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Monday, February 27, 2012

Pet Shop Divas

A little over 30 years ago Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met in an electronics store on the Kings Road and struck up a friendship that led to them becoming the most successful pop duo in UK music history: Pet Shop Boys. Although they had their peak success in the 80s and 90s, they continue to write and record remarkable songs and are popular live performers.

Pet Shop Boys have always been generous collaborators, as writers, producers and guest artists, but naturally I want to focus on their work with female artists. Over the years they have linked-up with an eclectic range of female talent, from the legendary to, well, Patsy Kensit. I have selected ten of these collaborations, which demonstrate the versatility of Pet Shop Boys, covering everything from show tunes to trance. Join me, if you will, on a journey through the history of the Pet Shop Divas.

Tonight Is Forever & So Sorry, I Said (1989) - Liza Minnelli

While not an overnight success, Pet Shop Boys first album, Please, was a major hit. It was quickly evident through the quality and sophistication of the songwriting that this was not throwaway pop. The album also raised eyebrows for its androgynous lyrics, including one track, I Want A Lover, that Neil said he was singing from a woman's point of view. As a self-proclaimed diva fan, Neil was no doubt imagining how these songs might sound if sung by one of his heroines, and he got his wish when he and Chris got to work with the one and only Liza Minnelli.

Liza's music career had flatlined through the 1980s and she was looking for a way to make a comeback as a major recording artist. Liza was aware of Pet Shop Boys and enjoyed their "pop poetry". She was also impressed that the Boys had resurrected the career of Dusty Springfield (of which more soon), so she reached out to see if they would be interested in working with her. To say she was knocking at an open door was an understatement.

Neil and Chris produced a whole album for Liza, Results. For me, this is really a Pet Shop Boys album, with Liza as guest vocalist. The album is a mix of old and new PSB tracks and carefully selected covers. A hi-energy version of the Sondheim classic Losing My Mind gave Liza a top 10 hit in the UK, but for me the standout track is a new version of a track from Please.

The PSB version of Tonight Is Forever is an insistent thrill ride, sung with a frenetic urgency; Liza's version is a sumptuous, sultry seduction, almost unrecognisable from the original. The solid orchestration is perfectly pitched; at first restrained, it finally cascades into lushness, just as Liza's lover must succumb to her pleas to make the night unforgettable.

The other clear highlight on the album is the original PSB song, So Sorry, I Said. The perfect three-minute pop ballad, Liza explains why she has stood by her very undeserving man in the way that only a true diva can. It is sparsely produced, allowing Liza's heartfelt vocal to shine through. Although Liza "acts" the song, she is not theatrical in her delivery, but instead allows it to quiver on her lips, making it almost heartbreaking to hear. It struggled to chart when released as a single, but remains one of the PSB's finest love songs.

Results is simply a pop masterpiece, the Pet Shop Boys were at the peak of their powers when it was produced and they found in Liza the perfect muse and a worthy instrument for their craft. It is one of my favourite albums and still regularly played, if you've never heard it, I urge you to rectify that at your earliest convenience.

Nothing Has Been Proved (1989) & Daydreaming (1990) - Dusty Springfield

Before Liza, there was Dusty. While recording their first album, Neil and Chris wrote a song with renowned songwriter Allee Willis. What Have I Done To Deserve This, was a duet and Neil set his heart on singing it with his diva icon, Dusty Springfield, but her management rebuffed their approach. Dusty had just had a failed attempt at a comeback, releasing a poorly received single on Peter Stringfellow's label; she was not about to take a risk on this unknown act. The Boys put the song aside until their second album when, now bona fide popstars, they approached Dusty again. She wanted to know, "will it be number one?" - Neil assured her it had a good chance, so she agreed. If it wasn't for Rick Astley, Dusty would have had her wish.

Flushed with chart success and the warmth with which her re-emergence was greeted, Dusty agreed to record another song with PSB. Nothing Has Been Proved was written to accompany a new British movie, Scandal, based on the Profumo affair in the 60s. The song arguably did a better job than the film of telling the story of Stephen Ward, the man who bore the brunt of the scandal and subsequently committed suicide.

