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Friday, November 16, 2012

Odyssey Of The Heart: Remembering Lillian Lopez

This post is overdue, but I only recently heard about the passing of a singer who deserves to be recognised as one of the true great soul voices. Lillian Lopez was the lead singer of the soul funk group Odyssey who had a string of hits in the late 1970's and early 1980's. You might not remember them, but you would remember their songs and undoubtedly you'll recall the magical combination of warmth and power of Lillian's unique vocals. Here is my tribute to Lillian and the songs that are forever part of my personal jukebox.

Native New Yorker (1977, US #21, UK #5)

Odyssey was the brainchild of the Lopez sisters, Lillian, Louise and Carmen, but it took perseverance and many line-up changes before the band achieved success. The one constant and their unique selling point was Lillian's voice. Their breakthrough hit was this hook-laden ode to the Big Apple. Like all the best songs about New York it effortlessly evokes the energy and cool of the city and the resilience of its natives. It tells the tale of someone who came to the city with big dreams only to see them fall away. Rather than a pity party though, the song is an anthem about how you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with living. Lillian's gorgeous vocal is able to suggest the underlying heartbreak while also embracing the energy of a New York night. I fell instantly in love with that voice and the sparkle in Lillian's eyes.

Use It Up And Wear It Out (1980, UK #1)

For some unknown reason Odyssey had their greatest commercial success in the UK, but then the British have always had great taste in music. Their chart success peaked with this number one UK hit from 1980. I doubt anyone who's been to a club in the last thirty years has got away without dancing to this one, but then I haven't been to a club since 1997, so who knows what the kids dance to these days (shudder). While not the most lyrically challenging song, the chorus is just insistent and once heard it is never forgotten. Lillian sang it with great swagger, effortlessly dancing through the verses before punching the energy in the chorus. The "do it all night" bridge is a particular delight, providing an almost literal climax to the song.

If You're Looking For A Way Out (1980, UK #6)

Now I'm a sentimental soul and it has been known for me to shed a tear or two at a sad song. The champion tearjerker in my book is this unbelievable song, which has one of the all-time great vocals by any singer, ever. We all know unrequited love is the most painful, but rarely has it been so perfectly imagined in song than with this harrowing lyric combined with a delivery where you can feel every ounce of hurt. When Lillian sings "oh come on stop pretending, tell me what's in your heart" it's all I can do to avoid breaking down in sobs. And when she sings "don't you know I'll always love you" at the end of the song all my resolve is gone. Bittersweet brilliance.

It Will Be Alright (1981, UK #43)

Where If You're Looking For A Way Out is desperate, this gem is its hopeful counterbalance. It's all about giving love that all-important second chance. Lillian's vocal is again spectacular, this is a voice of a woman who understands the power of a pop song and the critical role music plays in our lives. She knows she's not singing about herself, but for all the lovers who will use this song to pluck up the courage to give love one more chance. Lillian is able to channel genuine emotion into every nuanced line, her voice seems to wrap itself around your ears, holding you until you believe her; it will be alright.

Inside Out (1982, UK #3)

Odyssey's last sizeable hit was perhaps their most sophisticated pop moment. It feels like a culmination of their strengths, the funky power of their dance music mixed with the raw emotion of their ballads. It is basically about being stalked, but Lillian makes it sound rather an attractive proposition. She is the other woman promising her man that they will ultimately be together. How this will be achieved is probably best left to the imagination, but Lillian again delivers a truly incredible vocal, less intensely emotional than usual, but full of tension and meaning, perfectly matching the tone of the lyric. That was why I loved Lillian's voice so much, she always knew how to perfectly pitch a song, which feelings to surrender, what buttons she needed to press. It was an immediately recognisable voice that to me sounded like a trusted and close friend, full of wisdom, experience and love.

Sadly, as is often the case, Odyssey were dropped by their label when the hits dried up, but Lillian kept performing until her retirement in 2000. Lillian lost her battle with cancer in September. She may not be a household name, but her magical voice will remain part of the fabric of our lives and her performances will undoubtedly continue to soundtrack the love affairs of new listeners for as long as there are ears to listen and hearts that break.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Divas Are Forever! The Other Bond Girls

Last weekend Skyfall had the best opening weekend ever for a James Bond movie, frustratingly here in the US we have another week to wait before we can once more wallow in the glamour, action and excitement that is synonymous with Bond. Similarly intertwined with this longest running of all film franchises is the music that has become as much a symbol of Bond as martinis, gadgets and girls. My love affair with Bond goes back to childhood and it has as much to do with the songs as it does with the movies. Like many impressionable young gays, something was shaken, if not stirred when I first head Shirley Bassey utter the immortal word "Goldfinger".

Like the movies themselves, the music of Bond has had its ups and downs, with some themes becoming iconic while others have been, well, moronic. Although boys are sometimes allowed to sing for Bond, it is only when the divas are unleashed that true magic is made (with honourable mentions for Simon Le Bon and Morten Harket). In this 50th anniversary year and with Adele returning the Bond theme to glory it seems right to celebrate the many female artists that have performed for Queen and country: here then is my countdown of the best and worst of the Bond divas.

21 - Under The Mango Tree: Diana Coupland (Dr. No, 1962)

Think you know who the first woman to sing a Bond theme was? Then think again. It was in fact Sid James' TV wife from the 70's British sitcom Bless This House, the lovely Diana Coupland. She happened to be married to Monty Norman, the composer who created the iconic James Bond Theme and oversaw the score for the first Bond movie, Dr. No. Ms Coupland had a sideline going of dubbing the singing voices for actresses who were vocally challenged and so it is her, not Ursula Andress who is trilling this lovely little number on the beach. Uncredited at the time, I am happy to rectify this and let Diana take her place in posterity.

20 - Another Way To Die: Jack Black & Alicia Keys (Quantum Of Solace, 2008)

Admittedly this is only half diva, but for completeness' sake I have to include it. It is understandable that with a lot to prove the first two Bond movies with Daniel Craig were serious affairs, but I'm glad that the warmth and humour that are intrinsic to Bond make a reappearance in Skyfall. Sadly this serious air carried over to the themes for Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace. This was meant to be Amy Winehouse's Bond theme, but in a sign of the tragedy to come she just couldn't get it together in time. In light of that it is hard not to feel shortchanged by this rather weak effort. This is the first Bond theme to be rapped rather than sung. For me, this just doesn't work. Every time I hear it, it feels like the first time - it's that forgettable. It's truly tedious and charisma free. Maybe in twenty years time Alicia will get a proper go at a big Bond ballad, once she's no longer so worried about being hip (do the kids still use that word?).

19 - If There Was A Man/Where Has Everybody Gone?: The Pretenders (The Living Daylights, 1987)

Although they lost out to a-ha for the title theme, Chrissie and co did get to contribute two songs for Timothy Dalton's debut as Bond. If There Was A Man is a simple ballad, that marked the first time a different theme was used for the end credits. It never quite gets going, though Chrissie sings it with feeling. This contrasts with the wacky Where Has Everybody Gone? which features briefly in the movie. It sounds like Chrissie was having a mental breakdown and someone left the tape recorder running. It has a certain quirky charm, but overall these efforts are a bit of disappointment; Chrissie has the chops to be a major Bond diva, but not with material like this.

