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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Class of 2012: Graduating Gleevas!

I could write you a detailed thesis on why Glee is the most important TV show to have been created this century. I truly believe its portrayal of the full range of human diversity in a prime time, family-oriented show on American network television will come to be seen as a landmark moment in popular culture. However, I do not write a TV blog (now there's an idea...), I write about extraordinary female singers, which brings me back to Glee. As a show focusing on a High School show choir, New Directions, it uses music to drive its storylines, so needs performers who can both act and sing; a rare combination of talents. While the show has many competent singers, it has a few shining stars, whose performances alone make this must-see TV for me. I would love to eulogise Darren Criss, but he's not a woman, so I will instead focus on three amazing Gleevas whose characters are all due to graduate from McKinley High in the coming weeks. Their future in the show may be uncertain, but I'm sure their music careers are only just beginning.

Lea Michele - Leading Lady

As proto-diva Rachel Berry, Lea Michele is central to the success of Glee. The character is a familiar staple of musicals, the ruthless starlet who will do anything to make it to the top. That Rachel remains loveable in the face of some ghastly character moments has much to do with Lea's ability to break the audience's heart with little more than a sideways look or quivering lip. And then there is that voice.

Lea has the magic diva combination of range, power, tone and expression, which means she can pretty much sing anything. She is undoubtedly Glee's leading lady, with the lion's share of solos, but importantly she is equally excellent when sharing the stage. She is able to mold her voice to match a wide range of duet partners, always generously sharing the space rather than trying to outdo the other singer. Lea is particularly strong when her duet partner can match her vocal ability, as this allows her to let rip. A great example of this was when she duetted with Idina Menzel, who plays her mother in the show, on Somewhere from West Side Story. Both start the song gently, expressing every lyric, before their voices join on a truly epic crescendo. It's a must hear.

Glee has showcased a number of classic musical numbers and Rachel is more often than not at the centre of these performances. Lea is able to make Rachel believable as a budding Broadway star because she is the real deal herself. She has been performing on the Great White Way since childhood, with roles in Les Misérables and Ragtime, and as an adult she originated the critically-acclaimed role of Wendla in Duncan Sheik's hit musical Spring Awakening. Lea is a huge fan of her fellow New Yorker and Broadway star, Barbra Streisand, and, no surprise, so is Rachel Berry. Lea/Rachel has gotten to fulfil her inner Barbra a number of times on the show, covering songs the great one made famous. The best example of this was her version of Don't Rain On My Parade from Funny Girl. It must have been nerve-wracking for Lea to take on such an iconic number by her heroine, but she pulls it off with aplomb, matching Babs note for note.

Lea is not just a show singer though, she has also put in some remarkable pop performances in the show. My personal favourite was her take on Rihanna's Take A Bow way back in season one. She takes this R&B number and makes it her own, giving it a fresh pop feel and a sense of heartbreak and loss not evident in the original. Which all begs the question when will we hear a Lea Michele solo album? Not anytime soon it appears. When interviewed by Billboard recently she said "I feel like I've already made... like five albums in these past three years... I'm never going to say I'll never do it, but it will probably be down the road." It seems extraordinary to me that Lea isn't making this a priority. Sure we're being regularly treated to her voice on Glee, but these are her prime vocal years and it seems a waste not to be exploring her talent with other producers and songwriters right now. I'm sure Rachel Berry wouldn't miss such an opportunity.

Amber Riley - Heart and Soul

Mercedes Jones is a self proclaimed "diva-in-training who refuses to sing back-up" and Amber Riley does an amazing job at bringing her to life. Mercedes has often had to play second fiddle to Rachel on the show, which has led to some great drama, including when she broke off from New Directions to form her own rival Glee club, the Troubletones. While this may work in the fiction of the TV series, it is a redundant comparison in real life. Amber and Lea are completely different singers. Amber in my book is the heir apparent to the Queen of Soul. If you doubt me then just listen to her sing Aretha's Ain't No Way. This girl has serious chops. Amber performed this at the Glee live concert and she blew the roof of the arena when she sang, it was goose pimple central.

Not that Amber cannot sing a show tune when she wants to. It seemed inevitable that Mercedes would get to sing the Dreamgirls showstopper And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going after the success Jennifer Hudson had with that song in the movie version. I am not going to get into a fight over who sang it best, I stood up and applauded Jennifer in the cinema when I saw her rendition, along with most of the audience, but I know those who think Jennifer Holliday's interpretation in the original show is unbeatable. What is indisputable is that Amber's version is in the running, as she sings the heck out of it. She auditioned for the part in the movie and if she sang it that way in the audition, it must have been a close call with Jennifer for the part.