Dusty delivers the intricate, detailed lyrics in a breathy whisper, as if she's pulled you into an alcove to bring you up to speed with the developing scandal. The whole performance is restrained until the last moment, when Dusty finally unleashes an emotional riposte to those who abandoned Stephen in his hour of need. It's one of the few 80s records where the ubiquitous saxophone solo does not sound dated, but fits perfectly into the clubby ambience of the track. The single made the top twenty, which encouraged Dusty to go on and finish a whole new album.

Reputation consisted of ten tracks, half of which were produced by PSB. They had wanted to produce the whole album, but Dusty was keen to explore other sounds and work with different producers as well. The album therefore does feel like a game of two halves, with the first an MOR pop album, with some nice moments, but generally not as polished as the second, PSB produced half. Of their five tracks, the standout for me and many fans is Daydreaming, on which Dusty raps (I kid you not). In the rap section a frustrated Dusty berates her lover for watching TV while a parade passes by, before she melds into another gorgeous, breathily sung chorus, the daydream of the title. It is adult pop at its very best. It should have been a single.

I'm Not Scared (1988) - Eighth Wonder

Nothing breeds success like success, and in the late 1980s Pet Shop Boys were on fire artistically and commercially. They had so many great songs they could afford to give them away and one lucky recipient was a young actress/singer called Patsy Kensit. She and her band, Eighth Wonder, had struggled to set the charts alight for a few years when Neil and Chris took pity on poor Patsy and offered her a classic PSB pop anthem, I'm Not Scared. It gave Eighth Wonder their only top 10 hit, but it is in reality a Patsy Kensit guest vocal on a PSB track.

Let's be clear, I include this on the following basis: Patsy is female and the song is fantastic. Patsy Kensit is not, has never been and never will be a diva. Her vocal on this track is passable but it's a hair's breadth from nails-on-a-chalkboard awfulness. She is completely saved by the perfect construction of the song, a great lyric and top class production. I'm not being a hater, I'm just keeping it real. Enjoy the song, it's great.

Falling (1994) - Kylie Minogue

From one pop princess wannabe to the real deal. There is a great deal of mutual admiration between Kylie and Pet Shop Boys, only slightly tarnished when she rudely snubbed a track they wrote for her last album. However, Kylie wasn't always so picky and when she was busy reinventing herself as a club diva, post Stock Aitken Waterman, she gratefully took Falling off their hands.

Written, but not produced by the Boys, this is a pre-trance club track, with only a slightly discernible melody and a rather repetitive song structure. Kylie herself shows only a passing interest in taking part, but I'm sure she thought she was being really cool when she sang it. Pet Shop Boys have produced some incredible dance music over the years, including some great club tracks, most notably on their Disco series of albums. Sadly this is not one of the best, but hey, it's Kylie.

Friendly Fire (2001) - Frances Barber

One of my favourite things produced by Pet Shop Boys is their only attempt (so far) at a fully-fledged musical, Closer To Heaven, written with Jonathan Harvey. It is set in a club and tells the tale of "Straight Dave", who, as it turns out, may not be so straight after all. It's great, silly fun and I'm sorry I only got to see it the once. However, original cast recording albums are forever, and my next pick is the showstopper, Friendly Fire. In the musical it is sung by Billie Trix, a fading diva who hasn't quite moved on from her glory days.

The song is a brilliantly observed "inspirational tirade" on the slings and arrows that beset a fallen star. Billie was originated by the excellent Frances Barber and she milks every line for meaning in a wry performance of the song. The lyrics are a real treat, with Neil's theatricality allowed fully off the leash. It feels like a fitting anthem for many a great diva, in fact I'd pay a lot of money to hear Liza's take on it. Time for Results 2?