18 Tomorrow Never Dies: Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Where to begin? It is hard to believe that new Bond music producer David Arnold held a competitive process for the honour of providing the main theme for Pierce Brosnan's second outing as MI6's finest. Were the efforts by Saint Etienne, Pulp, Marc Almond and others worse than this? We know there was one song that was perfect for the job (of which more later), but nonetheless this monstrosity won the day. Sheryl Crow is a fine artist, I'm partial to a great deal of her music, but on this evidence she is not a great vocalist. This is hardly the most rigorous Bond theme to sing, yet Sheryl barely staggers through the high notes; it is painful. The song is also really boring, even Dame Shirley would have struggled to breathe life into this one. For shame.

17 Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?: Nina (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 1969)

Poor George Lazenby, he wasn't all that bad. Oh, and Dame Diana Rigg as a Bond girl (swoon). This festive number is a slightly bizarre entry in the Bond canon, but charming in its own way. A collaboration of Bond maestro John Barry, the man responsible for making music central to the Bond movies, and the legendary lyricist Hal David. You will know their other collaboration from the movie, We Have All The Time In The World, made famous of course by the great Louis Armstrong in his final recording. European folk singer Nina is joined by a chorus of children (don't run screaming just yet) and at first listen it can feel a tad cloying, but once you allow yourself to embrace it as high camp, what's not to love? It also has a great lyric that captures the essence of a good sing-a-long Christmas anthem. Oddest Bond song for sure.

16 Moonraker: Shirley Bassey (Moonraker, 1979)

Without question John Barry is responsible for creating a whole genre of music with his soundtracks for Bond, but in the public imagination there is one singer who both defines and is defined by her Bond themes; Dame Shirley Bassey. However this effort, her fourth (yes fourth, you'll see) and final to date is far from her best, but that is hardly her fault. Legend has it that this was offered first to Kate Bush who turned it down because she was "too busy". In reality she probably fell asleep while listening to the demo and was too embarrassed to admit it, so passed. Then Johnny Mathis landed the job and recording commenced, only for him to drop out unexpectedly before completion. The trouper she is. Shirley stepped in just weeks before the movie was set to premiere, no doubt as a favour to Barry. La Bassey never held much affection for the track, feeling it didn't really belong to her. Not a bad song, but not a classic and a waste of a good Shirl.

15 All Time High: Rita Coolidge (Octopussy, 1983)

In a fever dream I once imagined a song called Octopussy sung by a sequined Donna Summer. It had the appropriate amounts of brass, belting and bravissimo and Donna was straddling a disco ball while Bond girls danced beneath her. Sadly it was but a dream and instead we have this slab of MOR. It's perfectly pleasant and beautifully sung by Rita Coolidge, but it is not a Bond theme in my book. There is no drama, no tension. Oh well. At least we have the 80s-tastic single sleeve to bring a smile to our lips.

14 Die Another Day: Madonna (Die Another Day, 2002)

I have a love/hate relationship with this one. There are bits that are magic, cool and edgy and Bondish, but there is also much that is lazy and unintentionally hilarious ("Sigmund Freud... analyze this", for example, and those peculiar grunts). It does feel like Madge knocked it off on her tea break, she was probably more focused on doing some proper acting in her rather forced cameo appearance in the movie. Imagine my excitement when I heard Madonna was doing the Bond theme, then picture my face when I heard it. Undoubtedly the biggest letdown in Madonna's career and yes, I'm including Swept Away.

13 For Your Eyes Only: Sheena Easton (For Your Eyes Only, 1981)

Having originally offered Blondie the chance to write the theme song, the producers eventually went with this song by the film's composer, Bill Conti. It is a little bland for my liking, though Sheena Easton sings it like her life depended on it. She also has the honour of being the only artist to perform her song in the title credits. There are some nice musical flourishes here and there, but the song never quite achieves lift off. Still Sheena doesn't grunt in it, so it slips ahead of Madonna in this countdown.

12 If You Asked Me To: Patti LaBelle (Licence To Kill, 1989)

I have a soft spot for Timothy Dalton's Bond, I know he's not many people's favourite, but I thought he nailed the part. This gem is from the end credits of his second and sadly final outing, Licence To Kill. First it is written by the divine Diane Warren, who seems to channel her inner Bond girl in the plaintive lyric, vainly hoping for a future with Mr Bond. Second, it is sung to perfection by the uniquely gifted Patti LaBelle, who showcases her singular charms throughout. It is a travesty that this did not become a huge international hit for Patti, although you can't blame Celine Dion for stealing it a few years later. For me though this will forever be Patti's song. This was the great Michael Kamen's only Bond soundtrack and with this and the title song he ensured it became one of the most memorable.

11 Mr. Kiss Bang Bang: Shirley Bassey/Dionne Warwick (Thunderball, 1965)

After the enormous success of Goldfinger it was inevitable that Bond's producers would want to repeat that formula for their next outing and that included trying to mirror the iconic title track. The original theme for Thunderball was the amusingly titled Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was a phrase coined by an Italian journalist when describing the character of Bond. John Barry pretty much copied the template of Goldfinger, from the brassy intro to the dramatic crescendos, but this time the song lauds the hero rather than the villain. The song was originally recorded by Shirley Bassey, who gives a highly stylised performance, lacking the finesse of her prior turn. Barry was clearly unhappy with the results and so asked Dionne Warwick to take a turn. Dionne sings it straighter, giving it a more pop feel, the arrangement is also more sophisticated on this version. All of this effort was in vain though, as United Artists asked for the song to be replaced, as they felt the theme really should include the film title. Barry was not impressed, he'd deliberately avoided writing a song called Thunderball, thinking the term too vague for a successful lyric. All of which explains why Tom Jones' ultimate theme for the movie seems a little weak, as it was both written and recorded in a rush. Such a shame that this vintage piece of Bond music never made it to the final cut, though the melody recurs throughout the score. It is also regretful that both Shirley and Dionne's recordings did not see the light of day for nearly three decades. However, we have them now and so we can wallow in the wonderfully cheesy lyrics and dream of what might have been.

10 The World Is Not Enough: Garbage (The World Is Not Enough, 1999)

Bond's other Shirley, the delightful Miss Manson and her band Garbage gave a perfectly chilling performance on this slice of classic Bond. This could not be anything but a James Bond theme, the lyrics are erudite, the melody is suspenseful and the production is flawless. After the misfire with Tomorrow Never Dies David Arnold, who after John Barry is Bond's most natural composer, redeemed himself with this effort. This also has to be the best music video made to accompany a Bond theme, with Shirley being replaced by a deadly android, it is like a mini-movie in its own right.

