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Friday, July 27, 2012

Love Lies Lost: Revisiting Helen Terry

In terms of my ultimate pop obsessions, post-ABBA and pre-Kate Bush there was Culture Club. Anyone alive in the early 80s could not have failed to notice the arrival of Boy George: few stars have been born in such a storm of sensation, hysteria and controversy. As a young gay boy I immediately latched on to George as a kindred spirit. It wasn't his androgyny or dressing up that attracted me, it was his bravery and willingness to stand out, to live his life on his own terms. I also connected to the music and his confessional lyrics, now known to detail his tempestuous love affair with Culture Club's drummer Jon Moss, and it became the soundtrack to my life. The song that made me a true disciple was the storming Church Of The Poison Mind and the element that grabbed my attention most acutely was the soaring vocal of backing singer Helen Terry. I had simply not heard anything like it before and such was the impact Helen made on that track that she became the unofficial fifth member of the band, increasingly sharing centre stage with George.

Helen Terry undoubtedly falls into the category of "belter", one of those powerhouse vocalists who can almost literally raise the roof with the sheer strength of her voice. However, to label her such is a massive disservice, as she is also the possessor of an instrument of unique tone and resonance and able to deliver delicateness as well as power. After sharing in the high noon of Culture Club's success, Helen attempted a solo career, which produced one of my all-time favourite albums, Blue Notes. Although Helen's solo material struggled to reach a wide audience, she undoubtedly made a lasting impact on those who were lucky enough to hear her work. Here then are my highlights of Helen's all too brief, but sparkling solo career.

Love Lies Lost (1984)

After stealing the show on Church Of The Poison Mind, Helen was given greater prominence on Culture Club's second album, the international smash hit Colour By Numbers. She proved her worth by illuminating George's soulful voice on the dramatic Black Money and by adding a searing response to George's call on That's The Way (I'm Only Trying To Help You). However, George was not overly keen on sharing his limelight, so with Helen's star on the rise he helped her to launch her own solo career by co-writing her first single, the poppy Love Lies Lost. The song could easily have been a Culture Club single, it shares the same joy of rhythm and blasts of brass and bass. Helen's vocal is confident and showcases the lovely woodiness of her mid-range. The lyrics are sassy and Helen has no trouble adding the required attitude, along with a wonderful scat section in the bridge. The single scraped in to the UK Top 40, but inexplicably failed to catch fully alight. Along with the great piano ballad on the B-Side, the gorgeous Laughter On My Mind (which in a nice reverse features George on backing vocals), it absolutely deserves a place as one of the best pop singles of the 80s.

Stuttering (1984)

Helen pressed on with preparation on her album and a follow-up single was released. Stuttering was a definite departure from the Culture Club sound, with a very polished production by the legendary Don Was. The song deals with the visceral impact of attraction, causing Helen to come over all unnecessary, bringing on the shakes and, yes, making her stutter. The song has a great hook and is instantly memorable and Helen does a brilliant job on the tricky, jittery vocal. The Club Mix is a great example of how the 12" single really was central to pop music in the 80s. It completely reinvents the song, breaking down and rebuilding the complex instrumentation and allowing multiple opportunities for Helen's vocals to shine. I fail to understand how this only limped to 84 in the charts, it has hit written all over it. Still one of my all-time favourite songs. Genius.

Act Of Mercy (1986)

Most of Blue Notes was recorded with Don Was in Detroit in the summer of 1985, but the final sessions for the album took place in London in April 1986 under another American producer, Stewart Levine. From that final session came the dramatic Act Of Mercy, which became Helen's fourth single just ahead of the album's release. The act of mercy in question is Helen pleading with her lover to set her free, and she captures the desperation and resignation of the situation in a mature and controlled vocal that is one of her best. This signalled that Blue Notes was going to be an adult affair and not simply play to the pop mainstream. The single was released as Culture Club's star was in rapid descent, with George in full self-destruct mode, providing a less than fruitful environment for Helen to launch her opus. The single and album did not chart, which considering the quality of the material is a major loss to music history.

