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Friday, June 29, 2012

Nobody Does It Better: Carly Simon's Movie Songs

It's hard to know where to begin when discussing Carly Simon. In a career that started almost fifty years ago she has done pretty much everything it's possible to do in music. I could wax lyrical for days on her virtues, her wonderfully initmate songwriting, her unique interpretations of great standards, her opera (no, really, she's written an opera), but today I want to focus on the music she has made for movies. Carly's first major foray into movie music came when she was asked to sing the title song to The Spy Who Loved Me, the 1977 instalment in the James Bond series. It is quite an honour to be asked to sing a Bond theme and Carly's entry, Nobody Does It Better, is considered one of the best. Since then Carly has made movie songs something of a speciality, both as a writer and a performer, and they have provided some of her career highlights. Here then is a guide to the best of Carly at the movies.

Why (Soup For One - 1982)

A few seconds listening to this track will reveal its heritage. That bass line and funky sound could only be the brainchild of the classic Disco producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, best known for their own band Chic and for making Sister Sledge cool for a while. The film itself was a pretty forgettable saucy rom-com, but the soundtrack was a much bigger success. Quite how Carly came to provide the vocal is lost in the mists of time, but it was an inspired decision. Carly has a singular voice, it has a rich deep tone, it reminds me of a 'cello and like that instrument it can sweep you from a low rumble to an airy high note. The lyrics here are direct, "why does your love hurt so much?" and Carly sings them with restraint, but a clear underlying hurt. There is a lovely counterpoint to this angst, with a "la-di-da-di-da" hook that Carly sings as if she's resigned to her fate. The track is the equal of the other Chic-produced classics and was a top ten hit in the UK, although it struggled in the lower reaches of the Billboard chart. It continues to fill dancefloors and is periodically rediscovered by new generations of DJs. One of my all-time favourite grooves.

Coming Around Again (Heartburn - 1986)

There is no questioning the pedigree of the movie that this Carly classic comes from. Written by the recently departed Nora Ephron and based on her own divorce from her cheating husband, Heartburn saw stirring performances by the wonderful Meryl Streep and the mercurial Jack Nicholson. After hearing Carly's track The Wives Are In Connecticut, a tale of suburban marital infidelity, Ephron approached Carly and asked her if she would score the movie. Carly agreed, the first time she had taken on such a project. She was an inspired choice, as being of similar age and background to Ephron, Carly was able to craft music that perfectly matched the mood of the movie. The main theme provided the melody for Coming Around Again, a song that describes the circular nature of relationships and how the good times will roll around if only you can make it through the bad. Carly perfectly captures the everyday mundanity of a long marriage and how, if not cared for, relationships can fall apart. The song is almost a lullaby at first, before it grows into an affirmation, "I do believe, I do believe, I believe in love". Carly delivers a great, dynamic and emotive vocal that wholly conveys the song's meaning. It provided her another big international hit when it was released a single in 1987 and established her as a talented and much in-demand film composer.

Let The River Run (Working Girl - 1988)

The next movie Carly would score was the Mike Nichols classic Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver. It is a great rom-com, with Griffith's nice girl triumphing in the battle of office politics against Weaver's meanie. The film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, with both Griffith and Weaver also nominated in the acting categories. However, it was Carly who would walk away with the little gold man for her simply stunning opening theme, Let The River Run. Carly wanted to write a hymn to New York and looked to the poetry of Walt Whitman for inspiration for the stirring lyrics.The musical backdrop is a melding of deep rhythms and choral chants, with Carly trying to capture the energy and diversity of the Big Apple. It is an extraordinary and powerful song and when combined with the cityscapes of Manhattan in the movies opening shots it is movie magic. Carly not only won the Oscar for Best Original Song, but also a Golden Globe and a Grammy, making her the first to win all three awards for a song composed and performed by a single artist. It wasn't a big hit when released as a single, which is hard to understand, but it has persisted and found its way into many commercials and even another movie, 2004's Little Black Book, which featured a number of Carly's greatest songs on its soundtrack.

Love Of My Life (This Is My Life - 1992)

Carly reunited with Nora Ephron to score the writer's directorial debut This Is My Life, which featured the voice of Marge Simpson, Julie Kavner in the leading role. The tale of a cosmetics counter assistant who dreams of being a stand-up comedian, but in her ambition neglects her children, is not the most memorable movie, but Carly once again adds class with her sympathetic soundtrack. A number of original songs appear in the film, including one of my favourite Carly compositions, Love Of My Life. Carly sweetly sings a list of the things she loves, including avocados and ukeleles, but it is the song's subject, her child, that is the love of her life. Carly is famously proud of her children, Ben and Sally, who are both accomplished musicians in their own right, so she has little trouble tapping into her maternal feelings on this most beautiful ballad. The first half of the song is delicate, but the song gradually builds to a truly emotive chorus, that Carly sings at full pelt. The emotions pour out before she ends with a tingly break in her voice as she admits "you are the love, the great love of my life". Outstanding, even by Carly's standards.

