It's hard to believe it's been a whole five years since the girl group En Vogue dropped its last album, "Funky Divas," which produced their signature hits "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" and "Free Your Mind." Since then, the group has sung backup on Salt-N-Pepa's "Whatta Man" and released the recent hit single "Don't Let Go" from the "Set It Off" soundtrack. But with their new release, "EV3," it's clear that plenty has changed.
First of all, Dawn Robinson, the group's most vivacious and sultry singer, has left to record a solo album with Dr. Dre's label, Aftermath. (Robinson left the group after recording almost the entire album, so her departure affects the album tour and En Vogue's image rather than the album itself.) Furthermore, the girls have surpassed their Svengali duo: It was Toni! Tony! Tone! producers Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster who put En Vogue together in 1990 and produced their first two records, "Born to Sing" and "Funky Divas." McElroy and Foster produced five tracks on "EV3," but it's En Vogue, along with EastWest/Elektra producer Sylvia Rhone, who share executive producing credits.
To lessen the risk of such a move, they've called in industry big guns. Babyface co-wrote and produced the first single, "Whatever," concocting a pop song jammed with hooks that don't require profound emotion -- perfect for En Vogue. These women can all sing, so when they get an opportunity to wail, they sound great. But the chemistry of the group depends on a certain groomed quality to the vocals, and Babyface seems to understand that -- don't expect to break down and cry when one of them lets loose. Diane Warren, another songwriter with the Midas touch, teamed up with equally failproof producer David Foster (who did Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You") to create "Too Gone, Too Long," a predictably well-crafted ballad. It's sure to be a hit, but you can't help wondering what emotional depth someone like Toni Braxton could give this tune.
The tempestuous, sexy single "Don't Let Go," by the ingenious Organized Noize (who also produced TLC's hit-that-wouldn't-die, "Waterfalls") is a highlight of the album. Other songs of note are McElroy and Foster's "Sitting By Heaven's Door" and Ivan Matias and Andrea Martin's "Damn I Wanna Be Your Lover" (on which Vogue member Cindy Herron, a born-again Christian, refused to sing because of its suggestive lyrical content). The women of En Vogue also debut as songwriters on this album, with mixed results -- "Does Anybody Hear Me?" is a lovely ballad, but "Eyes of a Child" is preachy and poetically lazy: "It takes some hard work and determination to learn how to hate/and the first ones that it's taught to/is to the eyes of a child." It's a good thing these women can sing as well as they do -- even with their hackneyed proselytizing, they're still a joy to listen to.