9 The Man With The Golden Gun: Lulu (The Man With The Golden Gun, 1974)

While Bond themes are synonymous with sophistication and suspense they are also, at their best, ever so slightly camp. That is apart from this cracker from Lulu, which is top-to-bottom camp. In fact it's hard to believe this is from a real Bond movie and not some spoof, as the lyrical innuendos have rarely been this upfront. From the opening "He's got a powerful weapon" to the incredible bridge "his eye may be on you or me, who will he bang? We will see..." Lulu delivers it with gusto, proving she has one of the most powerful voices ever to come out of a white woman. It probably ties Goldfinger for establishing the idea of Bond themes as high camp and it is a cheeky little minx, much like its singer.

8 Surrender: k.d. lang (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)

Imagine a world where this was the title theme for Tomorrow Never Dies, that world would have no war, endless summer and donuts would be calorie free. Sadly we live in this world and Sheryl Crow's travesty was picked over this gem. k.d. is one of the finest vocalists that has ever lived and on this she proves that she was born to sing Bond. If you left the cinema when the end credits started and you've never heard this luxurious, fabulous song in all its glory then you are missing one of the true delights of the Bond canon.

7 GoldenEye: Tina Turner (GoldenEye, 1995)

You might find it hard to believe this is effectively a U2 song, composed by Bono and The Edge. It is a perfect pastiche of a Bond theme and I mean that affectionately, as it is clearly written with a great deal of love and affection for Bond music. Launching a new actor as Bond is always a tense affair and it is important that the producers give them every chance to succeed. I believe this loving recreation of a classic Bond theme was the perfect scene-setter for my personal favourite Bond, the delicious Pierce Brosnan, who was the first since Connery to successfully encapsulate all aspects of Bond's persona. It also has one of the greatest vocals of any Bond theme, Tina is triumphant, especially at the crescendo where her voice does something quite remarkable with the word "GoldenEye".

6 You Only Live Twice: Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice, 1967)

With the movie's Japanese setting, John Barry sought to include eastern motifs in the themes for this outing, creating a unique sound for this memorable Bond classic. An initial theme to be sung by Julie Rogers was abandoned and the very trendy Nancy Sinatra was co-opted instead to sing a new song. While many Bond themes become timeless, this one for me will always summon up images of the sixties; a decade that was cool, swirly and wore kinky boots. With the most gorgeous refrain of any Bond song, it has been sampled a number of times,including most memorably on Robbie Williams' Millennium. Nancy does a commendable job of singing within herself, despite her reported nerves and twenty-five takes. She also recorded a pop version of the song, which reached number 11 in the UK charts and made the Billboard top fifty.

5 Skyfall: Adele (Skyfall, 2012)

I was beginning to worry about the future of the Bond theme after the last few troubling attempts at making them "cool". Thank Fleming that the producers have finally seen sense and gone back to basics for the latest movie: a strong song with all the required elements sung by a great singer. They don't come much greater right now than Adele, with her sterling performance on this track she has shown that there are even more layers to her majestic voice than we had yet heard. Adele and her songwriting partner Paul Epworth must have been channelling John Barry when they wrote it, the track could be from any of the last five decades, it is timeless and an instant classic. I almost wept in gratitude when I heard it: there is hope for the future of Bond music.

4 Goldfinger: Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, 1964)

In many ways Bond began in 1964 when both the movie and the song Goldfinger solidified many of the elements that became icons of Bond. The third movie to be made, this time all the ingredients combined to create true magic and every Bond film since has been forced to live in its shadow. Written by John Barry with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, Newley recorded the song himself initially and his version was considered for the movie. Enter Shirley Bassey. the red hot pop diva at the time, who basically eats the song alive. The brassy elements were to tie in with the gold themes of the film, but they have become synonymous with Bond themes (well the good ones) ever since. Who can fail to be thrilled at that opening blast of brass, then seduced by the gentle echo? Shirley gave us shades of vamp, victim and victor in her defining performance. What more is there to say? Perfection.

3 Licence To Kill: Gladys Knight (Licence To Kill, 1989)

It's getting tough to separate them at this stage, each of the these songs have been my favourite Bond theme at some point, but few have I gone quite so mental over than this one. It unashamedly borrows the theme from Goldfinger, but in a way that makes it feel like it was written for this song. It is also the longest Bond theme, clocking in at 5 mins 15 secs, owing to the seemingly endless crescendos, each more spectacular than the last. Gladys nearly out-Basseys Shirl on this one, I can't think of when she gave a stronger vocal, proving she has the power to go along with one of the greatest emotional voices of all time. This may be a bit OTT for some tastes, but it never strays over the line into parody, it is how a Bond theme from the 1980s should sound. Superb.

2 Nobody Does It Better: Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)

From the tinkling piano intro to the full-blown orchestral fade this song is three and a half minutes of sheer perfection. Composed by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch and with lyrics by the supremely talented Carole Bayer Sager, few Bond songs have such a formidable pedigree. The first not to be named after the film (though the title appears in the lyrics), this song is also one of the few that have arguably outgrown their role as a Bond theme. It has gone on to be used on the soundtrack to numerous other movies and has been covered and performed endlessly. A large part of the credit must go to Carly Simon, who was a brave choice by the producers to sing such a big song. Carly was the seventies cool chick, but she was known as a singer-songwriter and had not yet proven herself as a formidable interpreter of song. She has never sounded sweeter than on the opening measures and when she unleashes on the first verse and roars towards the song's climax it is a marvel to behold.

1 Diamonds Are Forever: Shirley Bassey (Diamonds Are Forever, 1971)

Though Goldfinger may get most of the attention, most Bond fanatics agree that this second outing by Miss Bassey is the greater achievement. Sophisticated, witty, breathtaking - words that are synonymous with Bond perfectly describe this amazing theme. Shirley's vocal is indescribably great on this, the song gives her the chance to unleash all the weaponry in her arsenal, from gentle purrs to earth shattering highs. The lyrics are a masterclass of metaphor, it is the bitter cynical sister to Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. It has my favourite line in any Bond song "men are mere mortals who are not worth going to your grave for" - delivered with an appropriate snarl by Shirley. Allegedly Barry urged Shirley to imagine she was singing about a penis, armed with that knowledge you can never quite listen to the song in the same way again. This is the pinnacle of Bond themes and it is hard to see how it could be bettered, but who knows what Adele's second Bond theme may provide...

I hope you've enjoyed this trip through the wonders of the lady Bond themes and maybe you have made a few new discoveries or at least been reacquainted with some old friends. One thing is certain, James Bond will return.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Free Again! Barbra finally reopens her vault...

It is fifty years since the incomparable voice of Barbra Streisand was first committed to record on the Broadway soundtrack for I Can Get It For You Wholesale, where she stole the show in the minor role of Miss Marmelstein. From such humble beginnings she has gone on to become the best selling female artist of all time. What many people may find surprising is that Barbra does not consider herself a singer, but rather "an actress who sings". She has admitted to only singing when in the recording studio or her famously rare concert appearances. Barbra is also a legendary perfectionist and over the five decades of her recording career has often rejected or abandoned songs because they fail to meet her exacting standards, or they no longer fit her vision. This has naturally led her fans to salivate at the prospect of what treasures might be lurking in her vaults, with some gaining legendary status. Only once in her long career has Barbra allowed the release of these "lost" songs and that was over twenty years ago on her box set Just For The Record... .