Two Little Sisters (Marvin's Room - 1996)

Carly wrote a gorgeous theme for this Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton movie, which deals with estranged sisters coming together in dramatic circumstances. Meryl even provides backing vocals on the song, which totally captures the essence of the film. There is a wonderful line for anyone who's ever had issues with a family member (which I'm guessing is everybody), "I didn't choose you and you didn't choose me", but the song concludes finally that "my love will be your remedy". It is a deceptively simple melody, as many of Carly's seem to be, but it gets under your skin and, before you know it, has hooked itself deeply in your soul. Two Little Sisters is a textbook example of a how to compose a film theme.

Amity (Anywhere But Here - 1999)

It's fitting for a film that deals with a mother/daughter relationship that Carly joined forces with her daughter Sally Taylor to write and perform this duet. Amity takes the central theme of the movie about family bonds breaking apart and creates a wistful, nostalgic tone poem. Carly and Sally blend their voices beautifully and create a real air of regret tinged with hopefulness. The movie starred Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman and is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. My recommendation is you spare yourself 106 minutes and just listen to this great song, which arguably is the better exploration of the themes in question.

With A Few Good Friends (Piglet's Big Movie - 2003)

Carly has a passion for entertaining children, she has written a number of children's books and even turned Coming Around Again into a sweet version of Itsy Bitsy Spider. Disney approached Carly and asked her to provide the music for a new cinematic adventure for Winnie the Pooh and his chums, called Piglet's Big Movie. Carly did a delightful version of the famous Pooh theme and also wrote a number of original songs for the movie, including the whimisical With A Few Good Friends. As a devout Carly fan and also having a soft spot for the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood, I really enjoyed the soundtrack Carly created for this movie and the follow-up Pooh's Heffalump Movie. It is a real art to create music for children that isn't patronising or, to adult ears, excrutiating to listen to. With A Few Good Friends has a classic Carly hook and I defy you not to tap your toes. There's a lovely cameo by Carly at the end of the movie and she clearly seems to be enjoying herself playing these songs. Not for everybody I know, but a treat for her fans and children young and old.

So that's a brief introduction to Carly's music from the movies, there is an excellent page on her official website that lists her many contributions in full if you would like to explore further. Writing compelling music for films is a real art and Carly has proved time and again that this is just one of her many, many talents.

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. Also you can hear some of the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Nobody Does It Better

Friday, June 22, 2012

That Chaka Moment

I am a very excited boy, as tonight I am going to the opening night of the season at the Hollywood Bowl which features one of my all-time favourite singers, Chaka Khan. To regular readers of my blog it may seem like I have an unfeasibly large collection of "favourite" female artists, surely I am either prone to hyperbole or a fairweather fan. To reassure you, I am neither of these things. I am very selective in my choice of favourite artists and in writing this blog I have chosen to venerate those whose music has had a meaningful impact on me. I could quite easily find singers to scorn, but the internet is full enough of trolls and trashers; I prefer to accentuate the positive.

Back to Chaka. She is a singer's singer; by that I mean that those who sing professionally worship her, because they know quality when they hear it. Everyone from Whitney to Mary J. has paid homage at Chaka's feet and I think I know why. I first got to hear Chaka sing live at the Hammersmith Odeon (as it then was) in the late 1980s and I was astonished by what I saw. Chaka's voice is extraordinary not only in its celestial tone and perfection of pitch, but in the way she can go from the lightest whisper to the most searing crescendo without, it appears, the slightest exertion. Quite simply she opens her mouth and heaven pours out.

Chaka's voice does things to me that would be illegal in many States. When she sings I am transported to a higher realm, the vibrations of her notes in my ears set off a chemical chain reaction in my brain that stimulates pleasure centres I never knew I had. In nearly every Chaka song I've heard, and I think I've heard them all, there is what I like to call "that Chaka moment", when she unleashes the magic element in her voice and sets my endorphins flooding. Now I'm sure there is a singer out there who has that same impact on you, and if not then you must start searching for your Chaka at once. You could start with some of the greatest Chaka moments to see whether she has the same impact on you she has on me. I've noted the exact minute and second that the magic kicks in. Enjoy!

Ain't Nobody (1983) - 3:15 "and a love so deep we cannot measure"

This was the song that introduced me to Chaka. I was mesmerised when I first heard it and it hasn't given up its hold on me yet. The way it starts with that slinky bassline twisting in the air, the beat kicking in, the rhythm hooking you, then that voice. This was Chaka's last hurrah with the legendary funk band Rufus who helped launch her career and it was a fitting finale for their rich catalogue.

Some of the best Chaka vocals can be found on Rufus tracks. On classics like Sweet Thing, At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up) and Tell Me Something Good, her voice sounds more raw, less produced and free to explore. That Chaka Moment (or TCM as I shall now refer to it) happens at the end of the bridge. Chaka is in full-on seduction mode, "first you put your arms around me, then you put your charms around me", lulling you before she erupts into that chorus. The sound that emanates from her throat when she powers up that voice is unique. If angels existed they'd sound like that. The best soul dance record of all time.