Confidential (1996) - Tina Turner

While working on their album Very, the Boys were asked to write a track for their fellow EMI artist, Tina Turner. The track offered was called Confidential and told the tale of an undercover affair, territory previously covered on the track In Private they'd written for Dusty. Tina recorded Confidential for her album Wildest Dreams, with the Boys on production duty. It's fair to say this is not the most melodically challenging track, Tina's vocal is pretty subdued throughout most of the track, with only one real opportunity for her to unleash her trademark growl. The production is also surprisingly safe for the Pet Shop Boys, very polished, very Adult Contemporary, as if they had half a mind on Radio 2 playlists. Unfortunately the end result is pretty forgettable and well below the standards they had set themselves. It feels like a missed opportunity and we can only wonder what Tina's version of In Private might have sounded like, which would have given her vocals much more opportunity to soar.

The Loving Kind (2008) - Girls Aloud

Pet Shop Boys teamed up with Xenomania, the UK's hottest pop producers for their tenth studio album, Yes, released in 2009. The album was successful in updating PSB's unique sound and is one of their strongest sets. One of the songs written for the album was The Loving Kind, but Chris was iffy about it, so it went to Girls Aloud, Xenomania's key act, for their album Out Of Control. Released as a single, it was a top 10 hit for the girls and is a gorgeous slice of mid-tempo pop. The production by Xenomania is top notch and the girls' vocals are beautifully pitched, particularly when they combine on the chorus. I'm not sure what Chris' problem with the track was, it would have fitted well into the sophisticated pop sounds on Yes, but it was a lucky accident that this track ended up being a Girls Aloud single. It benefits from being delivered so ably by this great girl group who lend their on-trend coolness to another classic PSB song.

The Performance Of My Life (2009) - Dame Shirley Bassey

One of the many things to love about Shirley Bassey is that she rightly demands that she is now called by her full honorific title. Dame Shirley was lured out of retirement by producer David Arnold when he was able to put together a stunning range of songwriters who were keen to write for her. The resulting album, The Performance, is a great achievement and remarkable for an artist in her eighth decade. Among those contributing songs were Pet Shop Boys who crafted perhaps their best song yet for another artist.

The Performance Of My Life tells the tale of a diva who has lived her life in the spotlight and is perhaps facing her final challenge. Neil says the song is not about Bassey, but it is not hard to map her life story onto the lyrics. Dame Shirley was moved to tears when recording it and it is likely to have the same effect on many listeners. It is beautifully moving, Dame Shirley's vocals are intense and taut, she takes you out on to the ledge with her and as you teeter on the edge you see her life flash before your eyes. It is a triumphant success and the latest in a long line of collaborations with great divas: I certainly hope it is not the last.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Pet Shop Divas.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Congratulations Adele... So What's Next?

Adele is a phenomenon. There are no two ways about it, she is the music industry right now. With 2011's biggest selling album on both sides of the Atlantic, it was stunning to see the rapture with which she was received at last week's Grammy Awards. No doubt Adele will similarly clean up at tomorrow's Brit Awards, and deservedly so. She has managed to attain the holy trinity of pop success: enormous fame, gigantic record sales and universal critical acclaim. Reaching this pinnacle is far from easy; only a very few stars achieve such celestial alignment. Once you're at the top though, there are only two options: trying to stay there or going down again (gracefully or otherwise...). I'm not wishing to be a party pooper, but I'm genuinely fascinated to see what Adele does next. Before she decides, she might be well-advised to reflect on the fortunes of some fellow divas whose flames once burned as brightly. 

When she first emerged in 2008, Adele was but one of a clutch of British female singers who looked poised for world domination, and was not even "the girl most likely" to become the biggest star. I admit I'm late to the Adele bandwagon. Sure I bought 19, loved Chasing Pavements in particular and thought she was fun and refreshingly normal. Her voice had a raw soul that is extremely rare in white singers, Dusty and Amy are the only others who truly nail it. True soul music is like a whole-body vibration that starts in the toes, carries through the torso collecting emotional resonance and erupts from the throat like a primal scream. It's tough for a white girl to pull that off!