Unlike Lea, Amber is working on her first album. It will be interesting to see what genre she opts for, I suspect it will be R&B and the record company will look to pitch her in the Jennifer/Beyoncé/Rihanna club, but I think that would be a missed opportunity. With the passing of Whitney there is a gap for a powerhouse pop diva, who can cross the pop and R&B genres. She has the ability, just listen to her version of Christina Aguilera's Beautiful from Glee's first season for proof. She has heart as well as soul and can meld pop lightness with deep emotion and passion. Regardless of her choice of musical direction, I look forward to hearing much more from Amber in the future.

Naya Rivera - Songbird

For me the most underrated voice on Glee belongs to Naya Rivera, who plays the saucy, snarly Santana Lopez. Originally a supporting character, Santana soon became a fan favourite as McKinley High's queen of mean and was promoted to cast regular in Season Two. Happily her character's promotion meant that Naya was increasingly used in musical numbers, gaining her first solo in The Rocky Horror Glee Show episode in Season Two. The first time she made a lasting impression on me though was when she took on Amy Winehouse's Back To Black, a tall order for any singer. Naya did a great job of it and she shares some of Amy's vocal darkness, if not her deep soul tones. Naya is more of a pop singer and I adore the rich tone of her voice. I began to get excited every time she was featured in the show and grew to love her more with each performance.

My favourite Naya performance to date was her emotional reading of Fleetwood Mac's Songbird in the Rumours episode. Santana started on the show as a bit of a maneater, but fell in love with fellow cheerleader Brittany S. Pierce (one of Glee's finer comic characters) and begins to expose her feelings more publicly in this number. It is sweetly delivered, full of subtlety and shows Naya's vocal talents to full effect.

Given she has to compete with her castmates for solos, Naya is more often heard in duets and ensemble numbers. She has been paired a number of times with Amber and their voices work particularly well together. They give a storming rendition of River Deep, Mountain High, but my personal fave is their Adele mash-up Rumour Has It/Someone Like You. It is getting a bit tiresome hearing every reality TV show wannabe diva taking on Adele, but these girls keep it fresh on a great arrangement, not trying to be Adele, just confident in their own talents.

Glee is Naya's big break after a career of TV bit-parts and nearly roles. I have the feeling she is on the verge of greatness, as she has appeared to grow significantly in confidence and ability during her time on the show. She signed a recording deal with Columbia Records a year ago, so we can only hope this means a first solo album is not far away. Naya may have to fight for centre stage on Glee, but I have a feeling in the real world of pop she may leave the other Gleevas trailing in her wake.

Hard acts to follow...

So with Rachel, Mercedes and Santana all set to graduate, who is going to step into their shoes as New Direction next generation of Gleevas? There's no heir apparent in the current cast, so no doubt Ryan Murphy and his team will be scouring the country looking for new female stars. It's rumoured that Lea will be back in Season Four, but for the show to be believable in its High School setting it needs to bring on new talent. The reality show The Glee Project is back soon, so maybe a star will emerge from that process. Whoever is cast will be stepping into some big diva shoes, so they better bring it (as they say in showbusiness) and prove there is life after graduation.

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: Graduating Gleevas!

Monday, April 23, 2012

When All Is Said And Done: ABBA, The Visitors

I have been a music obsessive for as long as I can remember and my earliest obsession (if we politely ignore The Wombles) was ABBA. Despite being little more than a toddler, I apparently plagued my mum to buy me Waterloo and Mamma Mia and at the tender age of five I had the Arrival album on endless repeat on my little yellow record player. I remained a loyal Super Trouper throughout and it should be remembered that to be an ABBA fan in the 70's was not the fast track to coolness it is now. I didn't care about the taunts, I knew that what I was hearing was pure gold. The bliss of the voices of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, singly or combined, when matched with the songwriting brilliance of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, is etched on my childhood memories and many of my adult ones too.

Both Agnetha and Frida had solo careers before ABBA and came to the group as successful artists in their own right. ABBA devotees usually divide into Agnetha acolytes or Frida fans and I was most definitely an Agnetha boy. Over the years thougth I have grown to appreciate both of these unique voices. Agnetha's is definitely the most accessible, it is lighter in tone and she has the ability to make you feel every last emotion of a lyric when she sings. I still find it almost unbearable to listen to The Winner Takes It All, so heartbreaking is her vocal. Frida's instrument is equally great, but her tone is more edgy and her style more emotionally detached; think of the resigned acceptance of Knowing Me, Knowing You or the hard bitterness of Money, Money, Money. However, it is when they sing together that alchemy occurs. The combination of their voices is one of the crown jewels of music. ABBA's success is undoubtedly a product of the incredible songs that the boys wrote, but their magic is down to the phenomenal singing talents of Agnetha and Frida.