The End Of A Love Affair (1988) - 3:59 "but the ones where the trumpets blare"

It is a brave woman who takes on Billie Holliday, she was the original soul survivor and rightly revered. Chaka is wise in that she doesn't go for the edge of despair like Billie, she instead sings this great standard with a wry resignation. There is a hint of a smile in her voice, even if you know it's a painted one. The production is gorgeous, sumptuous strings and a super jazz-break from George Benson, this is high quality stuff. Chaka provides a masterclass in singing, perfectly interpreting every word; it is full of nuance and brave experiments. TCM occurs as Chaka's voice literally transforms into the instrument she's singing about (a trumpet). Having kept her cool throughout this tale of break-up, for this one moment she lets out her true heartache. It is riveting and a lesson in restraint and artistry that reality show oversingers should be forced to study. A timeless beauty.

I'm Every Woman (1978) - 2:33 "I've got it"

There are two songs that make me wish I was a woman so I could sing them without irony. The other is (You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman of course. This was Chaka's first solo hit and it is one of those rare songs that persists and still feels as fresh and current as when it was first released. Part of the credit must obviously go to the superlative songwriters, Ashford & Simpson, but it is surely Chaka's showstopping vocal that has elevated it to this classic status. When she claims to be the paragon of her sex she does it with such assuredness and style, who are we to disagree? She ain't braggin', cos she's the one, you just ask her and it shall be done. Should you need further proof then prepare yourself for TCM. Yep, she's certainly got it. I imagine most other singers weep with envy when they hear her unleash at this point of the song. Me, I just weep with joy. Miraculous.

And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia) (1981)  - 3:33 Vocal Scat

It's probably not generally known, but Chaka is a virtuoso jazz vocalist. In the early 80s she made a true jazz album, Echoes Of An Era, that featured the crème de la crème of jazz musicians and Chaka's take on some of the best loved jazz standards. If you love jazz it's well worth searching out. Chaka occasionally pops a jazz number on her pop albums too and this one is a real gem. It is an homage to the jazz greats of the Forties and to one of the all-time great jazz records, A Night In Tunisia. It was the brainchild of the genius producer, Arif Mardin, who worked with Chaka on updating the track. They featured Charlie Parker's original alto sax break and even managed to get Dizzy Gillespie himself to play on the track he had written forty years earlier. I should also mention the brilliant contribution of Herbie Hancock, all in all this is a pretty extraordinary track. Being a jazz record, Chaka of course scats like a pro, which provides this track's TCM. Arif noted that Chaka's high notes are not in the book. A rebirth of a classic.

This Is My Night (1984) - 3:49 "let it shine"

The peak of Chaka's commercial success came in 1984 when her album and single I Feel For You burned up the charts the world over. While I love the song, it is so busy that Chaka almost feels like a guest artist on her own track. I much prefer the second single from the album, the funky This Is My Night. If you thought kickass R&B was a 90s phenomenon, then you need to hear this track. It opens with a breathy come-on, before those oh-so-80s beats drop. Chaka is in full control, eyeing herself up in the mirror and confirming this is indeed her night. While certainly not a classic song, it is a brilliant pop moment and has a special place in my heart. This was when my interest in Chaka became devotion. Anyone of clubbing age in the mid-80s will no doubt have got dolled up listening to this. TCM is pure bliss, let it shine indeed.

So those are a few of the reasons why Chaka has a special place in my music collection. I hope this makes you want to explore her music further and discover your own TCMs. There just simply ain't nobody like Miss Chaka Khan.

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. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: That Chaka Moment

Friday, June 15, 2012

This Woman's Work: the songs of Kate Bush, part two

This weekend sees a mass gathering of Kate Bush fans in London to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the extraordinarily passionate and unmatched fanzine Homeground. Although stuck in LA, I'll be there in spirit and wish Krys, Peter and Dave a most wonderful night. To console myself I decided to complete the second part of my trilogy on Kate's songwriting, beginning with her most controversial, but arguably her most stunning album, The Dreaming.

After co-producing her third album, Never For Ever, Kate dispensed with the training wheels and took sole control of her music. She had written around 20 songs for the album in her usual way, composing at the piano, but this time the composition would continue in the studio. Kate became fascinated by rhythm and for the first time this element rather than the melody would become the backbone of many of her songs. The first example of this came when EMI rushed a single release in 1981 to ensure Kate remained in the public eye. Sat In Your Lap was unlike anything that Kate had done before. The song bursts into life with an urgent, frenetic drum pattern that acts like a slap in the face. Then the song builds and Kate starts to intone her desire to grab life by the throat, if only she could be bothered. As the world rushes by her, driven by that insistent beat, Kate looks on in envy at those who she believes have everything dropped in their laps. There are three distinct voices on the verses, chorus and bridge, but they are three aspects of the same personality, pulling Kate in different directions. As well as the vocal experimentation, the song is full of little aural embellishments, often buried deep in the mix.  Sat In Your Lap was the first indication that Kate's music was evolving into something unrecognisable from what had come before.

