavy danceable disco of the album-opening title cut nonetheless has a very strong melody and sizable hooks in its own right and would seem like the most obvious track to kick off the record if not for the presence of “Revolution.” The old-fashioned stomp of “The Ballad of Cradle Rob and Me,” meanwhile, would be right at home on any early Pointer Sisters album for the Blue Thumb label, and “365” is expertly-crafted funk-jazz and beat Anita Baker’s lyrically similar “Same Ole Love (365 Days a Year)” to the punch by half a decade.
The two biggest standouts of all, however, are “Portuguese Love” and “Square Biz.” The highly-percussive and heavily bossa-nova-flavored “Portuguese Love” (featuring an uncredited cameo from former mentor Rick James) is another of Teena’s always-wildly-appealing jazz-tinged outings and one that finds Teena challenging herself vocally to impressive results, the vocalist handling the song’s jam-packed lyric with sheer ease. “Square Biz” very nearly gave Teena her second Top 40 hit and should have followed “I Need Your Lovin’” into the survey but would stall at #50; it’s every bit as catchy as that Irons in the Fire single, however, and is undeniably one of the three most essential and well-known sides she ever cut with Motown. The song’s hardcore funk vibe and busy rhythm arrangement is reminiscent of the equally-appealing (and similarly overlooked) Earth, Wind & Fire single “In the Stone,” but once again, Teena steals the spotlight from her ace rhythm section (highlighted by Allan McGrier, who co-wrote the cut and slaps the strings on his bass with impressive force throughout) with her impressive vocal delivery on what is an extremely word-heavy and cleverly syncopated lyric.
You really can’t go wrong with any of Teena Marie’s four albums for Gordy, especially Irons in the Fire and It Must Be Magic, but if you’d like a sampler of Teena’s music before you start delving into any of her studio discs, you may want to check out Hip-O’s 2000 Teena Marie best-of Ultimate Collection – there’s still plenty of great songs that aren’t included (“I’m Gonna Have My Cake and Eat It, Too” or “You Make Love Like Springtime” really ought to have been included to show off Teena’s jazzier side, and the R&B chart-topper “Ooh La La La” is strangely absent), but it’s one of the rare all-encompassing discs out there that incorporates material from both her tenure with Gordy and her later years at Epic, which means you can have such late-career smashes as “Lovergirl” and “If I Were a Bell” on the same disc as “Square Biz,” “I Need Your Lovin’,” and “Portuguese Love.” [The disc also tosses in her classic duet with Rick James, “Fire and Desire,” which never appeared on one of her own studio albums and originally hailed from James’ album Street Songs.]