In light of this you can begin to imagine the excitement that greeted the announcement that Barbra's latest album, Release Me, would be a collection of eleven unreleased songs from all stages of her career. Now that the album is here, some of the missing puzzle pieces in Barbra's recording history are falling in to place. Unlike many such compilations of studio rejects, when you can often hear the sound of a barrel being scraped in the background, the quality of the tracks is truly astounding. They also show how Barbra's voice has changed and developed throughout her career, as well as how she has adapted her style and musicianship to match the changing times. The album includes informative sleeve notes that explain the reasons these recordings lay gathering dust for so long and for a fan this is just as fascinating as hearing the music.

When Barbra first emerged on the music scene in the early sixties popular music was still a strange hybrid of crooners, rockers and poppers. The British Invasion was appearing on the horizon, middle America was still sheltering from Elvis' pelvis and mainstream pop music would as often feature full orchestras as it would guitars and drums. Barbra began her career as a nightclub singer and her early albums were filled with standards and popular songs from her live shows. Her voice on these early recordings is crystal clarity and her delivery was full of sensitivity or drama, as the song required. I adore Barbra's voice on these early recordings, for me it is at its most pure, as she seems to be testing her limits and abilities and constantly pushing herself. It is indeed the voice of an actress, but one so gifted that the listener has no trouble buying every syllable she utters. Eventually popular taste and her record label would force Barbra to begin recording more modern pop albums, but one of the lost tunes on Release Me was due to appear on her last hurrah as a standards singer, Simply Streisand, released in 1967. Willow Weep For Me was written in 1932 by George Gershwin's squeeze Ann Ronell and has subsequently been recorded by just about every great jazz artist. Barbra's version is as classy as you would expect, the arrangement and orchestration is lush and full of detail. Her vocal is exquisite, but maybe lacks a wow moment, which she so frequently delivers. Perhaps this is why she abandoned it when selecting the final tracklisting for the album.

A year later Barbra was looking for a way to connect with the zeitgeist and so she tried her hand at the trendy new musical fad, bossa nova. She recorded one of the lesser known of this new breed of songs by the leading bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, Lost In Wonderland, possibly for inclusion on her first pop album. However, while an interesting experiment, it is clear why this track hasn't seen the light of day until now. While Streisand has mastered many genres, bossa nova is clearly not her forté. Technically she just about stays with the beat, but she is clearly struggling. Barbra also lacks the necessary languidness to pull off the inherent coolness that bossa nova demands. Let's face it, Barbra likes to be in control and she sounds as if she is fighting her instincts here. It is to her credit that she has included the track on this collection, as it a fascinating piece of history for the Barbra fan, if unlikely to make many lists of favourite tracks.

Barbra's first pop album, 1969's What About Today?, was not a major hit, but she knew that she had to continue to modernise her sound if she was going to remain relevant as a recording artist. In 1970 she began work on an album that was to be entitled The Singer. One of the tracks recorded was the Jimmy Webb composition Didn't We, which has all the trademark subtlety and depth of the best Webb songs. Barbra clearly connects with the song and produces a sterling vocal. However, the record company persuaded Barbra she needed a harder pop sound, so she abandoned the album to begin work on what would become her pop breakthrough, Stoney End. Naturally fans mourn this lost album, although a few tracks  recorded were released on The Way We Were album a few years later, this is another glimpse of what might have been.

Another lost track from this era is the standout on Release Me, Randy Newman's poignant I Think It's Going To Rain Today. Barbra recorded the track with Randy on piano as a test recording while they were working on potential Newman songs for Stoney End. The track is a revelation, in one breathtaking take Barbra completely nails the melancholy and honesty required to make this song live. The sparse piano backing allows full focus to be given to that unique voice. Again it is a gift to Streisand fans, an extremely rare opportunity to hear a relatively unvarnished performance from Barbra, instinctual and natural, it is a moment of true greatness. You can also detect here Barbra's voice in transition, from the "stagey" quality of her early works to a more fluid pop sound. For me. this is Barbra in her prime, and her next pop album, Barbra Joan Streisand is in my view the pinnacle of her vocal prowess. What a thrill then to be gifted this performance from that era of one of the best songs ever written by one of the best singers that's ever lived.

Another lost project is the intriguing Life Cycle Of A Woman, which was intended to be a concept piece following a woman's life story from cradle to grave. Despite developing the idea for a number of years and finally recording five songs in 1973, the album was never completed and Barbra eventually abandoned the idea altogether. Two of the five songs destined for the album were released on Just For The Record... and now a third is revealed, the mother/daughter duet Mother And Child. Barbra sings both roles, repeating a self-duet technique she used to stellar effect on A House Is Not A Home/One Less Bell To Answer on her Barbra Joan Streisand album. While the song is lovely and a genuinely touching portrait of the bond between mother and child, I'm not sure the duet part works as well here, as it takes a while to realise Barbra is playing two parts. It may have been more successful if Barbra had recorded it with a child. The overall album concept is definitely intriguing and we can only wonder what the final album would have been like. Excitingly, the final two missing songs are promised to us on a second volume of Release Me, hopefully scheduled for release before 2032!

Of the remaining tracks, there are three that were intended for one of Barbra's hit albums of Broadway songs. When she decided in 1985 to release The Broadway Album she faced intense resistance from her record company who did not believe there was still a mass audience for such material. How wrong they were, the album went to number one on the Billboard charts and was an international smash hit. The opening track on Release Me was intended to be the opening track on The Broadway Album, but when it came time to sequence the record, Barbra plumped for her remake of Sondheim's Putting It Together, which she felt perfectly articulated her artistic struggles in getting the album made (particularly as she got Stephen to rewrite most of the lyrics for that purpose). The losing song, Being Good Isn't Good Enough, is taken from the musical Hallelujah, Baby!, which depicts the civil rights battles of African-Americans. The song highlights the truism that minorities need to be twice as good as the majority to achieve the same success, something that the kooky Jewish girl from Brooklyn could perfectly understand and identify with. It seems a shame that this track was left off the album completely as it is the equal of those that made it, but it also shows Barbra's skill as an editor. Including two tracks with the same theme would have been superfluous and change the overall tone of the album, but it must have been a tough decision to leave it off. All's well that ends well, as we get to enjoy it now.

The Broadway Album was to include a mix of standards, highbrow fare and more pop-oriented material, but as work progressed Barbra decided to omit the pop tracks she had recorded in favour of the more revered material. One of those pop rejects was the showstopping ballad Home from The Wiz, the all-Black version of The Wizard Of Oz. We get to hear it now and while Barbra does a great job with it, I believe she chose wisely. Part of the magic of The Broadway Album is that it takes theatre songs and makes them accessible for a pop audience, Home, though strong, is not in the same league as the songs of Sondheim, Gershwin, Bernstein and Hammerstein.