Kate has often said that she hears the complete songs in her head when she writes them and then takes pains in the studio to try and exactly capture those sounds on her records. On The Dreaming Kate and her engineer would spend hours finding ingenious methods to create and record the music in her head. Although the songs were drafted on the piano, they would evolve as Kate added complex rhythms and layer upon layer of sounds to the mix. Kate had sometimes previously played with her voice, adopting accents and exploiting both ends of her extensive range, but on this album Kate's voice becomes the lead instrument. The register of the vocals was markedly lower than on her previous records and Kate found a distinct style to match the tone and subject of each song. My favourite song on the album is Suspended In Gaffa, which continues the theme of being held back from the things you want. Again Kate employs multiple vocal personalities to indicate her different states of mind. She wants it all, but is filled with self doubt that leaves her stuck, literally suspended in thick gaffer tape. The song has whimsy, but is also delightfully dark, like a Tim Burton movie. Like Sat In Your Lap it has a nervous energy about it and is not for the casual listener, but then little on The Dreaming is.

Kate's songs had always been stories, but now they were movies. The richness and depth of her music on The Dreaming meant that you needed to employ visual and aural senses to have a chance of absorbing its wonders. It is an album best heard in a darkened room and, as Kate instructs, played loud. Close your eyes and wallow in the three dimensional worlds that Kate created and be transported from a bank robbery in London to a jungle in Vietnam, then to the Outback and across the sea to Ireland. The ambition on this album is truly staggering. Clearly Kate's frustration at not having production control of her first albums drove her to ensure that this record would sound how she intended. The closing track of the album is another stunning soundscape.

Get Out Of My House is a disturbing tale of intrusion and violation, but it is not clear whether this is happening in the real world or in Kate's mind. Again multiple voices tug at the narrator, including a constantly cajoling echo and a slinky concierge guarding entry to the house. Kate said it was inspired by watching The Shining and it is indeed a horror movie crafted in song. The crafty use of melody and rhythm makes you feel as if you are running down hallways and into rooms looking for escape. In the end release comes through transformation into a donkey (no, I am not kidding), perhaps a Pinocchio reference from Kate, who is a big fan of the wooden boy. It is perhaps no wonder that EMI thought Kate had lost her mind when they heard the album. Given the countless hours Kate had spent in various studios completing it, they were also not thrilled at the enormous price tag. That few at the time appreciated the creativity and genius on display speaks more about the shock of the true Kate emerging unbound from the control of others and the narrow confines of a music industry that wants to milk a hit-making formula until it has more than run dry. Kate was disappointed that the album failed to gain much critical and commercial success, but she was undaunted in terms of pursuing her art. Rejecting EMI's requests for her to work with a producer again she retreated to her home and created her own studio so that she could work unmolested and unwatched.

Within the safety and comfort of her own studio Kate's muse could finally flow fully unhindered. Working with Del Palmer, her then partner, as engineer, she could experiment, tweak and mould without worrying about the suits. It was during this apparent hiatus that I fell completely under Kate's spell. As a young teenager with a job, I was finally able to buy my own music (which is where nearly all my earnings went) and it was Lionheart, Kate's romantic and theatrical second album that was one of my first purchases. After hearing it I immediately went out and bought The Dreaming and I don't think I have ever been more amazed by a record, before or since. It was so beyond anything I had heard and so compelling I sought out every album, single and video of Kate I could find. Thankfully as most thought her career over at that point, I acquired her complete works for a very reasonable price; a lucky break, as only a year later Kate would once again become the biggest thing in British pop.

The three years Kate took to record Hounds Of Love was her first extended absence since she had exploded onto the music scene. The ludicrous press stories that came out during this time (she had gained 100 lbs, she had become a mad recluse) were the early stirrings of the creation of the myth of Kate Bush that bares little resemblance to the real woman. Kate had the perfect weapon to silence her critics, both at the record company and in the press: she had made her masterpiece.

Where The Dreaming had been dark, intense and complex, Hounds Of Love was airier, confident and sophisticated. Kate's approach to composition was now holistic, beginning with the creation of melody and lyrics and ending with the final tweak of the mixing desk. Having pushed her creativity to its limits on her first production, Kate now learned the ability to balance and measure her impulses, allowing easier entry into her songs before they offered up their layers of intricate detail. The album was two distinct halves, the first a series of unique short stories, the second a concept piece about a woman lost at sea, waiting in the waves for her rescuers, entitled The Ninth Wave.

The first half of the album feels like The Dreaming's older sibling, and contains some of Kate's best songs. Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) was the lead single and immediately proclaimed that Kate was back in a big way. Again it was the rhythms that would drive many of the songs on the album and Kate created a hypnotic backbeat that powers Running Up That Hill, on which she layers multiple instruments and vocals, but they are used sparingly, creating space around the lead vocal. Kate's lyrical style had also started to evolve; she approaches the subject more obliquely, suggesting the story rather than telling it. The theme of understanding relationships from the other person's view, particularly when the differences are linked to gender, is one she would mine several more times, though she did it best here. What better way than literally changing places with another person to enable them to see your point of view? Running Up That Hill was a huge hit and has become one of Kate's most covered songs, including a Gothic reading by Placebo and a gentle acoustic take by Will Young. It is undoubtedly a classic song and even Kate, who is always hyper-critical of her past work, heard it recently and thought it stood up pretty well.