Something transformed for Adele with her second album, 21. It's well-known that it's a "break-up" album and Adele has managed to mainline the anguish of lost love, which is why it has connected on such an epic scale. Importantly, her experience gives her one of the key requirements of diva-dom: the broken heart. Adele is now a torch singer, we believe her completely when she sings "sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead". If we had no knowledge of her real-life story, we would still know this girl had suffered actual loss. Most importantly Adele is a little bit rough, and I mean that as a compliment. She is not an over-polished gemstone, but a pure diamond that is only gradually revealing its potentially flawless quality.

So what happened to the other leading ladies in the Class of 2008? The three artists who appeared to be the clear frontrunners to claim the mantle of Queen of British Pop have all now fallen by the wayside. Duffy's wondrous album Rockferry sounded like a lost classic from the 60's, won her Brits and Grammys and sold over six million copies. Amy Winehouse's modern classic Back To Black was still going strong two years after its release, again garnering multi-million sales and awards. Perhaps the hottest star in music in 2008 was Leona Lewis, her album Spirit got the multi-million sales but not the major awards; no doubt in part due to snobbery about her talent show beginnings. However, four years on and Duffy is taking a self-imposed two-year break from music following the flop of her second album, Leona's second album similarly failed to impress and her third's release keeps getting delayed (it has just been pushed back to November) and, sadly, Amy is no longer with us. 

It is a big disappointment that this apparent third "British invasion" has fizzled out; we've gone from "shock and awe" to a commando mission. It can sometimes feel that all pop music careers are like all political careers; they end in failure. There are notable exceptions to this pessimistic view, but most hit artists who enjoy a prolonged career will eventually settle at a level of success far below their peak. Evidently, for Adele to sustain her success at anywhere near the levels she has enjoyed in 2011 will be a big ask. Setting fire to the rain is one thing, but how do you keep it ablaze?

It is no wonder that when asked in her recent Vogue interview what was next for her, Adele joked that she was "f**king off for four or five years" to focus on her relationship. The media storm this quote created demonstrates the pressure she will be under to produce more material. While her spokesman has reassured fans that this was an "off-the-cuff" remark, it would not be surprising if underlying it is a desire to escape this overwhelming fame and success and maintain some normalcy in her life. Whatever her true feelings, it sounds like Adele's priorities are in the right place for now.

So what can Adele learn from the experience of her diva peers? It is an age-old challenge in the music industry; balancing the artistic desire to create great music with the commercial imperative to strike while the iron is hot. Duffy and Leona are no doubt wise to take time before launching what will be "make or break" third albums; they have already paid the price for rushing out half-baked follow-ups to smash hit albums. I am sure we would rather Adele took an extended break and returned with an album of real quality than succumb to pressure to ride her fame tsunami till it inevitably crashes in disappointment. I am not saying it's impossible to maintain the level of fame, record sales and artistic credibility Adele currently enjoys, it's just that very few artists have managed to keep all three of these balls up in the air for very long.

I am, of course, assuming that Adele even wants to try and stay at the summit. There are notable examples of divas who found it all too much and opted instead to carve out their own path to happiness further down the fame mountain (hello Kate, hello Alison). I am pretty confident Adele is here to stay; her success is based on talent, pure and simple. Great songs sung by a great singer. She is clearly on an artistic roll and has a team around her she trusts and is in synch with. Surely the urge will be there to keep going and we can expect 24, or at the latest 25 to hit the shelves (how old-fashioned of me) before too long. I, for one, wish her nothing but success.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Class of 2008.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Remembering Whitney...

I never thought my first blog would be created out of tragedy, but the recent death of Whitney Houston has compelled me to start writing about the greatest passion in my life - the power of the female singing voice. All my life I have been continually fascinated, thrilled and occasionally obsessed by a range of individual female talents, covering the full spectrum of musical genres, and they have created the soundtrack to my life. I know I am far from unique in this devotion, in fact sharing the joy of music with others is one of life's most distinct pleasures; but I hope that my thoughts and views on female vocalists might be of interest to others - I am certain it will provoke debates and disagreements at times.