Nothing golden lasts forever and in 1982 I began to hear rumblings that ABBA may be calling it a day. I didn't want to believe it and clung to the fact that their greatest hits album that year was called The Singles: The First Ten Years. See, there had to be a second ten years surely? It was a rude awakening that nothing in pop lasts forever and even Bucks Fizz (the UK's attempt at an ABBA clone) couldn't completely help me move on (give me a break, I was twelve). Only the year before, ABBA had released what was to be their last studio album, The Visitors, and even I realised it had not performed as well as their albums usually did. However, it was many years later before I knew, or could properly understand, what lay behind the end of ABBA. The Visitors is re-released today in a deluxe edition, it remains one of their least heard albums, yet it is in my view their most interesting and diverse work.

The striking cover art of the album has been deconstructed by critics and fans, with the distance between the band members and the lack of eye contact believed to connote the growing separation of the group. It certainly lacks the warmth of previous covers, but given where the band's personal relationships were at this time, that is not surprising. Agnetha and Björn had divorced in 1979 and he had remarried in early 1981. Frida and Benny filed for divorce in February 1981, just weeks before recording began. It is a testament to the professionalism of ABBA that these four people could set aside their personal issues and spend hours together in a recording studio; perhaps it was understandable if they didn't feel like hugging each other on the album cover. For me, the artwork fits the mood of the album perfectly, as the music it contained was, like the band's relationships, more complex and melancholic than what had come before.

At first nothing seemed to have changed. The lead-off single for the album in Europe was the poppy One Of Us, the tale of a woman who had left her man and now deeply regretted it. It kicks off with a gorgeous mandolin intro, with Agnetha, who has the lead vocal, gently vocalising over it. The rest of the song is solid, if a little safe by ABBA standards. One can only imagine how Agnetha felt about singing lines like "just like a child, stubborn and misconceiving". It is almost the reverse take of The Winner Takes It All, where the woman is scorned and defeated; here she brought it all on herself. The single was a sizeable hit, reaching number 3 in the UK.

A better first single in my opinion would have been the album's title track. The intro to The Visitors is foreboding, with synth waves building over a nagging beat. Frida's beautifully dark vocal portrays the paranoia of someone waiting for the secret police to crash through their front door. Her delivery is mechanical and detached, almost robotic, expertly mirroring the dehumanisation of the oppressed victim. The chorus is fast and intense, you share the unease. It is brave and unusual and remarkably political for ABBA. It is also quite brilliant.

The second track on the album was the second single in Europe, Head Over Heels. It is the thoroughly modern tale (for 1981) of the power woman, taking over the world and dragging her emasculated man in her wake. It has a great pizzicato-esque hook and a strong story. It almost has the feel of a musical song, one that introduces and describes a lead character. This was a developing theme for Benny and Björn who were keen to explore writing a musical, a dream that would come to fruition soon after the break-up of ABBA with Chess. The single struggled, I'm sure because it would be hard for a lot of people to identify with the subject matter and, while catchy, it is not the strongest song ABBA have ever written. It was another misstep in my view, as once again a better single was waiting in the wings.

When All Is Said And Done is a lost ABBA classic. It is a celebration of life, love and friendship and manages to be poignant without being sentimental. It is a very adult tale, dealing with the end of a relationship, but looking at the glass half-full, remembering the good times and the fun. ABBA's US label showed their good taste and released it as the first single from the album and it became their final top 40 hit stateside. Frida gives one of her best lead vocal performances, no doubt feeling every word given her personal circumstances. It went over my head as a child, of course, but as the years have passed this song has become one of my treasured friends. With hindsight it clearly suggests this is a group approaching the end of its journey and it stands as a perfect epitaph.

There are three other songs on the album that stand amongst the best of ABBA tracks. The Visitors is unique amongst ABBA albums as each track has a solo lead vocal, with Agnetha and Frida only combining on some choruses or in background vocals. In that way it serves as a reintroduction to their solo careers, to which they would both return in earnest in the years following ABBA's collapse. Agnetha took the lead on Slipping Through My Fingers, the tale of a mother realising that her child is growing up and that this time will soon pass. It has a lovely lyric and truly captures that feeling we have all had when we ask "where does the time go?" It clearly had meaning for Agnetha who again delivers a raw and emotional vocal that has a visceral impact on the listener. Again it feels like it would make a great show tune and, thanks to the ABBA "jukebox" musical Mamma Mia, it eventually became one.

Frida had the lead on I Let The Music Speak, a love letter to the way music can transport you to another place, another emotional state. A lush waltz leads us in before we are hypnotised and led on a mystical journey through the song. The richness of Frida's voice is fully on display, she balances control and drama, like she is in a waking dream. It is ABBA's most melodically inventive song, making demands of the listener, but repaying those efforts fully. It shows that even with the pressures on the group, they were still keen to explore new ideas and take risks at this point in their career.