Close Watch (1986)

A prime example of why Blue Notes deserves to be rediscovered is a splendid cover from the album of John Cale's Close Watch. It is a stripped back affair, with Helen's voice allowed full and free reign. She sounds smoky and sensuous on the verses before letting rip on the chorus, where she shows just how to use a powerful voice without letting it overwhelm the song. It is a spine-tingly, sensational performance and proves without doubt that Helen possesses one of the finest voices of her generation. It was one of my earliest memories of really appreciating a vocal performance for it's technical perfection, while also feeling a deep, emotional jolt. Helen taught me something about singing with this number that I have never forgotten. Awesome.

Fortunate Fool (1989)

Blue Notes was given a much-deserved re-release in 2009 and I was saddened to read Helen's notes for the album. It was clear that what should have been a joyful time in her life was instead marred by tragedy and the pitfalls of fame. A true lady, she is coy on the details, but George's autobiography paints a grim picture of the reality behind the huge success Culture Club enjoyed. Helen had a second shot at making it on her own when she was signed to Parlophone in the late 80s. A couple of excellent singles were released, including Fortunate Fool a catchy tale of "better to have loved and lost...". Helen's voice had lost none of it's sheen and she captured the joyful spirit of the song in her spirited vocal. I remember getting the press pack for the single, which promised much of the forthcoming album and even suggested Helen would be going out on tour to promote it. Sadly, a falling out with the label meant neither came to pass, and I genuinely mourn for that second album. Helen suggested the parting of the ways was because her A&R man wanted her to make a dance album and "I cannot dance. So I walked, which I can do". Helen would continue to contribute backing vocals to her friends' records for a while, but had clearly had her fill of the music industry. She has since become a successful film-maker and producer and has been responsible for the annual Brit Awards show for a number of years. She did pop up on the Scissor Sister's album Night Work, but that was probably more about having fun than seriously considering a comeback.

If you've never experienced Helen's voice, or you remember her from Culture Club but missed out on the solo stuff, then I urge you to invest in Blue Notes. Helen should be thought of as one of the great British divas, easily the equal of your Adele's and your Moyet's, but sadly the fickle finger of fame failed to point in her direction. Don't let that stop you discovering one of the truly great voices and one of the great lost albums of all time.

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. Blue Notes is available on Cherry Pop.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Deeper Understanding: the songs of Kate Bush, part three

It is fair to say that as an artist Kate Bush has always trod her own path. She admits that she rarely listens to popular music, especially her own recordings, which explains why she stands as a reference point for other artists, who surely are influenced by her work. You regularly hear the latest alt-pop female artist being lauded as "the new Kate Bush", but Kate herself is beyond comparison. Simply put she is unique in popular music, a touchstone and an extraordinary one-off talent who now, in the fourth decade of her career, seems to have fully discovered her potential. The first part of this exploration of Kate's songwriting saw how the teenage Kate, a prodigious and prolific songwriter, produced scores of piano-based songs that survived their translation onto her early albums pretty much intact [Part One: The Craft Of Love]. Then in the second stage of her career, as she took control of production, Kate's piano compositions became the jumping off point for incredible aural tapestries that were finessed and polished in the studio, with layer upon layer of richness added to the mix [Part Two: This Woman's Work]. So how does the Kate that reappeared in 2005 after her infamous 12-year absence compare to those earlier Kates? How has her songwriting evolved and what does the nature of her latest work promise for what's to come?

If you've ever wondered what a more timely follow-up to The Red Shoes may have sounded like, then you should look no further than Kate's comeback single in 2005, King Of The Mountain. Apparently this was written and even part-recorded in the mid-1990s and it very much sounds like a natural progression from her work at that time. In fact for me King Of The Mountain, though a very fine song and one of my favourites, is a red herring, suggesting little had changed for the Kate that returned to music after a decade spent focusing on her personal life. It promised that her forthcoming album Aerial was going to be business as usual, when in fact it marked a giant leap in Kate's approach to both songwriting and production.

