Time to Face the Music

Mar 12th, 2015 | By | Category: Reviews, Sorry Not Sorry

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It’s now been 25 years. Isn’t it time to forgive and forget the scandal? Isn’t it time to face the music?

Milli Vanilli’s rise and fall in the U.S. was very swift. In less than one year, they rose to the top of the charts, album and single, and earned a Grammy for Best New Artist, only to sink after Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were outed as lip syncing models and they had to give the Grammy back (for more on lip syncing). Quite a dramatic tale; in fact, Joe Diebes is currently developing an opera based on the story.

But as I argue in my accompanying essay, someone sang these songs. And if we put aside the question of who sang them and just listen to what they sang, Girl You Know It’s True turns out to be a pretty damn good album. In fact, it sounds like a greatest hits collection, which it kind of was by the end the year after five of its songs had become Top 10 singles.

Most of the album adopts the then trendy New Jack Swing sound. Largely associated with producer Teddy Riley, New Jack mixed not-quite-spoken, not-quite-rapped verses with sung R&B choruses, all atop a bed of minimal synthesized beats. The pinnacle of the sound was definitely Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” but many of Milli Vanilli’s songs are worthy additions to the genre, especially lead-off track “Girl You Know It’s True.” (The CD also contains the “Girl You Know It’s True (N.Y. Subway Extended Mix)” as a bonus track, which comes far closer to matching Coldcut’s classic “Seven Minutes of Madness” remix of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full” than would be expected, though they do include what sounds like the same Ofra Haza sample.)

This is followed by “Baby Don’t Forget My Number.” Nice beat, but it’s striking how retro those tinny ’80s synth drums now sound, but in a fun way. And the “ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba-BABY” refrain is quite catchy, as are the refrains for “Take It As It Comes” and “All or Nothing,” which sounds like a New Jack take on “Spinning Wheel.” Blood, Sweat and Tears’ David Clayton Thomas certainly thought so and sued the band for royalties (his suit was overshadowed by the class action suit filed just weeks before by “victims” of Milli Vanilli’s fraud).

A handful of soul ballads provide nice changes of pace throughout the album. Of course, slowing the beat down also calls more attention to the lyrics. Cliches like “when the one you love makes you cry,” “let me be the one” and “sometimes it’s easy to worry, but there’s nothing to worry about” run by too quickly to register in the upbeat “Take It As It Comes,” but the cliche of rain imagery in a breakup song is all too obvious in a ballad like “Blame It On the Rain.” Later, “Dreams to Remember” starts out reminiscent of “Sign Your Name” by Terence Trent D’Arby (is he where Rob and Fab’s braids came from?), but the “I’ve got dreams to remember/They’re all about a love in September” couplet is pure “fill in the blank” rhyme.

Not everyone can be the poet Smokey Robinson is. But do we really need, or even want depth in pop love songs like these? No, we want, might even prefer, common platitudes about yearning and heartbreak that tell us our misery is normal, that others have felt and survived these feelings before us and we just might, too. Most important, though, is a nice dance beat, slow or fast, and a catchy chorus. And Milli Vanilli is all about catchy choruses. It’s a testament to Milli Vanilli that their New Jack cover of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” (just a year after Salt-N-Pepa’s version, “Shake Your Thang”) does not stand out from their own songs.

Now I’m usually not a very big fan of soul ballads, find most far too sappy for my taste. But as much as I like the upbeat numbers on this album — and I really, really do — my favorite song is a ballad, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You.” It sounds a whole lot like the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye” (though not quite enough this time to get sued):

The following video is fictional and does not depict any actual singers or events:


Details:

        • Artist: Milli Vanilli (AKA Frank Fanian)
        • Title: Give You Know It’s True
        • Year of release: 1989
        • Year of first hearing by writer: 1989
        • Label of original release: Arista
        • Format listened to: CD
        • Track Listing
        • Purchase from Amazon: Girl You Know It’s True
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