The final track on the album is another gem. Like An Angel Passing Through My Room is a lullaby for grown-ups. A ticking clock leads us in to the song before a music box begins to tinkle the melody. Frida delivers a crystal clear vocal, at once hopeful but with a subtle touch of melancholy that matches the bittersweet lyrics. The album was one of the first to be recorded and mixed digitally and the resulting clarity benefited many of the tracks, especially The Visitors and this one. You can hear every vibration in Frida's voice, it is a masterclass in singing. The song is gorgeous and wistful and wonderful. The major draw of the album re-release today is the inclusion of a new track, From A Twinkling Star To A Passing Angel, that pulls together early demo versions of this song and shows how radically it changed during the recording. It is a valuable snapshot of just how hard ABBA worked to create the perfect sound and the best version of their songs. They fully succeeded here and as the clock ticks away at the end of the track, little did we know that it was foretelling ABBA's time running out.

ABBA did start work on another album, but it was never completed. A few of the tracks emerged later and two new songs were added to The Singles compilation, but The Visitors stands as the final hurrah of ABBA's extraordinary career. Far from being the sound of a band in a free fall to destruction, The Visitors instead shows us four supreme musical talents at the height of their artistry and creativity. It is completely understandable that the breakdown of their marriages would make working together strained, but it remains a heartfelt regret for me and millions of other ABBA fans that there never was a second ten years of ABBA songs for us to enjoy. But we had those first ten years and for that I am eternally grateful.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. The Visitors (Deluxe Edition) is available now on Polar/Universal.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Golden Legacy: Dionne, Burt & Hal

Once Upon A Time in pop there were singers and there were songwriters. While these professions were not mutually exclusive, for most of the twentieth century the business model of pop centred around a necessary symbiosis of singers and the composers and lyricists who crafted the songs that would make or break their career. Often a special relationship would develop between a particular singer and songwriter and their careers and fortunes would become intertwined. The most remarkable example of this occurred when a young session singer called Dionne Warwick came to the attention of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a songwriting partnership who were looking for a singer to record demos of their new compositions. Bacharach and David soon discovered that in Dionne they had found their perfect muse. She was able to sing anything they wrote, not just with technical perfection, but with emotion and meaning that was fresh and authentic.

For a ten-year period beginning in 1962, Dionne, Burt and Hal would chart 33 songs and record many, many more. My introduction to the magic they created came when I was 13 and bought a Dionne Warwick EP, which had six of their 1960s recordings. I fell in love with the intricate and complex melodies of the songs, the clever lyrics and Dionne's astonishing voice. I already knew Dionne from her huge 1982 hit album Heartbreaker, but I was only vaguely aware of Burt and Hal. This one little EP led me to search out as many recordings of Bacharach and David songs that I could find, and they are legion. I always love finding a new interpretation of one of their songs, but indisputably the definitive interpreter of Bacharach & David is Dionne Warwick. Here is the story of their remarkable run of success told through five of their biggest and most memorable hits.

Don't Make Me Over (1962)

The first song Dionne recorded for Bacharach & David was the emotional Make It Easy On Yourself. Dionne adored this love triangle tale and thought she had an agreement with Burt and Hal that it would be her debut solo single. However, the song ended up being released first by the cool crooner Jerry Butler, after his A&R man nabbed it for him. Dionne was furious and accused Burt and Hal of reneging on their agreement. They disagreed with Dionne's view that the song was hers, which led her to storm out shouting "don't make me over, man", sixties slang for "don't lie to me".

Dionne's passion sparked inspiration in Burt and Hal and they wrote her a song that was undeniably hers alone, Don't Make Me Over. Despite the misgivings of her label, who felt it was too downbeat, the song became Dionne's first hit single. Like many of Bacharach's melodies, Don't Make Me Over may appear to flow easily to the listener, but it is full of complexity. It has changing time signatures and challenging intervals that would defeat lesser singers. The majestic ease with which Dionne sings this classic tale of heartbreak announced her arrival as a formidable vocal talent and underlined what a singular talent Bacharach & David now had at their disposal.

Anyone Who Had A Heart (1963)

In the fifties and sixties it was not unusual to find competing versions of a song fighting it out for supremacy on the charts. The relationship between artist and material was much more fluid than it is now, harking back to the days when popular music was disseminated by sheet music rather than recordings. Dionne had already suffered frustration at losing "her" song to Jerry Butler, but that would pale into insignificance when compared with her fury when her next hit was hijacked from under her.

Burt, Hal and Dionne were meeting up regularly during 1963 to develop material for Dionne's second album. Burt was beginning to write melodies specifically for Dionne, claiming he heard her voice in his head as he composed. During one session Dionne heard a part-finished song and was so taken with it she demanded Burt and Hal finish it immediately. The song, Anyone Who Had A Heart, boasted another intricate Bacharach melody, with meter shifts from 3/8 to 6/8 to 5/4. Hal's poetic and direct lyric was delivered by Dionne with plaintive honesty. The song became her first top ten hit in the US and even picked up buzz overseas. She was convinced this was the track to launch her internationally.