Whitney Houston was undoubtedly commercially and critically among the most successful female artists to date, but you can find the list of her achievements elsewhere. I want to focus on the music, the voice, sharing some thoughts on her life and touching on her legacy by choosing the ten songs that I believe are her greatest achievements.

I was 15 when I first heard Saving All My Love For You, while I thought the song was derivative (with the melody surely lifted from Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue), there was no questioning the quality of that voice. The power, precision and tone was remarkable, even more so for an artist making their first album. Whitney is often lumped in with the "belters", those female singers who rely on the sheer power and force of their vocals to sell a song, but although she has on occasion been guilty of belting, Whitney shows us on this song that she understands dynamics and the importance of storytelling for a singer. When you listen to this tale of the "other woman", you end up loving the homewrecker, no mean feat in the days when rising divorce rates still held some shock factor. Whitney arrived with this song and for that reason alone, it remains a favourite.

By the time Whitney's second album came out in 1987, I was a fully-fledged fanatic. The anticipation for new material was overwhelming and when I heard the first single my devotion felt fully justified. I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) is not just, for me, the best record of 1987, it is still in my all-time top ten records by anybody, ever (those who know me know I love making lists...). This would be a great song whoever sang it, but Whitney's vocal lifts it to a place where no other vocalist could dream to reach. It is not just the tight delivery of the lyrics, it's the embellishments and vocal licks that turn this apparently desperate plea into a power prayer to feel the joy of connecting with another person. This is Whitney at the top of her game, confident, happy, in control. While bigger success would follow, you never again had the feeling that she was this free with her art.

The album Whitney spawned four consecutive number 1 hits in the US and it is the last of these, Where Do Broken Hearts Go, which is my next pick. One of the early criticisms of Whitney was that her voice lacked emotion. Sure she had the range, the technical precision, but she didn't connect with the listener at the emotional level, like say Billie, Etta or Ella. It might surprise you to hear that I can acknowledge and accept that criticism on Whitney's early recordings. For me, Didn't We Almost Have It All is a great example of a powerhouse vocal performance that lacks sincerity in the delivery; it shows that at this time in her life Whitney clearly hadn't the life experience to bring true feeling to some of the lyrics she was asked to sell. One may wish now that had remained the case for Whitney's sake. However, for me she did connect on Where Do Broken Hearts Go. It is among her more simple ballads, a pretty, un-showy melody and a real story that Whitney tells with genuine feeling. It was my go-to song during my teenage heartbreaks and can still cause me to weep now. It will be a hard listen when I can bring myself to play it again.

In 1988 Whitney released a single that celebrated that year's Summer Olympics. One Moment In Time is special to me for the simple reason that it is a glorious, unapologetic diva-fest. It's not a love song, it's a life song. Yes, it is easy to sneer at the lyrics (particularly for us Brits), but a non-cynical heart can find much to love in it's message of "try to be your best". It is an example of Whitney at the height of her vocal power and for that, and the crescendos, I am thankful.

Whitney's third album failed to reach the commercial success of her first two; it does feel a little formulaic, with largely safe material, the quality of which is definitely less than what came before. However, the lead-off single and title track again had me ecstatic. I'm Your Baby Tonight has a tricky syncopated melody and is not as immediate a hit as her previous uptempo pop songs, but once more the power of her vocal turns these potential drawbacks into virtues. It feels like Whitney growing up, taking more artistic risks - the bridge is phenomenal, smart and funky. This was the birth of "fierce" Whitney, she was in control, kicking asses and taking numbers. Fierce Whitney was at her peak on It's Not Right But It's Okay, which just missed making this list, but she arrived on this track. Every empowered R&B diva that followed must thank Whitney for showing them how it should be done.