Aerial took the format of Hounds Of Love, one side standalone songs, the other a concept piece and extended it to create a double album. The individual songs which formed the first album, A Sky Of Honey, were certainly an eclectic mix. The experimental Pi, sets the mathematical equation to music with a throbbing, circular synth that is as wondrous as any sonic backing Kate has produced. Her young son, Bertie, is lauded in a madrigal and with its evocation of the joy of motherhood explains fully why she decided to take a leave of absence. How To Be Invisible is perhaps a little plodding, but Joanni is like a lost cut from The Dreaming, beautifully evoking a medieval battlefield with a majestic Joan of Arc leading her troops. It even has what appears to be a chorus of Muppets joining in towards the climax. What these songs all share is the freedom to explore the boundaries of their subjects, with Kate extending the average length of her usual compositions by a minute or two, allowing the songs to breathe and spread their wings a bit further than before. There is also an emphasis on the instrumentation, with Kate allowing her guest performers room to shine without the need for multiple layering of sounds and vocals. Overall A Sky Of Honey finds Kate sounding more relaxed than we left her in 1993, clearly enjoying making music again and with a sense of freedom that for me harks back to her first productions on Never For Ever.

The most marked development though can be found on the two piano-led tracks on the album. Mrs Bartolozzi is a stream of consciousness, where the narrator slips from the mundanity of her household chores to recall a lost (missing?) lover. There is a darkness to the song that suggests something is afoot, but Kate allows the listener to create their own version of the story. There are just enough clues to suggest everything from a recent divorce to the cover-up of a murder. Reviews at the time made much of Kate's use of a washing machine as a central theme in the song, with many taking the metaphor literally. If you think this song is about laundry, then Kate is probably not the artist for you. Apart from the bold use of imagery, the most exciting aspect of the song is the composition itself. The song stops and starts, jumps off at tangents and circles around on itself. Not for a moment do you feel able to anchor on to the familiar patterns of a pop song. Kate has decided to step outside convention and let the song dictate its own form.

On A Coral Room Kate takes this a step further. It is a song about memory and remembrance, an ode on the loss of her mother, and it is quite simply the most beautiful piece of music I have ever heard in my life. When I first heard it I broke down uncontrollably out of nowhere, it somehow reached in and plucked at my heart, connecting with emotions and feelings so primal I lost all control. The song was deeply personal to Kate and she hesitated at sharing it, but I am eternally grateful she did. There is no hint of a chorus, no verses, just exploration of the themes and the occasional motif that helps you navigate the song. Kate's vocal is sublime, a decade of rest has found it deeper and richer than it was, but with its ability to rip a note apart intact. This is music to treasure, needing stillness and calm to appreciate it and with the ability to physically impact the listener.

If A Sea Of Honey found Kate freer and more relaxed in her craft, then the concept piece A Sky Of Honey confirmed that this was Kate 2.0, a rebooted, re-energised renaissance woman. The concept is simple, following a day from a lovely afternoon to the following sunrise, with light the central theme. Although there are nine movements, Kate very much envisaged it as one piece, to be listened to from start to finish. The gentle opener Prelude sets the scene and introduces us to some of the linking themes of the piece, bird song and a melodic motif that will reappear throughout. It also has the vocal debut of her son, Bertie, who also pops in and out of the proceedings in a way that is genuinely charming. Prologue is a piano-led musing on the passing of time, the passage of light across continents and the ending of summer. The composition is airy, with Kate adding layers of sound, but with a painter's touch, a dab here, a dot there, building the picture bit by bit. A Greek chorus of Kates leads us into, appropriately, An Architects' Dream and The Painter's Link, which finds Rolf Harris playing a street painter, whose work is observed by Kate. It is wonderfully descriptive, you can perfectly visualise the work coming together, before a sudden rainburst interrupts, transforming both the painting and the music into a beautiful Sunset.