Unfortunately for Dionne, Brian Epstein heard her version on a trip to the US and on his return to the UK he gave a copy of her single to George Martin. While George thought it would make a great song for Shirley Bassey, Brian was adamant that it should go to his own artist, Cilla Black. Their version was released before Dionne's label could get organised and it went to number one in the UK. Dionne was livid and even today remains bitter about this alleged theft. UK listeners were definitely robbed of the superior version; Cilla possesses little of Dionne's technical skills and her harsh crescendos are a poor substitute for Dionne's subtle tones. This travesty lit a fire under Dionne and she wanted to make certain it would not happen to her again.

Walk On By (1964)

Recorded at the same session as Anyone Who Had A Heart, Dionne's next single would finally launch her as an international star. Walk On By is simply sublime and, in my opinion, one of the most perfect pop songs ever written. Dionne delivers a breezy vocal on the choppy, syncopated verses, which belies the tragedy of the lost love she is trying to conceal. The song effortlessly shifts into a smooth, stretched-out chorus and here Dionne employs a sorrowful control in an effort to contain her heartache. Rarely has a melody, a lyric and a voice combined so flawlessly, it is a masterclass in creating a pop song.

The single gave her back-to-back top ten hits in the US and this time Dionne forced her UK label to rush-release her version. It was just as well as Helen Shapiro was already getting ready to release yet another cheeky cover. Finally UK listeners got to hear the original Dionne magic and Walk On By became her first UK hit, reaching number nine. This piece of perfection is my favourite Bacharach & David song and comfortably in my all-time top ten. Sadly Dionne's UK record label Pye were famed for their inept organisation and their poor distribution and promotion meant she failed to fully capitalise on her breakthrough and the copycats continued to plague her.

I Say A Little Prayer (1967)

You'd be forgiven if you were not aware that the original hit version of this classic song was Dionne's; in fact it was her biggest Bacharach & David single in the US. The version that captured public consciousness was released by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. However, Aretha's version is substantially different to Dionne's, being a looser, more soulful take on the song, repeatedly straying from the complex composition that Burt and Hal had created. Some unkind commentators have suggested that some of these changes were prompted because Aretha couldn't technically sing the song the way it was written; I find that a little far fetched. It is probably more likely that Aretha didn't "feel" the song in its original arrangement and wanted a less structured sound.

Whatever the reason for Aretha's musical liberties, Dionne's version for me is the authentic Bacharach & David recording. Burt famously disliked the original, even trying to block its release, believing the tempo was too fast. Far be it from me to disagree with the legend, but I love the pop feel of Dionne's version and the "Forever, Forever" line in the chorus lends itself well to a more frantic delivery, matching the slight desperation in the rest of the lyric. Once again Dionne sounds effortless as she leaps octaves and chases time signatures, I love the way she playfully echoes the horn part in the break. A very fine performance of a very fine song.

Do You Know The Way To San Jose (1968)

Despite its bright melody and jaunty delivery, Do You Know The Way To San Jose tells the forlorn tale of someone who came to LA with dreams of stardom, but who is returning home a failure. This was part of Hal David's genius, subverting the expected and cleverly constructing whole life stories in under three minutes. Dionne was initially dismissive of the song, thinking it trite, but she soon changed her tune when it gave her only her second UK top ten hit of the sixties. It also gave Dionne her third consecutive top ten hit in the US, her longest run of success, and became her first Grammy win. This has always been one of my favourite Bacharach & David songs and, of course, Dionne's version is definitive.

This recording was the last the team made at Bell Studios in New York, where Dionne, Burt and Hal had started out together in 1962. It also marked the highpoint in the success of the trio; as the decade turned, Burt found his inspiration drying up and his songwriting partnership with Hal began to disintegrate. A legal tussle over royalty irregularities found the three parting company with Scepter in 1971. Dionne signed to Warners for a reported $5 million, the biggest advance a female artist had yet achieved. However, part of that deal was the understanding that Bacharach & David would continue to write and produce for her. Unfortunately Burt and Hal's partnership folded after an ill-fated movie musical, Lost Horizon, stretched their relationship to breaking point. Left in breach of contract, Dionne had no choice but to sue her musical mentors and partners or risk being sued herself. This acrimony was a sad end to such a brilliant and successful musical team. Happily the three would reconcile in later years and Dionne would even record new Bacharach compositions.

Very few catalogues in popuar music can rival  Bacharach & David and Dionne remains the definitive interpreter of their work. The ten years of collaboration between Dionne, Burt and Hal has left us one of the most golden legacies in pop.

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: Golden Legacy

Monday, April 9, 2012

Ingénue: the arrival of k.d. lang

In all of popular music there are few finer vocalists than Kathryn Dawn Lang, known to her friends as plain, lower-case k.d. lang. I scored tickets to a taping of her BBC Radio 2 In Concert performance last year and was floored by the power, control and majesty of her voice. Her delivery of the over-exposed Cohen standard Hallelujah was so phenomenal that she got a deserved standing ovation on song three; not many artists can pull that off.

k.d. is a throwback to a bygone era of female singers, heavily influenced by her musical icon Patsy Cline. She is hard to categorise, a quality I love in artists, she once described her music as "nouveau easy listening". At the start of her career it was clear she saw herself as a country artist, the music genre she grew up with and felt most attuned to, but with 1992's Ingénue she changed course and made her major international breakthrough. What lay behind this change of style and what was it about Ingénue that made it connect so strongly with the listening public? Let's turn back the clock two decades and recall the emergence into the mainstream of the inimitable k.d. lang.