In 1988 Barbra began work on Back To Broadway, an irresistible follow-up, but was unhappy with the balance of material, so set it aside. The album bearing that title that was released in 1993 was very different from these early plans. Two songs were recorded, including a medley of How Are Things In Glocca Morra?and Heather On The Hill, from Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon respectively. The combination is magical and this is a standout track on the album. It is another sign of Barbra's artistic integrity that she walked away from such strong material to wait for the timing to be right to complete the project. It would have been easy for her to plunder the Broadway goldmine ad nauseum, but Barbra is always more interested in stretching herself as an artist than constantly repeating the same formula.

Few artists could afford to have such high quality rejects sitting gathering dust for decades, thank heavens that they were saved. Release Me works as an album in its own right, but it is also a documentary of pop music history. The limitations of an LP record were a real restraint on artists in terms of editing their material, meaning that albums included the best tracks, with real thought having to be given to what was included . In my view this is something sadly lacking in the digital age. Just because you have 80 minutes available doesn't mean you need to fill it with every doodle and demo in your head.

One of the most charming aspects of Release Me is the little interludes from the recording sessions that feature on some tracks. They make you feel like we are actually there picking through the vaults and uncovering the riches within. Whether it was turning 70 (hard to believe) or a desire to control her own legacy, Barbra is finally beginning to curate her career with an eye to posterity. As well as another volume of songs from her vault, we are promised a 12-disc DVD collection of her musical career. This is not to suggest that she plans to wrap up anytime soon, there is also a brand new album of duets coming, which will include one with her son, Jason Gould, who has later in life decided to launch his own singing career. I'm not surprised it has taken him this long: look who he has to follow! So while this is far from the final chapter in Barbra's career, it is an important one, like the coda to a mystery novel when most of those nagging questions are finally answered.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Release Me is out now on Columbia Records.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Little Earthquakes: the arrival of Tori Amos

This week Tori Amos released Gold Dust, a lush orchestral reworking of selections from her back catalogue designed to mark twenty years since the release of her first solo album, the remarkable Little Earthquakes. While not Tori's first release (there was the album with the now never mentioned pop band Y Kant Tori Read), Little Earthquakes is effectively Tori's debut as the artist she always wanted to be, rather than the cookie cutter poppette the record company envisioned. So confused were Atlantic, her label, when Tori presented Little Earthquakes to them, they initially rejected it. Tori not only saved her record and turned it into one of the seminal albums in pop, she launched herself as one of our most unique singer-songwriters with a truly devoted following only a few special artists achieve. Here's how she did it.

Nothing I do is good enough for you...

Part of the record company's problem with Tori was her musical style. Tori was a prodigy pianist, winning a place at the renowned Peabody Conservatory of Music at age five, where she was classically trained. However, her inability to sight read (she plays by ear) and burgeoning interest in rock music led to her departure six years later. In the early nineties all the cool kids in the music industry were into grunge and Tori's piano-centric compositions and arrangements seemed completely out of step with current trends. When Tori bravely refused to replace the piano parts on Little Earthquakes with guitars (she was two albums in to a six-album deal with no sales to show), she found an outside buyer for the album who would take it as it stood. Rather than risk someone else being right, Atlantic caved and Tori was allowed to proceed on the basis she would write some new songs to bolster the album. When she released her retrospective box set A Piano: The Collection in 2006 she revealed the album tracklisting that Atlantic rejected. Fans were astonished that even at this point it contained some of Tori's most beloved songs, proving without doubt that she had faced a real uphill struggle to maintain her vision for the album against executive interference. Eventually Tori provided a tracklisting the label accepted, but they were still uncertain how to market her. Tori had relocated in this period from LA to London to finish work on the album and the record company thought that a British audience might be initially more receptive to such a kooky artist. In fact it might be posited that either Tori or the label took inspiration from another singular female artist for the imagery and buzz created to promote Little Earthquakes.

Excuse me, but can I be you for a while...

It is pop lore that a young Kate Bush fought with EMI to ensure that Wuthering Heights was released as her debut single, while the record company wanted a more conventional song. Kate prevailed and the rest is, of course, history. Ever since any female singer-songwriter who fails to fit into a neat box has been lazily dubbed "the new Kate Bush" by music hacks, creating a categorisation where none could exist. It seems that either Tori or her record company decided to take this inevitable comparison by the horns and create a direct resonance with images of Kate, signalling to the audience that here was another original, slightly quirky, piano-playing female artist, so if you like Kate this could be your cup of tea. Don't believe me, then I submit the following exhibits for your consideration.

Before the hate mail starts I want to be clear about something; I am not suggesting that Tori ripped Kate off, in fact I think any musical similarities between them are superficial at best. What I believe is that faced with a tricky sell, Tori and/or her record company deliberately echoed Kate's imagery to signal to record buyers that if they liked Kate, then they should give Tori a try. Anyone around at the time will be able to attest that the Kate/Tori debate loomed large for a time, not least over the fact that Tori played live, something deprived Kate fans could only dream about. Having attended Tori's early concerts I can attest that a large proportion of the audience were Kate fans who saw in Tori a kindred spirit, a unique talent and an artist they could see and even touch, unlike the increasingly reclusive Kate. This strategy succeeded in launching Tori in the UK and after an initial stumble with her first single, Tori became a regular fixture on the UK top 40 during 1992.

She's been everybody else's girl, maybe one day she'll be her own... 

Putting aside the record company battles and the marketing campaigns, what about the actual music Tori created on Little Earthquakes? The song most people heard first was the confessional Silent All These Years, a track Tori originally began writing for folk singer Al Stewart before her producer Eric Rosse convinced her not to give such a great song away. It is a song of great complexity and lyrical ingenuity that is hooky enough to grab you on the first listen, but requires repeated attention to uncover all its layers. It is the song of a woman breaking free from mundanity and social restraints and finally finding her own voice and in that way it is a metaphor for Tori's own struggles to find her true artistic expression. Tori has revisited the song on Gold Dust, barely meddling with the original arrangement, so well executed was the original. It is a defining moment in Tori's career and still stands as one of her most successful compositions.

Little Earthquakes is without question one of the boldest assertions of female sexuality ever committed to record and subsequently it has been adopted as a feminist totem. There is one track in particular that commands attention, Me And A Gun, an a capella where Tori recounts the true life story of being raped. It is hard to listen to and certainly uncomfortable to consider as entertainment, but the power of this song has given strength to many other victims and would eventually lead Tori to co-found RAINN, an anti-sexual assault organisation, which provides a helpline. A quite remarkable piece of music.

The album is truly an embarrassment of riches and picking out individual songs for particular praise seems churlish when together they form such a coherent piece. However there are two other classics on the album, both of which Tori has included on Gold DustPrecious Things erupts with all the pent up frustration of adolescent sexuality, the insistent piano backing holds the tension throughout proving that Tori was right to fight for the retention of her chosen instrument. The lyrics are biting and provocative, ripping apart the pretence of social niceties and laying bare the sordid and often uncomfortable truth of early sexual encounters between boys and girls. Of all Tori's songs this is the one I love to hear her perform live, as she really commits to every syllable and note, wringing every drip of emotion out of the song.