Sunset is one of my top Kate compositions, it starts with a jazzy wallow in the colours of the sky at dusk, breaking in to a rolling, breaking sea of sound. Finally we are transported to Spain, where flamenco dancers celebrate the coming of the night. Kate's voice is gorgeous, every syllable is placed, full and redolent of light. The birds return to duet with Kate on Aerial Tal (no, really) before dusk beckons on the almost funky Somewhere In Between. Here Kate sounds her most sensual, suggesting love and sex and magic without the need for heavy panting or a thong. This is pop music for grown-ups. Kate has never made music for the Ibiza crowd, but Nocturn is the closest she's come. Here Kate and her lover drive to the beach on a moonlit night, before undressing and wading out into the sea. It is literally blissful, you can almost feel the waves lapping around your waist and the cool water washing against your limbs. The music is hypnotic, like a chillout track from a club night, but somehow remains a Kate Bush song. Again, her voice is superb, breathy and seductive. The Greek chorus returns for the climax of the song, which is dramatic and stirring in a way that defies description, you just have to hear it. The closing movement, Aerial, brings all the threads throughout the piece to a stunning conclusion. No gentle summing up, instead the song hits with the shock of new light breaking the darkness of the night. Kate urges us to get up on the roof and welcome the sun, like a modern druidic ritual. It is full of surprise, an unsettling burst of laughter, an outrageous guitar solo, it takes you up to the roof and dangles you off the edge. Brilliant.

Aerial was a triumphant comeback for Kate, it showed that not only did she still have something to say, she was not finished with developing as an artist. In fact, interviews with Kate in this second coming suggest she very much feels she is still learning her craft, both as a songwriter, musician and producer. It was perhaps this sense that she was finally finding her groove that led her to revisit tracks from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes albums and give them a Kate 2.0 makeover, but you can read my thoughts on that in an earlier blog [Unfinished Business: Director's Cut]. Director's Cut is fascinating from the perspective of examining how Kate's approach to production had changed, but apart from airy reworkings of Moments Of Pleasure and This Woman's Work, it did not provide much insight into how her songwriting had progressed. Kate was surprised at how long it took to rework her old material, but the sense of closure it gave her fed immediately into the desire to create something new.

Kate had the idea to create another concept piece, but this time with a linking theme rather than a single narrative. In her own words the album would comprise of seven songs "set against a background of falling snow". She was at pains to stress this was not a Christmas album, but rather a winter one, revelling in that mystical season of frost and fantasy. Despite the short tracklist, the album would last for over an hour, immediately signalling the further loosening of song structures and the abandoning of the three-minute pop song format, perhaps for good. Only one song has anything approaching a recognisable chorus and even that hardly has a sing-a-long lyric. 50 Words For Snow is Kate Bush unbound, now completely free of expectations of record companies and critics and fully comfortable at last with both her working space and her abilities, this is the album every fan has always wanted her to make.

Interestingly, Kate said she had gone back to the piano to create the compositions for the album, working the songs out fully before taking them into the studio. She has come full circle from the banshee-like teen, banging out song after song into the small hours on her upright, to the middle-aged mum, playing with the same joyful abandon, with a bag of bone meal resting on the piano top. Kate's new songs are marked as much by the space and air in the melodies as by the notes, they truly breathe, seeming to decide for themselves when a thought is complete or a message given. This is not music to play in the background while distracted with other tasks. It is as if the information age with its social networks, two screen viewing and bite-size previews doesn't exist in Kate's world. She creates music that demands the sole attention of the listener. Put the iPad down, turn off the TV and power down the mobile. This is going to take a while.

The opening track, Snowflake, follows one tiny flake as it falls from its birth cloud down to the ground, all the time calling out to one person to find it. After having his voice computerised for the remake of Deeper Understanding on Director's Cut, Kate's son Bertie finally has his moment to fully shine. His chorister-like vocal is truly haunting and magical. This is no vanity of Kate's, the boy has talent. Kate appears in the song's refrain, a simple couplet that speaks volumes against the delicacy of the music: "the world is so loud, keep falling and I'll find you". The composition of the song owes more to classical music than current pop, but let's be clear, Kate is a pop artist in the sense that she is pushing the boundaries of current music, not retreating to the past. The piano track is a work of art in its own right, it is astonishing to think that Kate doesn't write music in the traditional way, marking notes on staves. Perhaps it is this freedom from traditional training that allows her to realise the music she hears in her head without questioning whether it fits expected form and structure.

