-written by Jeremy Gloff
-March 5th, 2018
Life’s mysteries and highways are not always explained to us. We are met with certain destinies – some of which are fulfilled and some which remain open-ended and never to be chased. Some doors in life we are lucky to enter and close behind us – while others stay slightly ajar – swinging and teasing with a taunting nag. Once upon a time, in the mid 80s, it was musician Brenda Bennett’s destiny to record a solo album under the guise of her mentor Prince.
Brenda had cut her teeth in the 70s singing in Ken Lyon’s Tombstone band and rose to national prominence as one of the members of Vanity 6 (and later Apollonia 6). While Vanity 6 had a strong and loyal following, each of its three members attracted their own specific cult of fans. The character Brenda took on in the band was that of the no-nonsense tough girl who probably never lost in a fist fight. What ran even deeper than the iconic band-photographs were the performances caught on wax. While Vanity was more than convincing as the cooing-temptress, and Susan made the most of her monotone speak-singing, it was Brenda’s performances that gave these albums their heart and soul. Look further than the tough girl on the album covers and you’ll hear the vulnerability and earnestness that Brenda turned in on such classics as “Blue Limousine” and “A Million Miles (I Love You)”.
After the 80s Brenda disappeared from public sight. Message boards and fan communities buzzed with the question – where is Brenda? The power and genuineness of Brenda Bennett’s performances created a fan base that now spanned years and decades. Many 80s music lovers wondered just what happened to the blonde tough girl with the cigarette hanging out of her mouth. As the 2000s progressed more and more 80s musician took to social media. Brenda remained MIA.
All questions were answered when Brenda re-emerged in 2011 with her debut solo disc “A Capella”. Phones were literally ringing off the hook the day all the fans found Brenda was back. “A Capella” was a gorgeous album – a chance to catch up with a long lost friend and see where she’d been. Firmly rooted in a singer/songwriter vibe – this debut album gave us a chance to hear that rich alto voice in an earthier setting. The lyrics detailed Brenda’s years away from the spotlight – from raising her son Dylan to losing one of her brothers and her parents. Aesthetically the music was about a million miles away from the sassy venom of “Bite The Beat” but the voice was unmistakably Brenda. And beyond the voice itself, the lyrics and tone of “A Capella” confirmed that the heart of and soul of Brenda’s 80s performances were indeed the real deal.
After a farewell concert in Rhode Island in 2016 Brenda told journalists she planned to take it easy. The possibility of a second album wasn’t out of the cards but also not a priority. It was here when fate intervened and the crazy tornadoes of life revealed a calling. When Prince died in April that same year not only were his fans left shocked, but his former associates and collaborators were blindsided. While Prince was laid down to eternal rest a certain flame seemed to ignite inside of Brenda Bennett. Thoughts returned to that unrecorded solo album from the 1980s. What was once a destiny had became an afterthought and a missed opportunity. But was it? Perhaps inspired by her grief and the legacy of her mentor, Brenda Bennett dove headfirst into her second solo album, titled “Once Again”. The album that was never made in the 1980s was going to be made now. We are reminded far too often that life is short. We feel that urgency to seize the moment by taking charge and just doing what we are called to do. Brenda Bennett decided it was time to do just that.
Encouraged by fan’s response to her GoFundMe campaign Brenda embarked on a creative journey that would put certain ghosts to rest, ignite new fires, close some of the doors to the past, and open new ones for the future. While “A Capella” played like a casual catching-up conversation, it is on “Once Again” where Brenda Bennett reaches her full potential as an artist, singer, and musical force.
The album opens with “Something’s On Fire” – a rock/soul tour de force complete with a horn section and a backup choir. From the moment the drums kick in the listeners knows they are in for a different ride than Brenda took us on “A Capella”. Once Brenda’s voice kicks in on the first verse this listener was overcome with a wave of familiarity and emotion. Now THIS is the Brenda we loved and knew from the 1980s. The fire, funk, sass, and strut is all intact and on display on this opening cut. What makes “Something On Fire” a winner is the fact that the sizzle of the music is on par with the vocals and lyrics. Brenda Bennett is back, once again, and on fire.
The second cut on the album is “Victim of Your Charm”. The track opens with a mid-tempo rock beat and Brenda eases into the first verse in her low range. Already a bit darker than the opening cut, “Victim” saunters along like a late-night drive. Just when the groove and tone sink in comes THAT chorus out of nowhere. In the span of a second Brenda and her band turn the emotion and passion up to a ten. The chorus of “Victim Of Your Charm” finds Brenda Bennett in complete control and at the top of her powers. Channeled into this music is the confusion, passion, rage, longing, and release that every scorned lover has ever felt. Putting aside the intense vocal delivery, the music is a unique fusion of rock, funk, soul, and heavy metal. During the final build-up, the chorus of electric guitars that usher us into the final chorus are absolute genius. The horn section and backup choir are back for this second track – but where they added flame to the opening cut they add fury to this one.
After the one-two punch of the opening sequence, the acoustic guitars that usher in “One Moment In Time” offer some nice breathing room. While this track finds Brenda treading in water closer to “A Capella” than “Apollonia 6” there’s a new-found confidence and freshness that firmly places this track on the new album. With its gorgeous country-overtones, exquisite three-party harmonies, and sincere lyrics “One Moment In Time” finds Brenda taking stock of both her past and her future. One of my favorite cuts on the first album was “Jemmima” – a character study of a woman trying to break the shackles of her past to reconstruct her thinking and her future. “One Moment In Time” flows with the freshness of carefree mental rejuvenation. There’s an open-aired feeling in the music that conjures the rebirth of springtime. Much like this album feels like the rebirth of Brenda herself.