Then there is my personal favourite Tori song, the stunning Winter. It is a tale of memory, parental love and the pain of unavoidable change. It also has one of the prettiest melodies I have ever heard, which only further underscores the heartache at the song's conclusion. Tori's vocal is unbelievably great, especially as her voice almost cracks under the pain of the final chorus. It reminds me a little of early Joni Mitchell, who for me is a much better comparison for those wanting to find a lineage for Tori's compositions. The new version on Gold Dust makes the most of the full orchestra to create a subtle soundscape allowing the song full room to breathe and captivate the listener once again.

So twenty years on and Little Earthquakes has undoubtedly stood the test of time. It remains a touchstone album, as original and special today as it was on first hearing. Having found her voice at last Tori would go on to forge a unique path, putting to rest for all time any suggestions that she was derivative. I have been mesmerised by her talent for two decades, both by her deliciously difficult songs and her electrifying stagecraft, but I will never forget the thrill of excitement and astonishment that I felt when I first discovered her all those years ago.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Gold Dust is out now on Deutsche Grammophon. Little Earthquakes is available on Atlantic.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Living In A Dream World: ABBA's Missing Songs

You probably consider yourself to be a "fan" of one or more artists, but what kind of fan are you? Fandom can range from a simple liking of a particular singer or group through to dangerous, and quite possibly illegal levels of obsession. Most people would consider themselves a fan of an artist if they bought (how old fashioned) all or most of their albums, perhaps saw them live and generally enjoyed their music. The next level up would see a fan seeking out B-sides and other rarer tracks, maybe following/stalking the act on social media and literally "buying the T-shirt". Then there are the superfans for whom the officially released material is just not enough. They need to hear and possess every piece of music the artist has created; the discarded demos, the alternate takes and the abandoned album tracks.

For these fans the connection with the music created by their favourite artists is so great that every recorded note has value, regardless of the sound quality or relative success of the material. In days of yore, finding such "bootleg" material meant hanging round the dodgier stalls in record fairs and trading cash for illicit vinyl and tape in brown paper bags. But this is the Internet age and superfans have never had it so good. A simple YouTube search will unveil all manner of rarities that should satiate even the most rabid superfan. Some artists understandably are not thrilled that their cast-offs or perceived failures are available in this way, but most choose to turn a blind eye, perhaps understanding themselves what it means to be a superfan. For me, it seems preferable that these goodies are now available for free to enjoy rather than shady profiteering in back alleys, with altruistic superfans able to share their gems and their joy with fellow fanatics.

If all this seems bizarre to you, then let me walk you through a case study. I am an ABBA fan, always have been, always will be, and like most so afflicted still believe that their "hiatus" will end at some point and we will get a new album (they never officially broke up). OK, so it's been thirty years since their last new single, but like keeping fairies alive, such delusion requires a leap of faith. To keep me going in the interim I have quickly latched on to the occasional re-release that offers something new and unheard from the Polar Music vaults, which usually requires buying lots of stuff I already have again, but of course I don't mind that. Then there are the "leaked" recordings of unheard songs that were once much sought after bootlegs, but can now be heard with impunity on the worldwide web. Here then is my guide to some of the best of ABBA's rarities, officially sanctioned or otherwise, to inspire the superfan in you.

The Original Dancing Queen

First stop is a song that has become one of the most familiar in all of pop music, but which you may not have heard quite like this. ABBA's undoubted masterpiece and in my book the greatest pop song ever written, Dancing Queen. A few years ago I was watching an ABBA documentary (no, really) and they played a clip of Agnetha and Frida in the studio singing Dancing Queen, only the words they were singing weren't in the song we all know and love. After choking on my Maltesers, I rushed to find out what this meant; was there a version of Dancing Queen I'd never heard? It turns out the second verse was initially the same length as the first and began with:

Baby, baby you're out of sight/Hey, you're looking alright tonight/When you come to the party/Listen to the guys/They've got the look in their eyes...

The song then continued with the You're a teaser... bit. OK, so the lyrics aren't quite up to Björn's usual standards, so you can understand the edit, but OMG!!! The best song ever could be 17 seconds longer! Sadly this extended version can only be heard officially in Spanish, as La Reina Del Baile on ABBA's Spanish language release Gracias Por La Música (see this blog is educational as well as informative, you'll soon be bilingual!), which for some reason used the original backing track and lyrics. However, superfans are not deterred by the lack of official release, they instead spend hours splicing together the released version with the audio captured from the documentary with differing levels of success. It may not have the polish of a digitally remastered track, but if you squint you can hear the magic of Dancing Queen like you've never heard it before. And for that I am truly thankful.

Dream World

It's not unusual for an artist to write more songs for an album than they require and then pick the best. Sometimes the leftovers become B-Sides, are shelved, or used for scrap, with elements being reworked for use in other songs. Such is the case with this cast-off from the recording sessions for the Voulez-Vous album. If it had not been rejected it would have sat quite comfortably on ABBA's "disco" album, having all the trademarks of a classic ABBA track. Agnetha and Frida's beautiful harmonies: check. Catchy sing-a-long chorus: check. Top quality arrangements and production: check. It has a fun circus fanfare intro and a perfectly serviceable "boy meets girl" lyric, maybe not a hit single, but a strong album track. Nonetheless, Björn and Benny were writers of such quality they could easily afford to abandon such a polished track if they felt it didn't quite pass muster.

They did like the bridge though and so surgically removed it and implanted it in Does Your Mother Know, proving that art created is never truly wasted. Dream World itself finally got allowed out on ABBA's 1994 box set of hits and rarities Thank You For The Music. It is a great little number and it is always a joy to hear those voices again, especially when they were at the height of their greatness.

Just Like That

I've previously covered the slow disintegration of ABBA as a working unit during the recording of their final album (to date) [When All Is Said And Done: ABBA, The Visitors]. It is well-known in fandom that ABBA began work on another album, erroneously referred to as Opus 10, with a number of songs written and recorded in 1982. Some of these became singles and B-Sides for what turned out to be the career retrospective best of The Singles: The First Ten Years, such as the awesome The Day Before You Came and the extremely catchy You Owe Me One. Fans were obviously thirsty to know what else might have been recorded in this period and one track in particular reached almost mythical status; Just Like That. Fans first became aware of the track from articles written by journalists visiting ABBA in the studio during 1982, when they mentioned this track along with another, I Am The City. The latter would get a posthumous release on the compilation More ABBA Gold, but Just Like That remained tightly locked in the vault.