Following this relative commercial disappointment came Whitney's masterpiece. The soundtrack to her movie The Bodyguard remains the best-selling soundtrack album of all time and the single I Will Always Love You is by far her best-known and most successful song. I must admit that I rarely play it now, it is so ubiquitous and is one of those records that became so successful it can feel too familiar, almost dull (My Heart Will Go On is another example). However, when I think back to my early reaction to the record when it was first released, I can still recall the incredible impact it had on me. This was when any critic of Whitney's emotional sincerity was silenced for good. The acapella intro is devastating, it immediately transfixes the listener and immobilises them until the final soaring note four minutes later. Now you know I love me some Dolly, but Whitney takes her simple yet heartfelt country song and turns it into a blistering torch song, which can rank against any 11 o'clock number in music history. Yes, it is a victim of it's own success, but one day soon find some alone time, press play and think back to when you first heard this remarkable, timeless classic and feel that thrill again.

Two year's later and Whitney's next movie, Waiting To Exhale, also featured original Whitney material on the soundtrack. Exhale (Shoop Shoop) is a charming pop song. Whitney's vocal on this track feels effortless and light, a real antidote to some of her more divalicious performances. The lovely throwback feel of the Shoop, Shoop refrain makes you wish Whitney had at some point recorded a covers album, it would have been wonderful to hear her take on material from another era, allowing for a fairer comparison with her vintage peers. On this evidence it would have been a favourable outcome.

Whitney's fifth studio album came out of the blue, at least for me. Released without great fanfare in 1998, My Love Is Your Love promised "Whitney Like You've Never Heard Her Before!". I'm not certain that's strictly true, but this album certainly updated Whitney's sound and brought her back as a current and relevant artist again. This is a strong album filled with great songs and Whitney turns in some stellar performances, for example on the Diane Warren ballad I Learned From The Best. However, my pick is the title track, a stomping anthem written and produced by The Fugees that provides Whitney with a solid vibe on which to float a part dreamy, part hopeful vocal that feels genuinely authentic. Given what was happening in her personal life, this album is a miracle. Sadly it effectively also marked the end of Whitney as a force in popular music.

You would be forgiven if you had never heard of Whitney's next album, Just Whitney. It failed to make the Top 75 album chart in the UK and sold less than a million copies in the US. It is not a bad album, it is just not that great either. We can only assume Whitney's personal struggles were badly impacting her ability to attract high quality material and talent. The album was produced by Whitney and Bobby Brown and a lot of it feels "phoned in". The album's one bright spot is the ballad On My Own, a survivor song about taking control of your life, which felt hopeful then and feels hopeless now. It's dangerous to read too much autobiography into a singer's work, the greatest singers are consummate actors, but it's hard not to listen to this and feel a cry for help that went unheard.

For Whitney fans, her final album, 2009's I Look To You was a mixed blessing. It was of course thrilling to have her back on what felt like good form, but it also exposed just how much damage had been done to her voice. Being positive about it, Whitney finally had a "Holiday" edge to her vocals, but seeing her live the following year proved just how much work must have taken place in the studio to deliver the relatively polished vocals on show on the album. The love and admiration felt for Whitney from the music industry is apparent in the talented songwriters and producers she was once more able to attract; Diane Warren again provides a killer ballad in I Didn't Know My Own Strength. However, my pick is the R Kelly authored title track, which then felt like a lost friend coming home, but now, tragically, feels like her epitaph. We can only speculate how much her ill-advised tour impacted on her ego, I have never seen so many people walk out of a show. If only she had stuck to recording, she may have been able to build on what is, in the circumstances, a remarkable album. I am grateful she had the chance to make one final album and leave on an artistic high note, but the self-destruction of her instrument and her pitiable downfall will remain inexplicable to those who loved her gifts, but couldn't know the trials she faced in her personal life.

So, where does she stand in the pantheon of great female singers? Opinions are always coloured by the musical era you grow up in, personal tastes and current fashions, but I do believe that Whitney Houston deserves to be counted as the most technically brilliant female pop vocalist that has yet been recorded. Her combination of precision, control, range, tone and unique artistry are untouchable. Yes, there are better emoters of a lyric, yes, there are stronger bodies of work, but in pure vocal terms in her prime she was unbeatable. Thank you Whitney, I trust you have finally found peace.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Remembering Whitney.