It's fair to say that k.d. was not a traditional country artist, yet she was clearly an authentic one. Her first four albums were country, three of them with her original backing band The Reclines (named in honour of Patsy). She scared the horses though with her tendency to emphasise the inherent campness in country. This along with her natural androgyny made her a controversial figure among the more conservative elements of the country & western establishment. Aware of the disquiet she caused, k.d.coined the term "torch and twang" to describe her music and differentiate herself from the Nashville elite. Interviewed in 1992 she spoke of her love of country music, but said: "I also saw the sense of humor of country, the kitschness of country and that attracted me to it".

It would be wrong to think that k.d. was a complete outsider in the country arena, she won two Grammy awards during this period, for her moving duet on Cryin' with Roy Orbison and for her album Absolute Torch And Twang. She also recruited country royalty Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells to perform with her on the medley Honky Tonk Angels on her first solo album, Shadowland. However, k.d.'s vocal support for the animal rights group PETA's 1990 pro-vegetarian campaign "Meat Stinks" found her being dropped from many country radio playlists; others continued to play her songs, but added "moos" to the mix. The words "eat beef, dyke" were spray painted on a sign declaring the town of Consort, Alberta, the "Home of k.d. lang", as those opposed to her alternative image and style jumped on the anti-lang bandwagon. The ferocity of this personal attack shook k.d., who later noted: "I think that in some ways people were waiting for something to attack me on, I just thank God that it was something I truly believe in."

It seems inevitable and entirely human that k.d. felt hurt and possibly rejected by the country music community, so maybe it seemed natural for her to explore a new musical direction at this time. Working with her friend and longtime collaborator Ben Mink, k.d. began to develop a more adult pop sound, which was further refined in the studio with engineer and producer Grep Penny. k.d.'s songwriting became much more abstract and metaphorical on this album, a break from the more literal lyrics found in country songs. Hand in hand with this developing musical subtlety was a shift in lang's vocal style, more "torch" and less "twang".

The resulting album, Ingénue, was released in March 1992. Listening to it again while writing this blog it is amazing how fresh and timeless it still feels.The album's title is apt, with the songs holding an air of innocence and emotional naivety. The album opener is a wonderful bridge from the old to the new k.d., with a slight country feel that gives way to rich romance. Save Me perfectly captures that feeling of being in love with someone when you know you shouldn't. k.d. is fighting them off, but with only minimal effort, wonderfully mirrored by the languid guitars that lull her into submission. Her vocal is equally languorous, soft, yet quietly determined. The tone is set for the album; nouveau it is, easy listening it is not.

Ingénue is simply unclassifiable. It has notes of jazz, cabaret, country, pop, folk, even world music. The melodies are instantly memorable while also subtle enough to reveal hidden nuances on repeated listening. The album also benefits from the fact that by now k.d. had explored the full range and power of her voice, that meant that the vocal performances on the album are perfectly pitched, never oversung with a masterful use of dynamics to sell the key phrases of the poetic lyrics.

k.d.'s record company Sire, part of the Warner Brothers family, put a lot of support behind the album, as they believed she was finally heading in a musical direction that most suited her talents. While k.d. may not have taken much of her old audience with her, she was clearly finding a new, more enthusiastic and accepting group of listeners. The album was not an instant success when it was released in March 1992, many critics could not quickly adjust to the subtlety of this new style. Slowly though the album started to garner attention on the "adult contemporary" radio stations in the US and the first single, Constant Craving, began to climb the charts. This song in particular signalled the new approach, strangely timeless, it was of the moment, but could also have been a newly discovered classic from the past. It was helped enormously by a beautifully shot monochrome video, which perfectly matched the tone of the song.

The positive reaction to k.d.'s new style may have prompted her to finally reveal details of her personal life. In an interview with The Advocate magazine in June 1992, k.d. for the first time directly stated she was a lesbian, admitting it was thoughts of protecting her mother, who still lived in their small home town, that had prevented her doing so sooner. Reading the interview it is fascinating to see the struggle k.d. faced in agreeing to take this step, you can see the internal conflict between artistic honesty and family privacy playing out. While "coming out" for a gay man or lesbian is still a courageous act, particularly in North America, in 1992 it was especially brave. k.d. became the leading poster girl for lesbian musicians, a position she never sought, yet has born with generosity, paving the way for other artists like Melissa Etheridge and The Indigo Girls to be more easily open about their sexuality in the following years.

k.d. winks at her androgyny and controversial sexuality on the playful Miss Chatelaine. Accordions and pizzicato summon us to French-Canada, where k.d. ponders how she has come to be named "woman of the year" by renowned Canadian women's magazine, Chatelaine (think Woman's Own or Martha Stewart Living). This is not a political statement, it is a wry consideration of how she can live up to the unexpected honour of being named a paragon of femininity. It is joyous and genuinely well meant.

