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Friday, March 15, 2013

Bowie's Best Kept Secret: Gail Ann Dorsey

This week saw David Bowie, one of pop's precious few innovators, release his new album The Next Day. Bowie's very welcome return was a surprise to many and a rare well-kept secret in the famously gossipy music world. While for many that was celebration enough, for me the real joy of Bowie's comeback is getting to hear the contribution of his long standing bass player and occasional guest vocalist, the quite marvellous Gail Ann Dorsey. I have been a devotee of Gail's since she launched a solo career in the late 1980s and to date she has released three simply stunning albums of her own. If you've maybe glimpsed Gail in one of Bowie's performances over the last two decades, or been lucky enough to see one of his live shows, then you are sure to have shared the Thin White Duke's own fascination with Gail that led him to seek her out for his band. So if you're interested in finding out more about Bowie's, if not music's best kept secret, then here is my guide to the some must-hear GAD tracks.

Where Is Your Love? (from The Corporate World, 1988)

Gail's debut album, The Corporate World, was chock full of wonderful songs, picking just two to recommend was like a musical Sophie's Choice. The album was potentially a tricky sell, with some unapologetically political attacks on everything from environmental destruction to nuclear proliferation. It also was risky preaching about corporate greed while signed to global behemoth Warner Bros. The reason the album succeeds is that the quality of the songwriting and the brilliance of Gail's performance make you unquestionably believe the sincerity in her messages and that the joke is really on the major label for allowing her to use their resources to push her leftist propaganda. Needless to say as a lefty boy I loved it!

The second single from the album was the hypnotic Where Is Your Love?, in which Gail questions where, in amongst all our mod cons and daily distractions, does love fit in to our busy lives? The track powers along with the verses landing like much needed "wake up!" slaps, only for Gail to hug you close with the irresistibly hooky chorus. Given this was released at the peak of 80s consumerism, it hit a nerve in many people who saw a growing divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" and very little compassion from the former to the latter. Now a quarter of a century later on this side of the economic collapse it seems prophetic. If only we'd listened Gail and found the love; it might all have been so different.

So Hard To Let You Go (from The Corporate World, 1988)

The album wasn't all politicking, Gail found plenty of room to address more comfortable subjects for pop records, like love and stuff. In fact the album contains three of the most beautiful ballads you could ever hope to hear. On the blissful end of the spectrum there's the gorgeous Carry Me Off To Heaven, which accomplishes just that for this listener. On the more wrist-slitty end there is the ache of separation on If Only You, which captures eloquently that feeling we've all experienced where you think you're the only person on the planet in such pain. But by a whisker I'm giving my recommendation to a classic tale of unrequited love.

While Gail is best known in the music world for her masterful bass-playing, not many people realise she also has one of the richest voices of her generation. Like all the greats, Gail does not sound like anybody else, her voice is unique and unforgettable. Her performance on So Hard To Let You Go is one of her best, the lyrics are full of sorrow, yet she beautifully underplays the pain, letting the subtleties of her extraordinary tone tell the story. If you haven't heard Gail sing, you know that feeling when the most delicious chocolate you've ever tasted melts onto your tongue and every taste bud you possess is in orgasm, that's what it feels like for your ears.

California (from Rude Blue, 1992)

For her second album, Rude Blue, Gail jumped ship to Island Records and delivered another strong set of songs. This time the production was pared back, leading to a rawer, funkier sound. Again picking favourite tracks is a challenge, but I'll start with a song that has changed its meaning for me recently. California paints the Golden State as the destination of escape from more humdrum environments. Though a recognisable meme, it has rarely seemed so attractive against the picture Gail paints of the alternative. The song has a great lyric, with clever insights like "time is a weapon, it used to be a gift" - think about it. The melody is pretty bitchin' too.

As a recent Californian immigrant this has become a bit of a theme song for me. Sure it's dripping with irony, but it's hard to get too cynical when the sun shines pretty much every day. As Gail says, "got to go west if you're looking for gold".