Finally in 1994 a snippet of the chorus appeared on a 24-minute medley of unreleased material, ABBA Undeleted, on the Thank You For The Music box set. When fans heard it they became obsessed. It was an undeniably classic ABBA chorus, immediately catchy and had "hit" written all over it. Clamour for a full release fell on deaf ears though, with the boys still unhappy with the song, which they couldn't make work despite numerous attempts at recording it in slightly different ways, including the inclusion of a ubiquitous 80's sax break on one version. As with Dream World, the song was cannibalised to create a single for the Swedish group Gemini, also called Just Like That, using that great chorus, but in my view less effectively at a slower tempo. The verse melodies found themselves reused for an added song in the Swedish version of Benny and Björn's musical Chess.

Eventually bootleg versions of the ABBA recordings emerged and the full song quickly became a favourite amongst superfans, myself included. It shows the level of perfection ABBA strove for if a song of this quality was considered fit for the cutting room floor. The song's final hope was inclusion in the ABBA-inspired musical Mamma Mia and it made it through to the rehearsal stages before being dropped. We live in hope that one day a fully produced version of the original ABBA recording will emerge, I have no doubt it will cause a sensation if it ever happens.

Every Good Man

As it became clear that ABBA's ninth studio album was not going to be completed, the band members started to focus on their own projects. Frida was extremely keen to get a new solo album made and she is noticeably absent as a lead vocalist on ABBA's final tracks. Agnetha too began to think about making a solo record, while Benny and Björn wanted to write a musical. They began demoing songs that might work in such a stage production and one of these was Every Good Man. Agnetha sang the lead vocal, so although not officially an ABBA record, most fans think of this as the final recording of the band. It is a classic ABBA mid-tempo ballad, though clearly unfinished. It would finally evolve into Heaven Help My Heart in Chess, originated by Elaine Paige on stage and for the cast recording. Again superfans have to make do with a bootleg version, but as a glimpse of the death of ABBA and the birth of Chess it is a treasure to cherish.

These are just a sample of the wonders that can be found with remarkably little effort thanks to the godsend that is the Internet. While some may mourn the days of dodgy bootlegs and the thrill of owning rare recordings that few others could hear, I welcome the democracy of fans being able to share such gems without seeking profit. As a rule of thumb I never steal music that an artist has put out for sale, but when it's a recording that can only be heard in this way I admit the temptation is too hard to resist. If they released it, I would buy it, as would any true fan. So whoever your obsession may be, I hope this encourages you to do a little digging to see what unheard marvels may be waiting for you out there in cyberspace.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

She Really Is So Unusual: Cyndi Lauper

When she burst onto the pop scene in 1983 with the timeless smash Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and the multi-million selling album She's So Unusual, Cyndi Lauper was heralded as the new female pop sensation. In the mid-1980s only Madonna rivalled her success and Cyndi competed toe-to-toe for a while. Cyndi became known for her very colourful outfits and hair and her occasionally Minnie Mouse-like vocals, but this enduring public perception masks a multi-layered, fascinating artist with a rich, versatile and unique voice. Cyndi eventually caved in the fake battle to be Queen of Pop and was then free to carve out an arguably more interesting career in music, exploring different genres and growing into a unique artist. Although the huge hits dried up, Cyndi has released many great and criminally overlooked singles over the last three decades, so rather than focus on gems like True Colors and Time After Time, today I want to celebrate those classic Cyndi songs that deserve similar praise and attention and underline why, frankly, she really is so unusual.

My First Night Without You (1989)

Cyndi's follow-up to the awesome I Drove All Night should have been another international smash, but inexplicably it flopped. It is a loving pastiche of a fifties style love song, think Peggy Lee at her rawest, clicking to a slinky beat. Cyndi is driving home to face her first night alone after a failed relationship, the vocal starts calmly enough, but becomes more and more distraught as the reality sinks in. It's not hysterical at all, but it is heartbreaking, you buy every word as Cyndi's fears grow. The song builds beautifully to its gut-wrenching climax: "will I be able to sleep... what if I forget and reach for you?". This was the song that took me from a listener to a fan. There are few singers able to deliver such operatic themes without descending into soap opera: Cyndi is one of those that can.

Sally's Pigeons (1993)

Heartbreak of a different kind awaits on this most affecting of ballads from Cyndi's criminally overlooked fourth album Hat Full Of Stars. This autobiographical tale recalls a childhood friendship and contrasts the innocence, freedom and promise of youth with the sometimes harsh realities of adulthood. With a poet's allusion, Cyndi mourns the loss of that friend to a botched back alley abortion, but the song is not sensationalist or morbid, it has true pathos. The melody is gentle and beautiful and Cyndi's vocal is honest and measured perfectly. It is hard to create such a nostalgic tale without tipping into sentimentality and this song shows Cyndi's songwriting abilities are equal to her vocal talents. It doesn't hurt that her co-writer on this track is the similarly gifted Mary Chapin Carpenter. Truly one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

Ballad Of Cleo & Joe (1997)

And now, as they say, time for something completely different. By the time she made her fifth album Sisters Of Avalon Cyndi had moved far beyond any desire to play to the mainstream. Always an individualist, she was fully embracing her place on the margins and alongside that using her music to address the marginalised. The album was a full-on attack on complacency in popular culture and the treatment of women and minorities. This is not to suggest that the material is preachy, it is among her most inventive work and a prime example is this fantastic (in all senses of the word) single. It tells the tale of blue collar Joe, who struggles through the working day so that at night he can transform into his totally fabulous alter ego, Cleo. Cyndi had always had a rock edge to her pop sounds, but on this she sounds like a gypsy Pat Benatar. The musical backing is frenetic and eclectic and wonderful. The lyrics take the form of a traditional ballad and Cyndi sings them with appropriate energy and urgency. The song is tremendous fun as well as being a great anthem for living a liberated life. Cyndi has been a tremendous supporter of the LGBT community and this is one of the tracks that shows she is more than prepared to put her money where her mouth is. A whirling dervish of a song, be warned it may have you heading for the wardrobe, but not the closet!

At Last (2003)

When assessing a vocalist's talents it is easier if you can compare them to widely recognised greats. That is often tricky with pop singers who mostly sing their own material. Cyndi gave her fans and her critics the chance to judge the quality of her voice when she released her 2003 album At Last, an inspired collection of standards and more modern songs done in a jazz style. The arrangements are pared back, allowing the songs to breathe and giving the sense of a live performance in an intimate club. Cyndi proves that she is that rarest of artists who can conjure comedy and tragedy with her voice and sound sincere at both extremes. The album was a justified success in many territories, including the US, but was sadly overlooked in the UK where she is perhaps still typecast as "kooky", making an album of standards a hard sell. One of the many standouts is the title track, where Cyndi wisely doesn't compete with Etta, but instead focuses on wringing all the emotion and meaning out of the lyric she can. That's not to suggest that this white girl doesn't have soul, her rip-roaring final note soars up there with the best of them. Proof, should it be needed, that Cyndi is as great an interpreter of song as she is a conveyor of her own music.