Lake Tahoe is a ghost story based on the myth that a woman in Victorian dress occasionally rises to the surface of that cavernous American lake. Again Kate employs male voices, this time in the form of classical singers Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood, who sound suitably spooky. Again the piano track is glorious, but there are some gorgeous orchestral embellishments throughout. For some reason this track takes me back to Lionheart, Kate's theatrical second album. It has echoes of some of her compositions from that time, as well as a touch of their drama. I don't want to spoil the story, but you will look at a sleeping dog with new eyes after hearing it. The more you listen to this song the more rewarded you will be and yes, you can feel the falling snow.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a snowman as your lover? Well if you have then Misty is the track for you. You'll never look at a carrot the same way again! The other big surprise here is that Misty is effectively a jazz record. It is thirteen and a half minutes of what feels like extemporisation, it is an album in itself, so full of inspiration, experiment and complexity. Kate would probably not feature very high on most people's list of great jazz artists, but on this evidence she has the potential. Her voice is certainly a match for the intricacies of the genre and as it ages it seems even more perfectly suited. I hope Kate pushes this envelope even further on her next album, her new style of songwriting and approach to arrangements suggest it's not only pop's boundaries she can test.

The closest thing to a pop song on the album, and by close I mean in the same galaxy, Wild Man finds us on the hunt for the Abominable Snowman. Kate's music evokes the Tibetan landscape and her empathy for the creature is evident. The chorus includes "Lhakpa-La" "Garo" and "Dipu Marak", suggesting it is not necessarily designed for Karaoke night, but that hasn't put me off, of course. It comes as a blast of fresh, icy air after the properly glacial pace of the first three tracks and shows Kate can still do verse, chorus, repeat if she feels like it.

Snowed In At Wheeler Street is a love story across time, featuring the best vocal Elton John has delivered since Sacrifice. Two strangers meet only to find they have been lovers throughout history and fight to stay together this time. The song follows the narrative where it leads, and it leads to what appears to be another anguished separation. Kate and Elton's voices blend well together and each provides their own moments of gut-wrenching emotion. I have no doubt if Radio 2 played 8 minute love songs without a chorus this would be a number one hit. Oh well, one can dream.

The title track is a fun novelty, with Stephen Fry playing a linguistics professor who conjures up fifty words for snow, riffing on the myth of the Eskimos' similar catalogue. It is enjoyable, but does not really bear multiple listenings. In a way it is the linguist's version of what Kate did for mathematician's on Pi. Great fun and Fry's voice is always a pleasure to hear.

The closing track, Among Angels, is another perfect gem of a piano ballad. Kate reaches out to support a friend, while hiding an unrequited love. The titular angels surround and protect her friend, bringing a shimmer of summer to thaw out the winter's grip. This has to be one of Kate's best ever vocals, beautiful in its slight imperfections, bringing a sense of reality just like the false start that Kate wisely chose to let stay on the track. The song ends with a surprising abruptness, leaving things pleasantly unresolved, just like life.

With 50 Words For Snow Kate has truly mastered her craft. She has earned the freedom to create music in her own way, without reference to fashion or finance. Rumour has it she has recently refitted her home studio in preparation for beginning work on her next album, she said she already had some ideas rattling around. After her extended absence, it seems as if Kate has found her second wind and it no longer seems foolhardy to expect a new Kate Bush album to become a (semi) regular event. If the almost universal acclaim that greeted 50 Words For Snow has any impact on Kate, then surely she could take it as a sign that her new expansive approach to songwriting could be taken further. One thing is for certain, whatever form the next Kate Bush album takes, we will never have heard its like before.

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. Aerial, Director's Cut and 50 Words For Snow are out now on Fish People. Also you can hear a selection of the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Deeper Understanding

Friday, July 13, 2012

Diamond Life: the arrival of Sade Adu

It's 1984, you're at a dinner party, no doubt eating Chicken Kiev, when the hostess puts on some background music. You hear a funky, jazzy beat and some smooth sax and then the smokiest, most sultry voice you have ever heard emanates from the speakers. If you immediately thought of Sade's megalithic debut album Diamond Life, then you must be at least as old as I am. This hoary cliché used to describe and dismiss Sade's music as little more than the soundtrack to the heights of yuppiedom and Thatcher's Britain completely misses the truth of what should be hailed as one of the greatest albums in the history of popular music. It may surprise you to know that Sade is often described as the most successful British female artist, with worldwide album sales of over 50 million. As someone who has always preferred to let her music speak for itself, it can be difficult to pin down who Sade is behind her cool, detached image. So let us return to the real 1984 and reveal the truth behind the arrival of Miss Sade Adu.