The other standout track is Cloudbusting, a musical biopic of the psychoanalyst Willhelm Reich, told through the eyes of his son. Kate's major achievement here is telling such a complex story in a five minute pop song, to explore it fully would take its own blog (hmmm...). Rhythm again is the anchor of the track, this time it is a military march that grows more insistent as the song progresses. Kate has often included gorgeous string arrangements on her tracks and the one here is among the most beautiful and stirring. In musical terms, Cloudbusting is Kate's most accomplished work, there is so much depth to the arrangement that it is still offering up new surprises to my ears over a quarter of century later. The extended version of the song released on 12" exposes some of this intricate layering and turns it into a virtual symphony. To appreciate the level Kate's artistry reached on this album, consider what Cloudbusting might sound like if her studio time had been limited or (shudder) Andrew Powell had produced it.

In the mid-1980s the concept album was a hoary staple of prog rock, often identified with ponderous self indulgence by mostly stoned rockers. It was against this image that Kate's announcement that side two of her new album would be a concept piece was met, with most expecting wild experimentation that would make The Dreaming look like Bananarama. The resulting piece could not be further from such indulgence. The Ninth Wave is a set of seven movements that create a song-cycle. We begin with a woman floating, lost at sea, fighting to stay awake in the gentle piano ballad And Dream Of Sheep. This is a moment of comfort, being a traditional Kate piano ballad, before we are thrust into the reality of the situation as we journey into the woman's past in the menacing Under Ice. Here the woman sees herself skating, slowly realising that the body she sees floating under the ice is her. The repeating theme of the song slowly builds and Kate creates a creepy tension that is unleashed in a terrified scream at the song's close.

A good example of how Kate's writing was evolving beyond formal pop song structures is Waking The Witch, which sees the woman's struggle to survive played out as a witch trial. Kate employs guest voices and sound effects, like the helicopter sound lifted from Pink Floyd, to create a slice of pure theatre. The song works like a fever dream, pulling you one way then the other, without giving you the comfort of a chorus to cling to for escape. Within the freedom of a song-cycle, Kate was able to create a moment that did not need a resolution or totality, but would work to move her story along. By now the listener is really starting to fear for the poor woman, who you can almost feel being dragged deeper into the waves.

After a visit from her present and future selves, The Ninth Wave's most powerful moment comes on the haunting Hello Earth. This is the emotional climax of the whole piece, with the woman now seeming to come to peace with her predicament. While the song is quite traditional in structure, it employs a repeated theme of a monk-like chorus singing a lament that eventually takes over, creating an ethereal atmosphere. You are almost lulled to sleep by its beauty, suggesting the woman giving in to the cold wetness and slipping beneath the sea. Kate's was becoming as much a film director as a composer, only using sound rather than visuals as her medium. She was also willing to push herself outside the comfort of traditional pop songs and experiment with new forms.

Hounds Of Love was a huge international success and is a regular feature in lists of all-time greatest albums. Kate was exonerated and once more became the darling of the music industry. She now had a great working environment and more autonomy than she had ever enjoyed and her next two albums would, despite taking four years each to complete, see her working pretty relentlessly in her studio. Despite the success of The Ninth Wave, Kate would not return to concept pieces again for a while and both The Sensual World and The Red Shoes returned to her familiar format of individual short stories in song.

Kate's songwriting was now in a familiar groove and, despite composing some of her most brilliant songs on these two albums, was not markedly different to the approach she had evolved for Hounds Of Love. One notable exception though was This Woman's Work. While many of Kate's songs were inspired by films, she would create one of her most loved songs for a specific moment in a film. Kate was asked specifically by John Hughes to write a song for his movie She's Having A Baby for the emotional climax when the woman gives birth. The resulting song perfectly caught the emotion of the scene and suggests that Kate could have a fruitful alternative career as a film composer.

On both The Sensual World  and The Red Shoes, Kate was becoming increasingly focused on the production of the songs as she tried to recreate the perfect versions she heard in her head. The effort she expended in this quest would eventually exhaust her and, combined with a desire to focus more on her personal life, would lead to a prolonged break from music. When Kate did return in 2005 with her first album in twelve years, it was clear that things had changed and she had rethought her approach to both songwriting and production. But more on that in the final part of this series.

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. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: This Woman's Work

Friday, June 8, 2012

The New Queen of Country: Carrie Underwood

It's fair to say that the UK has never really embraced Country music. Sure we worship Dolly, but who doesn't? There was a brief flirtation in the 70's when Tammy Wynette, Billie Jo Spears, Anne Murray and Crystal Gayle were regularly in the charts, but we seemed to get over it. Perhaps it's because there's something so quintessentially American about Country music that it struggles to translate to other markets; God and nation are intrinsic to the genre and religion and patriotism has always made us Brits feel a bit queasy. I've always been drawn to Country music, there's something about the honesty and humour of country lyrics that is unique to the genre and a great Country singer can reach the parts other singers just cannot reach. Since moving to the USA I've realised that a whole new generation of Country stars have emerged, crossing over to the pop charts and reaching out to a broader audience. One of the new breed of Country divas and my personal favourite, Carrie Underwood, is about to play her first concert in the UK at the legendary Royal Albert Hall, but is already a megastar in her homeland. I think it's about time the UK embraced Country again and where better to start than with a listen to my top five Carrie songs.