Into The Nightlife (2008)

For her tenth album, Bring Ya To The Brink, Cyndi decided to make an out and out dance album. To ensure authenticity she collaborated with current and cutting edge dance artists and the results are stunning. There are many diva fans who shudder at memories of great singers forced into making "disco" albums late in their careers, but let me reassure you this is not the case here. Cyndi sounds as fresh and energetic as when she just wanted to have fun in 1983. The album is so full of energy and spark it could power a city. A case in point is this most fantastic of singles, easily my favourite Cyndi song ever. A warped bass sound signals the start of the song with Cyndi feeling an "endless itch to ride" drawing her to the dancefloor. The chorus erupts in a sonic wave and has the most infectious lyric I've heard in a long while, suffice it to say this was on constant repeat on my iPod for about five months. The song is so brilliantly realised it can make the most dreary of surroundings seem like the most fabulous gay club. It also contains the best dance song lyric ever: shirtless wonders wreck my sight. If Britney had recorded it, it would have been a worldwide number one smash. With no mainstream airplay support Cyndi had to settle for a number one on the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart. Such is life.

Early In The Mornin' (2010)

As she approaches the end of her third decade as a recording artist, Cyndi shows no signs of fatigue. Her latest reinvention is as Blues artist and it is a natural fit. Her voice was so clearly made to sing the Blues, it's astonishing it took her this long to realise it. When listening to her album Memphis Blues you are transported back to a smoky underground club in the forties, with Cyndi holding the rapt audience in thrall. Showing the respect Cyndi is held in, she was able to attract true Blues legends to work with her on the album, including Allen Toussaint and B.B. King who feature on this great cover. The album has continued Cyndi's commercial renaissance, becoming her third highest charting album in the US, following her first two mega hits. Cyndi further proved her Blues chops by undertaking an acclaimed tour to support the album.

Cyndi Lauper is without question one of our most versatile female artists, who can seemingly succeed with ease at any genre she chooses to turn her hand to. Her next projects include a memoir and compositions for a new musical based on the movie Kinky Boots. One thing is certain, whatever Cyndi chooses to do in the future, it will be both unusual and, as usual, quite brilliant.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Cyndi's memoir is published on 18 September. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link:She Really Is So Unusual

Friday, September 7, 2012

What The World Needs Now...

One thing every great vocalist needs is a great lyric to sing. Sure people say "she's so fantastic she could sing the phone book and it would be great", but seriously who really wants to hear that? A stupendous voice deserves an equally amazing lyric, so that as well as technical perfection we can be moved on an emotional, spiritual and (when it's done really well) a physical level. This last week we lost one of the greatest lyricists of popular music, Hal David. I absolutely love the songs he collaborated on with Burt Bacharach and in their prime when working with the divine Dionne Warwick (see my earlier blog Golden Legacy) they created songs so timeless they have become standards of pop perfection.

Of course Hal and Burt's work with Dionne was just a part of their prodigious output and so today I want to pay tribute to what I consider to be not just three of Hal's greatest lyrics, but three of the best lyrics to be found in all of pop music. I have also chosen, out of the many many cover versions you will find, who I think gave the best vocal interpretation.

What The World Needs Now Is Love - Jackie DeShannon

Originally written in 1965 this anthemic ballad was offered to Dionne, but she inexplicably passed. Next in line was singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon, who had just had her big break supporting The Beatles on tour. Her fragile rock voice perfectly suited the deceptive simplicity of a lyric that in essence is a plea for love to be the dominant force in the world. Jackie does not have the power and range of Dionne, but perhaps because of that she focuses more on the meaning, adding a sense of desperation to the plea that is lost in some other powerhouse vocal versions. It is a truly lovely song and Hal's direct and unfussy lyric allowed it to reach the broadest possible audience. Dionne later reclaimed it and it has become a staple of her live shows, as it is the perfect audience participation number. By not referencing current events, Hal made sure the song could continue to be meaningful to future generations and with each decade's new challenges it has given strength and comfort to many.

I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself - Dusty Springfield

Break-up songs are the staple of pop music, we all have our go-to records that perfectly sum-up the pain and misery we felt over a particular romantic meltdown. There are the angry ones, the revenge ones, the "I told you so" ones, but I've always been drawn to the "what the hell do I do now?" ones. The greatest example of this latter genre is this masterly composition from Hal and Burt. The melody is one of Bacharach's best, mournful and subdued in the verses, the chorus soars into a plaintive cri de coeur. Hal's lyric is total perfection, again it is direct and concise, but he manages to sum up the core heartache in one elegant phrase: "I'm so used to doing everything with you, planning everything for two, and now that we're through...".

The song was originally recorded by Tommy Hunt in 1962, but failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart. When Dusty Springfield visited Burt in New York in February 1964 he played her a number of songs she might like to record and she immediately saw the potential in this gem. Dusty's vocal is a masterclass, she takes her time, landing every word, slowly adding heartache to her voice, until it spills over in the final heartrending moments. Like the consummate singer-actress she was, she begins from a place of calm, trying to hold her emotions together before it all becomes too much to bear. Of course I am not suggesting Dusty loses control of her instrument: that is an impossibility for her. Instead she shows that a great singer uses tone and inflection rather than histrionics to pluck those heartstrings. One of my favourite Dusty vocals and the best break-up song ever.

Alfie - Alison Moyet

This has to be one of the most-covered Bacharach & David songs, everybody from Cher to Blossom Dearie has had a go, which is not surprising as it is truly sublime. Originally written as the theme to the Michael Caine movie in 1965, it was originally recorded by Cilla Black, who famously struggled somewhat with the song's range and Burt pushed her into numerous takes trying to find the "magic". Cilla's version is well-suited to the movie, sounding authentic as the soundtrack to a sixties Brit-flick, but try as I might I struggle to love Cilla's voice. I just don't get it. Thankfully I have dozens of alternative Alfie's to choose from and for me the ultimate version is from another Brit diva, the incomparable Alison Moyet.

Hal wrote the lyrics after reading the movie script and cleverly stole the "What's it all about?" line direct from Caine's mouth. It is the jumping off point for the most sophisticated and philosophical pop lyric ever written, which explains why so many singers want to have a bash at it. It is pure poetry from start to finish, with an impossible amount of meaning and story crammed in to just seventeen lines. I've never seen the movie, but I find it hard to believe it can better the song in terms of storytelling. Alison recorded it in 2004 during sessions for her Voice album. The arrangement by the wonderful Anne Dudley is sparse allowing Alison's sonorous voice to wring every ounce of feeling from the song. One of the very best things about Alison is she has never lost her true character from her voice, she's still Alf from Basildon, which means she always sounds totally authentic. For me Alison's voice just gets better and better and if you've never had the chance to see her live, take the next opportunity you can, as she sounds even better than she does on record.   A new Alison album is imminent I believe, so I'll no doubt be returning to the subject in the near future.

So thank you Hal David for providing the world with some of the greatest lyrics we have had the good fortune to hear and for giving our best vocalists something meaningful to sing. You had the magic ability to create layers of meaning from the most simple of phrases and to cut right to the core of human experience. I have no doubt your lyrics will live for as long as humans are singing and probably beyond. Good night and sleep well.

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