If it was not for a fortuitous request from friends, we might know Sade from a different career. In the early 1980s she was a fashion student at the renowned St Martin's School of Art, when fellow students who had formed a band asked her to help them out on vocals. With her model looks, it's not hard to see an alternate path when Sade gave Naomi Campbell a run for her money. Instead she discovered she enjoyed writing songs and although a nervous performer, she eventually hooked up with a Latin funk band called Pride (no, I don't know what Latin funk is either). Sade bonded with a few of the band's other members and together they began to perform as a quartet during Pride's shows, playing their own jazz pop compositions. One of these songs, Smooth Operator, caught the attention of a record company scout who tried to persuade Sade to sign a solo deal. However, she stayed true to her friends and eventually Portrait Records signed all four; the band Sade still has this same line-up in place today.

The band hit it big with their first single, Your Love Is King, a staggeringly mature sounding song from such a new band. Released in February 1984, it sounded like nothing else in the charts, eschewing electronic backings for real instruments and ignoring the trendy New Romantic for good old-fashioned romance. That many fail to realise that Sade is a band, not just a person, is due to the strength of voice and image from their lead singer. With her tightly pulled back hair, long ponytail and black suit and gloves, Sade Adu created an instant iconic image for herself, so timeless that she still sports it today, without apparently having aged at all. Combined with her unique singing voice, with its mellifluous rounded sounds and woody tone, Sade was impossible to ignore. She had appeared as a fully-formed modern day jazz diva as if out of nowhere and her personal reluctance to expose herself to endless interviews, read wrongly as aloofness, just fed into the mystery of her abrupt arrival.

In 1984 Britain was emerging from a recession that had decimated its industrial base and seen record unemployment of over three million for the first time. There were boom times around the corner, but not for everyone; just like now the bankers and traders made most of the money. Sade's music has become indelibly linked with that image of booming Britain in the 1980s, but that is an aberration. The reality is Sade had much more in common with the struggling working class than the cash-splashing City Barrow Boys. Despite the big hit, Sade at this point was living in a freezing converted fire station with her boyfriend, with a bath in the kitchen and a loo on the fire escape. She had been brought up by her single mother, a nurse, in Essex and so did not come from a wealthy background. To understand the real Sade in 1984 you need to listen to their second single, the surely autobiographical When Am I Going To Make A Living.

If their first single epitomised romance, Sade's second release dealt with hard reality. With touches of sixties protest songs, the song takes the tragedy of youth unemployment and calls for resilience in the face of adversity. Sade sings blue notes over the intro, plays weary frustration in the verses, before leading a chant of "we're hungry but we won't give in". It is as good a song about surviving a recession as Simply Red's cover of Money's Too Tight (To Mention) that hit a year later, but somehow Sade's single stumbled in the charts. Perhaps it was the apparent dissonance with the media image of Sade that had already begun to take root or maybe the reality was those it touched simply couldn't afford the price of a single. This song also belies another Sade myth, that their music is over-produced. Much of Diamond Life sounds raw to me and has maintained the feel of a live recording, as if the band was captured on stage at Ronnie Scott's. This single in particular feels spontaneous and full of energy and Sade infuses her vocal with a determination that lends authenticity to the subject matter.

Despite this setback, hopes were high for the release of the album and Diamond Life would go on to surpass even the band's most fervent fantasy. On its release in July 1984 it would peak at number two, but stay in the top ten for over six months, eventually going four-times platinum. It would also be a major international success, most notably in the USA. When it was released there the following year, it hit the top five of the Billboard album chart and sold over four million copies. This mega-success was no doubt due to the quality of the music. The album contained eight original songs, each a potential single in my view, and a well-chosen cover of Timmy Thomas' Why Can't We Live Together, which closed the album. Those who doubt Sade's vocal talent should be forced to hear Frankie's First Affair, a cautionary tale about a heartbreaker falling in love, where she let's rip with such raw emotion you can only wish she did it more often. Other highlights include the funkily insistent Hang On To Your Love and Sally, which sounds like a lost Cole Porter song about a tart with a heart. This is proper grown-up jazz, a style Sade would perfect with Is It A Crime? from their next album.

