Happy 25th Anniversary to Sheena Easton’s eleventh studio album No Strings, originally released August 3, 1993.
The Big Time began airing in the United Kingdom in 1976 before concluding in 1981. The BBC show was the first of its kind—a reality television program. The Big Time would pick and follow one exceptional individual with a certain skill as they attempted to break into the vocational market associated with their specialty. Models, cooks, editors and an assortment of other characters all featured on The Big Time. However, the appearance of Sheena Easton, a young Scottish singer and drama school student, on the program in 1981 caused an unexpected stir.
Put out just a few short months ahead of the airdate of Easton’s feature on The Big Time, her initial single “Modern Girl” made major ripples on the British charts. On the heels of “Modern Girl” came Take My Time (1981)—eponymously retitled for American consumers. Released by EMI Records, Take My Time was a focused set of adult contemporary pop and rock that made Easton immediate competition for her preceding AOR foremothers Linda Ronstadt and Olivia Newton-John.
Eager to maintain her momentum, Easton immediately followed up on her debut with You Could Have Been with Me (1981), Madness, Money & Music (1982) and Best Kept Secret (1983). Sales for the post-Take My Time trio ranged from strong to disappointing, the latter qualifier resting on the shoulders of her fourth LP, Best Kept Secret.
Easton’s fourth album swapped out producer Christopher Neil with Greg Mathieson and Jay Graydon. Best Kept Secret saw the singer’s AC inclinations politely unified with post-disco dance-pop and a bit of new wave nerve. Only modestly successful, it was the doorway to the further eclecticism—and commercial viability—of her fifth long player, A Private Heaven (1984). Maintaining her affection for lush balladry, Easton kept indulging in dance (“Strut”) and R&B music (“Sugar Walls”) on the gold and platinum seller. In addition to this sonic makeover, Easton embraced an extroverted visual aesthetic.
As the decade wore on, Easton remained busy. She cut four more records—Do You (1985), No Sound But a Heart (1987), The Lover in Me (1988), What Comes Naturally (1991)—and pursued a lucrative acting career. By 1993, Easton had endured a label swap (from EMI to MCA in 1988) and intermittent commercial and creative returns—she was ready for a fresh start. This desire drove Easton into the welcoming arms of the jazz format and one of its most ardent disciples, Patrice Rushen.
Rushen had been an active force in the genre since her initial album Prelusion (1974) which showcased her as a writer, arranger, composer and all-around musician. After three straight-ahead instrumental platters for Prestige Records, Rushen inked a deal with Elektra Records in 1978 to begin an equally enterprising run of hits in the mainstream R&B world.
The meeting of minds between Easton and Rushen revealed two individuals with a mutual admiration for the other. Upon Easton’s insistence, Rushen eagerly signed on to produce (and play) on her eleventh LP, No Strings. The covers album was to be her inaugural collection wholly committed to the works of other song scribes, specifically those of the pre-rock and roll era.
Comprised of eleven tracks overall, some of the revered songwriters tapped by Easton here include George and Ira Gershwin (“Someone to Watch Over Me”), Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers (“Little Girl Blue”), Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen (“Ne Me Quitte Pas/If You Go Away”), Ned Washington and Hoagy Carmichael (“The Nearness of You”) and Frank Loesser (“Never Will I Marry”).
In many ways, all the entries selected for inclusion on No Strings are “obvious” choices. The innumerable versions of these songs by hosts of other singers before Easton attest to their unyielding popularity. What sets Easton’s takes above the stylish standards songbook fray is Rushen’s command of a crisp cross-section of fantastic session players and, of course, Easton herself.
The record’s title is playfully spot on in that there are no string instruments to be found on No Strings. Instead, there is an enchanting cooperation of piano, guitar, bass, drums (some brushed, some not) and pockets of brass and woodwinds. All the music is at a median gait for Easton to vocally flex.
Opening with a particularly elegant rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” No Strings goes from strength to strength. Throughout, Easton is a polite temptress (“I’m in the Mood for Love/Moody’s Mood for Love”), a plaintive chanteuse (“How Deep is the Ocean”) and a woman with the capability to provide a pinch of genteel sass and swing (“Never Will I Marry”). Her deftness with such established jazz material in relation to the control, color and range of her voice is impeccable.
Released in early August of 1993, No Strings garnered Easton some of her best reviews. Strangely, MCA Records put no muscle behind the song cycle; there were no singles sanctioned. This was a huge marketplace misstep on MCA’s part, one that frustrated Easton. Only “The Nearness of You” got the greenlight to be spotlighted in the Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore romantic-drama flick Indecent Proposal. Easton had a cameo in the film singing the composition and that likely led to its having a place on the movie’s soundtrack as well.
As the 1990s sped forward, Easton’s releases grew more and more infrequent until her semi-retirement was marked by her last effort, Fabulous (2000). Easton still tours to much acclaim. Coming back to No Strings, the album revived the consistency emblematic of her material prior to A Private Heaven, but didn’t forsake the versatility gained after that daring project.