Jesus, Take The Wheel (2005)

Carrie was discovered when she entered the fourth season of American Idol and promptly won. Simon Cowell proclaimed early on that, not only would she win, she would go on to be the biggest selling Idol winner; a prophecy that has come to pass. Her debut album Some Hearts became the fastest selling Country debut album and the best selling debut by a female Country artist. It was the best-selling album in the US in 2006 and spawned three number one hits, including her Idol winner's single, the suitably schmaltzy Inside Your Heaven.

It was her second single though that would set the tone for Carrie's career and become an instant Country classic. Those that know me might be surprised that Jesus, Take The Wheel is one of my favourite songs, but it is so good it almost makes me a true believer. It is not just one of the best Country songs of the last decade, it is in my opinion one of the best songs full stop (or period). Despite her good girl image (which I think genuinely reflects her inherent sweetness), many of Carrie's songs are sung from the point of view of women who are down on their luck or have been a bit naughty. In this song she plays someone who is at the end of her rope, driving home for Christmas with her child on the back seat when the car hits black ice. With nothing to rely on but her faith, Carrie flings a prayer up to Jesus to save her and her child. It is not just a brilliant conceit for a Country song, it is so perfectly executed that it takes your breath away.

With an assured and heartfelt vocal performance, Carrie instantly jettisoned any reality show baggage and signalled that she was a bona fide talent, however she got her break. The melody is understated in the story-setting verses, but it is the soaring chorus that pricks up every hair and draws you to the edge of your seat. The lyrics are pure Country gold, treading the fine line between melodrama and pathos, and tap in to that moment we've all had when our problems seem to outweigh the solutions we have within our grasp.

Carrie was named Best New Artist at the 2007 Grammys and Jesus, Take The Wheel won two Grammys, Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Country Song of the Year, as well as numerous other awards. It went double platinum in the US and along with the success of the album signalled that a serious new talent in Country music had arrived.

Last Name (2007)

Following up a huge debut album is never easy, but Carrie's second album Carnival Ride only cemented her success. Debuting at number one, selling over 500,000 copies in its first week alone, this time it included four platinum selling number one singles. The standout track for me is another terrifically clever Country lyric. Last Name finds Carrie on a night out when she has perhaps drunk just a little bit too much, to the extent that she hooks up with a guy when she "don't even know his last name". Things go downhill from there, when she wakes up the next morning with a ring on her finger, realising that it's her own last name that now escapes her. Only Country gets away with stuff like this!

The song's hook is world class and singing along is compulsory. Carrie is capable of such sweetness on her ballads, but on this she sounds much tougher and, dare I say it, a little bit dirty. The production on Carrie's records is always top notch and the backings are always tight and perfectly frame her vocals. It won her another Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and became her fifth consecutive number one on the Billboard Country charts.

By now Carrie had been firmly accepted into the Country establishment, even being inducted as a member of the Grande Ole Opry in 2008. Carnival Ride is an accomplished album, with even the lesser tracks offering something of value, including one of my favourite lyrics on the track The More Boys I Meet, when Carrie opines that the more boys she meets "the more I love my dog". Have I mentioned I love Country lyrics?

I Told You So (2009)

Such were the riches on Carnival Ride that it was still offering up hit singles two years after its release. The most gorgeous ballad on the album was a cover of Randy Travis' heartbreaking I Told You So, where the singer realises too late that the lover they left behind was the one. Carrie sang the song solo on the album, but later re-recorded it as a duet with Randy. Despite the differences in their voices, or maybe because of this, the two combine splendidly on the duet. It is virtually impossible for me to get through the track with a dry eye, but then apparently Carrie has the same problem.

When sung solo, the lyrics pose hypothetical questions to which the singer imagines the, sadly, negative answers. As a duet it takes on another dimension, with the hypothesis revealed as fact. All genres can create songs that tug at the heartstrings, but there's something about a Country ballad that makes it sound like heartbreak was created in Nashville. Just beautiful. Guess what, it won another Grammy, this time for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (they have an award for everything!). Are you getting the idea now: Carrie's rather special.

Undo It (2009)

Album number three, Play On, entered the charts at number one and deposited three number one singles on the Country chart: oh you now the drill by now. This is my favourite Carrie album, from the funky Cowboy Casanova to the tearjerker Someday When I Stop Loving You, it is pure class. However I became so obsessed with one track in particular it was on constant repeat on my iPod for about three months solid. Perhaps the most archetypal Country song is the one where the woman unloads on her cheating man. A prime example of this breed, Undo It is catchier than a British cold and it's toughness shows that Country is the new Rock'n'Roll.

Carrie is pretty good at playing the scorned woman, she delivers the vocal with a gutsy edge without tipping over into psychosis. Undo It is a pretty straightforward song lyrically, it is the storming chorus that makes it such a classic. It employs a clever stuttering effect that nags its way into your brain to the extent that it's likely to make you seek revenge on your partner even if they've done nothing wrong, so listen with care. Another Billboard Country number one, but no Grammy this time; hey, you can't win 'em all.