However, if one song can be said to have cemented the success of Sade and Diamond Life, then is it surely the most sophisticated song ever to be sung from a girl who grew up in Essex; Smooth Operator. When Sade intones over the intro of syncopated percussion and sax you instantly know this is special. She once said she sings like she talks, otherwise it would not sound authentic, and her spoken intro on this song proves that point. Sounding like a cross between a Bond theme and an eleven o'clock number this is surely Sade's finest hour. The stop-start between the verses and the chorus is pure pop genius and Red Eye, the extended jazz break on the 12" that follows the song is well worth tracking down. The song is best summed up by one of it's own lyrics, "he move in space with minumum waste and maximum joy".

Diamond Life isn't just one of the best albums of the eighties, it's one of the greatest British albums of all time. It's about time it was rediscovered, away from the baggage of the era that adhered to it, and respected for the quality of its writing and musicianship, rather than just its phenomenal sales. It's also long overdue for Sade Adu to be given proper recognition in the pantheon of great British female artists. I've always struggled to understand why she's absent from the list when compiling the greats, she has surely proven her staying power is down to her talent and not her image by now. If you think you know Diamond Life, dig it out and listen again as if it was the first time you'd heard it and wonder at the majesty of this young diva, arriving fully formed into the world once again.

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. Diamond Life is available on Sony Records.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Rumer Has It

I'm sure regular readers of this blog will not be too surprised to hear that from time to time I get a little obsessed about a particular singer. There is nothing more thrilling for me than finding a new voice that makes me feel like I am discovering music for the first time. The last time this happened to me was when I heard the peerless debut album Seasons Of My Soul from an artist simply known as Rumer. It took me a while to realise that this was a brand new record and not some lost sixties classic that had been unearthed. I despise the label "easy listening", but Rumer's voice is so easy on the ear that this is literally what the album is, a perfect parade of peerless pop poetry.

Rumer is most often compared to Karen Carpenter in terms of her vocal style, but while I agree there are shades of that legendary siren, she also has more soul to her voice, like she's the secret love child of Karen and Dusty Springfield. As always, comparisons only get you so far in appreciating a new voice. They're an easy shorthand to get you in the rough area and genre you're dealing with, but they don't ever do justice to the unique individuality of a voice and the need to listen and absorb it for yourself. I prefer to think of Rumer's voice as chocolate milk: sweet, but not sickly, creamy and smooth... and addictive. It's almost as if Rumer just breathes rather than sings, with her breath magically forming into notes that wrap themselves around some of the coolest arrangements this side of Dusty In Memphis. It is no wonder the legendary Burt Bacharach declared himself a fan, he knows a muse when he hears one.

Rumer has only recently launched her debut album in the US, but in the UK she has already made a huge splash, reaching number three and selling over half a million copies since its release in 2010. At the end of May Rumer released her second album, Boy's Don't Cry, which is a collection of covers of seventies tracks written by some of the greatest male songwriters of that era. It is another remarkable work, full of surprises and well-judged selections of little-known songs, the result of a painstaking journey of discovery taken by Rumer and her erstwhile producer Steve Brown. In just these two albums and the odd single release Rumer has already established an enviable catalogue of work. If you haven't heard Rumer yet, I strongly urge you to link to the Spotify playlist at the end of this blog and hear for yourself my top five, so far, from what I'm sure will be a long and successful career.

Slow (2010)

There are not enough superlatives available for me to describe the greatness of this song. From the opening gambit where Rumer seems to sing directly to the listener, to the goosebumpy low notes she hits in the sixth bar, to the cool loungeness of the chorus, this is an instant classic. By focusing on her voice, I've neglected to mention that Rumer is also a talented songwriter. Slow is an exercise in restraint, the lyrical conflict between rushing in head over heels and slowing things down is masterfully suggested in the music. A lesser singer might not be able to bring out the undertones of hurt and fear in what on the surface appears to be a hopeful love song. It is elegant and supreme, an amazing debut single.