There was something else happening in k.d.'s life that significantly shaped Ingénue: she had fallen in love. k.d. acknowledged it was the most personally revealing record she'd made, it was also a form of catharsis as she was able to work through the feelings and emotions she was experiencing through the art of songwriting. She admitted in The Advocate interview that the object of her affection was a married woman and ultimately her love was unrequited. This biographical detail helps explain the course of the journey of love k.d. takes on Ingénue, from giddy desire to constant craving. She said: "Love hurts as much as it feels good - that's really what Ingénue is about."

Many of the album's tracks find k.d. pondering the pleasures and pitfalls of love, for example on The Mind Of Love we find k.d. admonishing herself for letting her heart rule her head. The use of her own name in the lyrics is a masterstroke, as we feel privileged to have been included in this private moment as confidante and empathiser. This confessional approach also informs songs like Wash Me Clean, Outside Myself and Tears Of Love's Recall, where k.d.'s heartbreak is writ large, yet she never slips into sentimentality.

Ingénue became k.d.'s most successful album to date, reaching number 3 in the UK and top twenty in both the US and Canada. It earned k.d. five Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year, and she won for Best Pop Vocal Performance for Constant Craving. Two decades on from the controversies surrounding the birth of Ingénue, it is a measure of the strength of this genre-busting album that it is the music and talent of k.d. lang that prevails.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

The Elphabas: Wicked's Leading Ladies

It probably won't come as a major shock to tell you that I love musicals. I blame Julie Andrews. My favourite musical, and it's a tight contest, has to be Wicked. Unusually I fell in love listening to the Broadway cast recording long before I got to see it, first in New York, then many times more in London. As well as being based on a brilliant book by Gregory Maguire, the musical is written by one of my favourite composers, Stephen Schwartz. The story is a prequel to The Wizard Of Oz and reveals what happened before Dorothy crash landed in Munchkinland. The central character is a young green girl called Elphaba, who grows up to be known throughout Oz as the Wicked Witch of the West. The part has become iconic in musical theatre and this week I want to introduce you to some of the best actresses that have brought Elphaba to life. Each of them is very different and have brought new aspects to the role and they are supreme musical talents in their own right. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Elphabas!

Idina Menzel

The original Elphaba on Broadway was Idina Menzel, who was so sensational in the role she won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Idina had been part of the original cast of Rent and had a string of other roles on and off Broadway before landing the role that transformed her career. I was thrilled to get a chance to see Idina as Elphaba when she returned to the role in the West End opening. She truly was electric and I have rarely seen an actress so inhabit a role. Idina has an incredible voice; it has an edgy tone and rawness that made it perfect for the role of underdog Elphaba. She is capable of sweetness, but it is when she lets rip with pure emotion that she is at her most astounding.

The first act of Wicked closes with Defying Gravity, when a frustrated Elphaba literally takes flight for the first time. It is my favourite musical song, indeed one of the best songs of any description in my view, and Idina's supersonic delivery means though many have followed her as Elphaba, none have bettered her. The other standout song from the musical is For Good, like Defying Gravity a duet with Glinda, the future Good Witch of the North, who was originated by the blonde and bubbly Kristin Chenoweth. Although the two divas allegedly despise each other, they didn't let this effect their performances. This song regularly moves me to tears and is a wonderful paean to lasting friendships.

Post-Wicked Idina has developed a successful career as both a singer and an actress. She has had a recurring guest role on Glee as Lea Michele's mother, inspired casting given their physical and vocal similarities. She released her third album, I Stand in 2008 and it showed she is equally comfortable as a pop singer, with the anthemic title track a particular standout. I have been lucky enough to see Idina live on a few occasions; in a London showcase for I Stand, with Josh Groban in a concert production of Chess at the Royal Albert Hall (you can imagine my excitement that night - Josh, Idina and ABBA!), and most recently in her new solo concert at LA's Greek Theatre. It was a wonderful night in late summer in this beautiful open air venue. She has just released that show as a live album, Barefoot At The Symphony and it includes many classic musical songs, as well as a few surprises. Idina continues to grow as an artist and performer and I look forward to seeing where she takes us next.

Shoshana Bean

The actress who had the challenge of following Idina in the Broadway production was Shoshana Bean. She was actually my first live Elphaba, when I finally got to see the show in New York in 2005. Shoshana is a very different physical presence than Idina, she took the role in a different direction, playing an Elphaba more at ease with her difference, more feisty than vulnerable. Many shows succeed or fail on how well they transition from their original casts into new players and it is to Shoshana's credit that she showed that it was possible to reinterpret Elphaba.