Cut four is the swampy “Black Morning Sunrise”. The verses chug along with a down-home grittiness and Brenda’s fluid melody sets nicely atop. I almost got Chrissy Hynde feels from the verses. Once the song hits the chorus we enter euphoric southern gospel rock territory. The choir is back and the further movements from chorus to verse are a nice ride. What makes this rocker even more thrilling is its feel of driving down southern highways as the sun comes up and the fog rolls into the swamp. “Black Morning Sunrise” takes one final unexpected turn as it settles into a mysterious half-time groove and fades out. Even as the song fades its voices and mood linger like a morning fog.
Brenda channels the country blues on track five, the empowering “Disposable Love”. Brenda turns in a nice vocal that’s complimented by some tasty dobro. There’s a clarity and earthiness to the production that recalls some of Hot Band’s performances on the early Emmylou Harris albums. While the performances on “Once Again” thus far signify a rebirth and focus – on “Disposable Love” Brenda blatantly comes out and say she’s leaving the bad things in her past behind. The sincerity of her delivery and the overall tone of the album leave no doubt.
Track six is the pleasant and rolling “So Close”. This gorgeous cut sonically recalls Peter Asher’s classic production on Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like A Wheel” album. Where on “Disposable Love” Brenda discarded an unhealthy and unfulfilling relationship, on “So Close” she celebrates one of the good guys. The rush of love one feels when finding a great partner is echoed as the strings build up to the final chorus. “So Close” emanates with the warmth and sepia textures of classic radio pop – so often missing in this technological world. Pure bliss and tenderness. In a world of one night stands and drum machines – “So Close” reminds us of the world that once was both lyrically and sonically.
Things pick up with track seven, the swinging “Summertime Love”. Brenda debuted this song at her 2016 Rhode Island concert – it was a collaboration she started with her brother many years ago and never finished. Lucky for us this little gem of a rocker was dusted off. Leading up to this point the album has taken us on a journey of liberation and freedom. “Summertime Love” swings along with that certain swagger and charm that can only be obtained by a loving state of mind. Taken at face value “Summertime Loves” shows that being young isn’t a number but a state of being. “Summertime Love” is the sound of being 17 no matter what the age of the singer or the listener.
Track eight is the illuminated “Wonderful Beautiful”. Every track on this album has benefited from wisely chosen arrangements and Brenda and her collaborators wisely keep things simple here. With her voice chock full of emotion Brenda reaches into her soprano range and delivers a career-best vocal performance on this track. While this song was written in the 1970s – its lyrics can have many different interpretations all depending on where you are in your own life. Just when we thought Brenda had shown everything in her bag of tricks she wows us with that cascading soprano range. It is via the simplicity of “Wonderful Beautiful” that the complexity of Brenda Bennett is fully realized. With her voice spanning three octaves, this track conjures the ghosts of classic Ann Wilson, Grace Slick, Bonnie Raitt, and Patsy Cline while retaining that unique Brenda Bennett sound. On the closing note of the track Brenda hits a timbre and vibrato that sound straight out of “Clouds”-era Joni Mitchell. The amount of emotion and experience packed into this song’s three minutes makes “Wonderful Beautiful” tour-de-force.
The album winds to a close with the epic “So Strange”. The track builds slowly – commencing with a two minute instrumental written by Brenda’s son Dylan. It was a wise choice to open this way because by the time the proper track kicks in the pensive mood has been set. The first verse is handled by singer/songwriter and collaborator Betsy Listenfelt whose bell-clear tone is the perfect compliment to Brenda’s grittier sound. “So Strange” slowly unfolds and sits comfortably in the same space that the best cuts from “Led Zeppelin III” and “Dreamboat Annie” sit. (No doubt Betsy Linstenfelt could give Ann Wilson a run for her money).
Listening to “So Strange” it is as if every year of Brenda Bennett’s life and every track on “Once Again” have been leading up to this heavy contemplative moment. What makes this track succeed is that it doesn’t buckle under its own weight. Its conjuring of the great beyond and its questioning of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going is directly in line with the mission statement of this entire album. The otherworldly sense of age and wisdom bring to mind later-day contemplative pieces by Johnny Cash and Marianne Faithfull. Most poignant is that “So Strange” confirms and underlines the hint of artistry we all sensed in Brenda Bennett in 1984. And here we are, once again.
Although presented as a bonus cut, a cover of Prince’s “17 Days” is the essential closing track. Musically we are taken back around to the funk rock that began with “Something’s On Fire” – and even more importantly to the germ of the entire project – Prince’s death. Finally we are able to hear Brenda sing the iconic track originally intended for her. (Her voice can still be heard on Prince’s version during the fade out.) By covering “17 Days” Brenda proudly pays tribute to (and reclaims) her years as a “Prince Girl” but this time on her own terms. Poignantly, Brenda’s son Dylan shares co-lead on the track. One cycle ends and another begins…
The ten tracks of “Once Again’ unfold like a journey through time – touching on loss, gain, power, love, life, and death. Some of these songs waited decades to be heard. – at one point Brenda may have thought these songs would never be heard. Just when it seems all chances were lost a mysterious fork in the road reveals itself. Once again.
Brenda’s first album “A Capella” gave us a nice chance to catch up with her but on “Once Again” we get to see the Brenda we always knew and loved – and then so much more. This album is a masterpiece. A career best and a personal triumph. Brenda Bennett takes us there, once again.
Prince would be very proud.