Good Girl (2012)

Carrie released her latest album, Blown Away, in the US last month and guess what, it went straight to number one. The lead single was another great slice of Country pop, Good Girl, which gave Carrie another number one Country single. Good Girl finds Carrie in solid form, stretching her voice to a new level of intensity while warning "he's no good girl, no good for you, better get to getting on your goodbye shoes". Carrie has developed a definite sound by now, as soon as I heard this track on the radio I knew it was her: that is surely the sign of a true artist.

Blown Away has a more adult feel than Carrie's previous releases and the title track in particular has a darker tone to it, which draws you in to the drama as a tornado hits and blows the song into gritty pieces. Gripping stuff. By now we know what to expect from a Carrie Underwood album, but given that is Country pop of the highest order, the fact that she continues to deliver should not be sniffily dismissed. I truly hope the UK falls under Carrie's spell when the album is released there on 18 June. The signs are heartening, her Royal Albert Hall show sold out in 90 minutes, so there's clearly demand. If anyone can reignite Britain's latent love of Country music, then surely it is Carrie Underwood. Though I'm missing her UK debut I have my ticket for when her tour hits LA in October and I cannot wait. All hail the new Queen of Country.

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. Blown Away is out now in the US and released on 18 June in the UK on Sony CMG. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: The New Queen of Country

Friday, June 1, 2012

Impossible Princess: Kylie's Silver Jubilee

Elizabeth Windsor is not the only royalty celebrating a landmark anniversary this year. Pop's eternal princess Kylie Minogue is marking 25 years at the top, a remarkable achievement in music's most disposable genre. There are very few acts indeed who can match Kylie's consistency as a hitmaker, but I think her bigger achievement is that she has managed to stay relatable and exceedingly loveable despite being a pop icon. We have watched Kylie grow up from tomboy girl-next-door to sexbomb starlet, kept the faith through her career highs and lows and willed her through her personal crises. Kylie has been celebrating her Silver Jubilee in style, with an inspired Anti-Tour, performing b-sides and rarities in (relatively) intimate venues, and releasing a new "best of" compilation album, due out on Monday. So although Kylie will not be floating down the Thames on a barge or pretending to enjoy geriatric pop in her honour this weekend, it still seems fitting to reflect on some of the reasons why we all love Miss Kylie Ann Minogue.

I Should Be So Lucky (1987)

Yes, we know her first single was a cover of Little Eva's The Loco-Motion, but for most people Kylie's arrival as a pop star was heralded by this most infectious of pop ditties. As a piece of art it is questionable, but as a work of pop it is pure genius. Although the cool kids pretended to hate it, they were all singing it into their hairbrushes in the privacy of their bedrooms. Kylie was already a star through her unlikely role as the gamine garage mechanic Charlene in the Australian soap Neighbours, but the hyper-girlie Kylie we saw in the oh-so-cute video made it feel like we were meeting her for the first time. Who can resist her blowing bubbles in the bath with a hairdo that can only be acceptable in the 80's?

I Should Be So Lucky began a string of huge hits for Kylie under the mentorship of Stock Aitken Waterman. Although it can be challenging to differentiate many of their compositions, with their often plodding and plinking predictability, once they realised that Kylie was a superstar they did up the ante with some era-defining singles, such as Better The Devil You Know, What Do I Have To Do  and Step Back In Time. Inevitably Kylie outgrew the limitations of being a SAW marionette and after four albums she bid them farewell with a firm intention to reinvent herself as a more credible music artist.

Did It Again (1997)

Kylie's first non-SAW album, Kylie Minogue, definitely had a more grown-up feel. The lead single Confide In Me was a solid slab of adult pop, with an amped-up sexuality we'd not seen before from our girl-next-door. The follow-up singles struggled though, as the public didn't seem to be buying in to this new Kylie. Free to experiment, the mid-nineties found Kylie trying out everything from indie to dance, though it was clear none of these new clothes were a perfect fit.

She intended to call her next album Impossible Princess, but it's scheduled release was just after the untimely death of Princess Diana, so it became title-free for while to avoid causing offence. It is fair to say the album might have benefited from some publicity, as it barely registered on most people's consciousness. Kylie's journey of self discovery was continuing apace, but it left the audience slightly baffled. Kylie has always had a keen awareness of how she is perceived and the intelligence to not buy into her own image, so she cleverly played up this confusion on the video for the standout single from the album, Did It Again.

In the video Kylie portrays her multiple personalities: Indie Kylie, Dance Kylie, Cute Kylie and Sex Kylie. The four Kylies compete for supremacy in a spectacular catfight. Although there's no clear victor, Cute Kylie seems to have the upper hand and a baseball bat by the time it's all over. In an industry not known for humility or self awareness, the video showed the faithful that Kylie had not left us and disappeared up her own ego, she was just working out some stuff. Although this period was not a commercial success for Kylie, it was clearly critical in allowing her to grow as an artist and work out what it was she wanted to do with the rest of her career.