Shoshana decided to leave New York for LA to pursue her music career and brought her funky, forceful personality to her debut album Superhero in 2008. The title track is a hot pop song and she nails the delivery. She has become a staple on the LA club circuit and has a loyal and growing following, not least from her time as Elphaba. Shoshana is working on a new album and continues to make numerous concert appearances.

Stephanie J. Block

It is a long road from concept to stage for a Broadway musical and usually the show is developed and tweaked in a workshop and out-of-town productions before it ever reaches the Great White Way. When Wicked was starting its journey back in 2000, the original actress who was cast as Elphaba was Stephanie J. Block. During these stages sudden and often brutal changes are made to the show, including songs being cut and actors replaced. Such a fate befell Stephanie when she was replaced by the more established Idina three months in to the process. Although she was devastated at the time, she stayed close to the production, understudying the role before finally taking the lead on the first national US tour. She later got to play the role on Broadway, showing that in showbusiness perseverance pays off.

A lost gem from the early workshops of Wicked appeared on Stephanie's debut album This Place I Know in 2009. Making Good was a cut song that was in the slot that would later become The Wizard And I, it's a fascinating glimpse of the show's development and you can hear many familiar themes, references and lyrics. The album was critically acclaimed and shows that Stephanie is a strong musical theatre talent, I love the Peter Pan themed track Never Neverland (Fly Away). I got within a whisker of seeing Stephanie live in her West End concert debut in 2010, when food poisoning led to the show being cancelled at the last minute. Hopefully I can rectify that some day so I can tick her off my Elphaba spotting list!

Kerry Ellis

When Wicked finally reached London's West End in 2006, Idina returned to the role of Elphaba, as I mentioned, for the first four months. Her understudy was Kerry Ellis who took over the role fully on 1 January 2007. Kerry gave a strong performance as Elphaba, though clearly indebted to Idina's portrayal, she made the character softer and more romantic. In June 2008 Kerry became the first Elphaba to move from the West End production to Broadway and made a positive impact, winning the 2009 Audience Award for Favorite Female Breakthrough Performance.

Before Wicked Kerry had already earned her musical theatre chops, including originating the role of Meat in the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You. In fact Brian May became something of a mentor to her, producing a number of recordings for Kerry, including an EP Wicked In Rock, which includes rock versions of the Wicked songs Defying Gravity and I'm Not That Girl. May also produced her album Anthems released in 2010. The album is a mix of show tunes, original songs and Kerry's own favourites; it is an interesting and eclectic collection, but perhaps shows Kerry hasn't yet decided which direction to take her career.

Kerry was in the cast of the concert production of Chess with Idina and Josh and does a robust cover of Anthem from that musical on the album. She also released a dance remix of Defying Gravity as a single in support of the Mercury Phoenix Trust AIDS charity. It's a fun disco take on the song, remixing her earlier rock version. Inexplicably Kerry recently auditioned for the UK version of the reality singing contest The Voice, but failed to get past the initial stages. I'm not sure that was the smartest career move, but perhaps she is becoming frustrated at the lack of a big mainstream breakthrough. I hope she recovers quickly from this setback, as she has too much talent to stop now.

Julia Murney

Julia Murney used to be known as the Broadway actress who had never technically appeared on Broadway, as she was known for performances on the cabaret circuit rather than actually in productions. That changed in 2005 when Julia made her Broadway debut in the short-lived musical Lennon, but greater success was to follow when she moved from the touring production of Wicked to the main stage in 2007. Sadly I never got to see her Elphaba, a great regret of mine because I adore her singing voice; it has real warmth and a rich vibrato.

In 2006 Julia released her only album to date, I'm Not Waiting, which is a great favourite of mine. On the album she shows just how talented she is, covering everything from country rock to Joni Mitchell. Julia does a great jazz pop version of I'm Not That Girl, but the standout for me is the album opener, a medley of Annie Lennox's A Thousand Beautiful Things with U2's Beautiful Day. I love this track! It starts out with a gorgeous lilting vocal from Julia on the Annie song, before it breaks into the bridge from Beautiful Day, then Julia rocks out on the chorus. Fabulous stuff and an inspired pairing of songs. I can't recommend I'm Not Waiting enough, it is one of my most played albums and I hope Julia gets around to following it up soon. I'm also hoping for a chance to hear her live before too long.

So as you can see, there has been some phenomenal talent taking on the iconic role of Elphaba and I will continue to watch who takes on the part in the future as it is a sure indicator of talent: this is not a part that can be taken on lightly! I hope this has introduced you to a few new divas who are slightly off the beaten track for most people, unless you're a dedicated show queen like me! And if you're yet to see Wicked, what are you waiting for? Surely you want to know how it ends for Elphaba: or should that be how it begins?

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: The Elphabas.