Following a mainstream hard-rock solo album in the ’70s, ex-Labelle singer Nona Hendryx upped her rock-community hipness quotient considerably in the ’80s. Co-produced by Material, Nona features an all-star cast of Talking Heads and Go-Go’s, as well as Laurie Anderson, Nile Rodgers, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Sly Dunbar. The dance-funk is, unfortunately, more stimulating on paper than disc; Hendryx is a powerful singer and there are some slick production moves, but the tunes (with the exception of the memorable “Keep It Confidential”) are too shapeless to be gripping.
On The Art of Defense, again teamed with Material (as well as much of the preceding LP’s cast, plus Afrika Bambaataa and Eddie Martinez), Hendryx sings seven long songs about passion with passion, blunting their emotional impact with numbing one-note, one-beat repetition. Technically excellent and funky as hell, the album is also boring beyond words.
Produced in large part by Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Arthur Baker, The Heat is a lot better. The songs — more melody, less bombast — take maximum advantage of the musical interplay possible with electronic percussion and studio wizardry. Hendryx evidently still believes that any line worth singing is worth singing half a dozen times, but the well-arranged, muscular backing tracks keep moving, so things don’t wind down — even when she drills a lyric into the ground. “If Looks Could Kill (D.O.A.)” is a return to her soul roots; Keith Richards guests on “Rock This House,” providing trademark rhythm riffing that fits just right.
Sounding in spots very much like Peter Gabriel’s So album, Female Trouble — dedicated to Winnie Mandela — is another unpredictable jumble of styles (synth-dance, rock, Prince-like funk, etc.), songwriters, producers (mainly Hendryx, Dan Hartman and the System) and guest musicians. Hendryx’s irrepressible full- throttle approach makes this an invigorating blast, a tough- minded party record about sex and sexual politics.
After four studio free-for-alls, Hendryx finally grabbed the reins of creative responsibility on SkinDiver, making a concerted effort to focus her music in one direction for a change. Co-producing with Private Music boss (and Tangerine Dream-er) Peter Baumann, Hendryx wrote the material, played synthesizer and did all the drum programs. Following the Gabrielesque path introduced on Female Trouble, the songs on this restrained, atmospheric and frequently alluring album float along as if in a dream state; dispensing with the kinetic power and diversity of Hendryx’s previous LPs, the masterful SkinDiver reveals substantially more personal artistry.