Aretha (2010)

"I got Aretha, in the morning, high on my headphones and walking to school..." so sings the schoolgirl who finds escape from her problems by listening to the Queen of Soul on this stunning track, part tribute, part self-empowerment anthem. Listening to this song is like giving your ears a Swedish massage. The silky arpeggios wrap themselves around your cochlea and work out any stress knots that might be lurking around. It is a love letter to the power of music to lift your spirits. I'm sure Aretha herself would have killed to sing this, so authentic is its soul. When Rumer jumps an octave for the final chorus all you can do is hold your hands up in praise, sublime and superior pop.

I Believe In You (2011)

Now one of my fetishes happens to be Bond themes and if I had my way then Rumer would be the natural successor to Dame Shirley Bassey. In the meantime we have a consolation prize in this homage, the theme from the spy spoof Johnny English Reborn. Unlike the movie, Rumer plays the song straight, a gentle acoustic intro leads us into a dreamy chorus that is movie soundtrack gold. Then joy of joys, the strings join in before finally the brass section erupts in a moment of pure Bondism. No disrespect to Rowan Atkinson, but this really should be a Bond theme, it is miles better than any since GoldenEye. Rumer's voice is again flawless, her class ensuring this never feels too camp (just camp enough, thank you). This is just one of many non-album tracks Rumer has produced, including the song Some Lovers that Burt Bacharach wrote for her, which are well worth seeking out.

P. F. Sloan (2012)

The lead single from Boy's Don't Cry is the Jimmy Webb penned P. F. Sloan. Now I'm a big fan of Jimmy's, but I'd never heard this track before, so I can only say a huge thank you to Rumer for introducing me to it. Like many of the tracks on the album it is very much a period piece and while Seasons Of The Soul sounds like a lost sixties soul classic, Boy's Don't Cry feels like a lost seventies singer/songwriter classic, which in some ways it is. It is easy to overlook references to Nixon when a song is as damn catchy as this one. Rumer manages to make it sound both of its time and current, no mean feat, while her love for the material comes out clearly in the smile of her voice. The "na na na na na"'s in the chorus will definitely ear worm their way into your head. Like many Webb compositions, the lyrics are poetry, with layers of meaning to mull over, a quite wonderful song that will find a new appreciative audience thanks to Rumer's stellar efforts.

A Man Needs A Maid (2012)

If by now you're contemplating investing in the album (and if not, why not?) then do yourself another favour and plump for the Deluxe Edition, which has four must-have bonus tracks. The standout for me is A Man Needs A Maid, a cut from Neil Young's classic album Harvest. The song is incredible and really exemplifies that breed of songs that somehow could only have been written in the seventies. The melody is understated, yet powerful, the lyrics are similarly straightforward, yet racked with meaning. Having a woman's voice deliver the song adds yet another layer of complexity to the mix, like an ex-lover finding her boyfriend's diary entry and reading it aloud. Apparently this is one of Rumer's favourites from the album and mine too. Everything about it just works, the voice, the arrangement, the sincerity of the performance. It caps a triumphant project and an album that will be on heavy rotation in my home for the foreseeable future.

I think Rumer was very wise to not rush a second album of self-written material, she needs time to come to terms with the success she has had and craft songs of the quality found on Seasons Of My Soul, which will take time. Her decision instead to do a covers album was a wise choice to keep her fan base happy and continue to grow a following, but the way she has done it, the sensitive selection of tracks and the thematic cohesion underlines that she is a special talent. She understands music and more importantly she understand the type of music she should be making. The material she writes and covers naturally fit her outstanding voice, so she never sounds anything but comfortable and confident, maybe that's why it feels so easy to enjoy. She has promised her fans a cover of Jimmy's MacArthur Park and I'm moist with anticipation. I saw her sing live at the Royal Festival Hall and can attest that she's the real deal and not the result of studio trickery. I hope you get the same buzz from her music as I have and that you will agree with me that a new British diva has well and truly arrived.

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. Boy's Don't Cry is out now on Atlantic Records in the UK, US release date to be announced. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link:Rumer Has It