Spinning Around (2000)

Many pundits had written Kylie off by the end of the nineties; in pop it is virtually impossible to resurrect a career after two "flop" albums. Reflecting on her musical walkabout, Kylie would later admit: "I learnt that you can run, but you can't hide. I'd been running from my old images, my history, pretending it wasn't the real me". She had realised that the different styles of Kylie could coexist in a new, more confident Super Kylie. She signed to the EMI label Parlophone and begun working on her comeback album. This time she was ready to embrace her pop side, but with the crucial difference that she would now have full control over song selection, production and image.

Kylie's first single for Parlophone, Spinning Around, became her first to enter the charts at number one, both in the UK and Australia, and heralded a new Golden Age. The song was pure pop brilliance, co-written by Paula Abdul, it sounds like a lost sister to her own huge hit Straight Up. It has a funky feel and a sassy lyric, with Abdul's trademark of seeming to cram too many words into the available space. Kylie's voice radiates happiness and she delivers the song with empowered attitude. This was the Kylie we had all been waiting for, and the most golden thing of all was the debut of a 50p pair of hotpants in the classy video that would make Kylie's bottom an international treasure.

The album Light Years was a smash, selling over 2 million copies worldwide. Kylie would take the album on tour and begin to emerge as a significant live talent. Collaboration with her stylist William Baker led to much more ambition in her live performances, with Kylie eating up the stage in a variety of characters and roles. Each subsequent tour would be more ambitious and more spectacular: Showgirl Kylie was born.

Can't Get You Out Of My Head (2001)

It was critical that Kylie cemented her comeback with another huge hit to show that Light Years was no fluke. Kylie had debuted a new song on her tour, but the low key production on Can't Get You Out Of My Head failed to signal the phenomenon that was about to be unleashed. Another iconic video (this time with Kylie in a futuristic city) and another iconic outfit (a Grace Jones homage that no doubt required significant amounts of tape) ensured the song was everywhere on TV, but it was the unbelievably catchy hook that made it by far the biggest international hit of Kylie's career. The hypnotic "la la la"s of the chorus worked like a pop infection, with nation after nation falling to the pandemic. It is as if the song's title works like a magic spell, with the hook literally taking root in your cerebrum. The production on the track is top notch, it took Kylie into the coolest clubs, while simultaneously storming radio playlists and echoing around the school playground. All artists dream of having such a moment in their career and Kylie was suddenly in huge demand from all corners of the globe.

Importantly the song reminded the USA of Kylie's existence, scoring her a top ten Billboard hit for the first time in well over a decade. The album Fever was an even bigger hit than Light Years, selling over 7 million copies, including over a million in the US. Kylie was now building a catalogue of new hits to rival her first coming and another stunning tour underlined this comeback as complete.

Kylie's career would continue to blossom over the noughties, with her albums Body Language and X providing more pop gems for her growing army of fans. We all held our breath in 2005 when Kylie was diagnosed with breast cancer while in the middle of her all-conquering Showgirl Greatest Hits Tour, but she fought the disease and won, much to everyone's relief. The bravery, dignity and empathy Kylie showed through this battle won her a new kind of admiration. When faced with the possibility of losing Kylie, we all came to fully appreciate what a good thing we had.

All The Lovers (2010)

Few would have predicted in the late 1980's that Kylie would still be a hit pop artist over two decades later. Her most recent studio album Aphrodite is another blast of unadulterated pop joy. The lead single All The Lovers was in Kylie's own words "euphoric" and sets the tone for the album. The album feels and sounds like Kylie has finally fully owned her role as pop's high priestess, dispensing hymns of bliss to those willing to receive them. In a world wracked with financial meltdowns, natural disasters and coalition governments don't we all need a little pop cheer? The song sees the many faces of Kylie reconciled; she is sexy, edgy, cute and extremely danceable. It is remarkable in the maturity of its theme, showing how a pop princess can grow up gracefully, acknowledge she's been around the block a few times, but can still make the kids dance. The video is yet another visual feast, with Kylie being carried aloft on a pyramid of scantily clad hotties. She is such a natural performer that, despite the many distractions, it is Kylie who transfixes your view throughout.

The Aphrodite World Tour was her most amazing show yet, with high wire flying and Vegas-style fountains, without doubt the best pop show I have ever seen. The album became Kylie's fifth number one in the UK, making her the first female artist to have number one albums in each of the last four decades. Although she has struggled to maintain her profile in America, throughout most of the rest of the world Kylie reigns as pop's most loved princess. She may be Australian, but she has become very much a part of the fabric of British life in a way that very few foreigners have achieved. She is also rightly revered in her homeland as the international icon she has become.

Timebomb (2012)

The latest party gift Kylie has bestowed in her Jubliee year is the new single Timebomb, which shows she sees this milestone as a new beginning rather than an era coming to its conclusion. Its command to "dance like it was the last dance" sums up the song's theme of living in the moment. The song warns "we're on a timebomb, it might not last long", but if Kylie has earned anything over the last quarter century it is surely the right to expect that the run up to her Golden Jubilee should be equally fabulous; I can't see her party ending just yet. So join me in raising a very fitting glass of bubbly to Kylie and mark this most gratifying of anniversaries. Long may she reign.

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. The Best of Kylie Minogue is released on 4 June on EMI.