More Than I Can Give (from Rude Blue, 1992)

The standout track on the album is More Than I Can Give, which could be the thoughts of the unheard partner from So Hard To Let You Go. Here Gail is feeling overwhelmed by the demands of her lover, who wants and needs more than she is able to provide. If you've ever had to end a high maintenance love affair then you'll wish you knew this song existed. All you'd have needed to do was play the song to your pestering partner and, assuming they possessed even a little self-awareness, not only would they have known it was over, they'd most likely have apologised!

The song is so gentle and loving and the backing so perfectly spare that Gail's voice is allowed to truly shine, switching effortlessly from expressing love to repressing exasperation. The lyrics are pure poetry, it is one of the truly great break-up songs and for once you are unquestionably on the side of the dumper. As the needy, demanding type it also helped me mend my ways, for which I will be eternally thankful to Miss Dorsey.

Under Pressure (from Hallo Spaceboy, 1996)

Gail joined David Bowie's band in 1995 at his invitation for his co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails. David had seen her on TV in the UK plugging The Corporate World and had decided then and there they would work together when the right opportunity arose. Although Gail claims to have been understandably intimidated by Bowie at first, this was not apparent in their onstage chemistry and she soon proved to have been an inspired hire.

One of the highlights of that tour was when David and Gail duetted on Under Pressure, without question the funkiest pop song ever written by white guys. Gail gave real resonance to the lyrics, wisely choosing not to try and imitate Freddie Mercury, but instead creating her own uniquely soulful vocal take on the track. She also played the hell out of that iconic bassline, which frankly is just showing off! Happily the track was released as a B-side to Bowie's Hallo Spaceboy single, so this epic performance has been captured for posterity. Pure brilliance.

This Time (Barely Alive) (from I Used To Be..., 2003)

It was a long decade before Gail's third album appeared, but it was worth the wait. I Used To Be... is perhaps Gail's most cohesive album, freed from major label demands to sound "current" or "commercial", Gail is free to explore her sound and the result is something truly unique. A perfect example is This Time (Barely Alive), which could be read autobiographically as the story of Gail's career: "I'm not sure what I'll bring this time, I'm barely alive... I'm not sure what I'll sing this time..."

Gail's songwriting is spectacularly good, her lyrics are always fresh and riveting and she knows how to spin them into a layered melody. That this song can be read on many levels is testament to that, I like to see it as song of survival, despite the fact "the planets are aligned for indifference", talent like Gail's demands to be expressed and deserves to be heard. Gail, if you didn't already know, what you brought this time was perfection.

Whether You Are The One (from I Used To Be..., 2003)

Indecision is not the usual stuff of love songs, but on this sublime track that is what Gail treats us to. Given the choice whether to leap or leave is part of every love story, it's surprising there aren't more songs covering this phenomenon. This is another amazing lyric by Gail with the usual bevy of memorable lines, like "here I stand together, heart like a loaded gun". The track almost imperceptibly builds from a sparse intro to a multi-layered soundscape and Gail's vocal floats and twists within its lush boundaries. Though there is no clear resolution by the song's end, a feeling of completeness suggests that this love might not be "the one".

I Used To Be... is a real showcase for Gail's talents as a songwriter, bassist and vocalist, she really is a triple threat! I can't believe the album is now ten years old, it still sounds fresh and relevant. A new album has been rumoured for quite a while, but is yet to materialise. Until then I must make do with spotting her telltale touches on her many session appearances for everybody from Gwen Stefani to Lenny Kravitz. Oh, and there is that small matter of a new Bowie album to enjoy. For me though, nothing can match Gail solo, so if you've not had the pleasure, then happily I Used To Be... is available on iTunes. Buy it. Now.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Oscar's Golden Girls

It was most fitting at last Sunday's Oscars that music was put front and centre in the ceremony. Film and music exist in such symbiosis that most of our iconic movie memories are tied to a particular theme or song. For diva fans, the show was an absolute dream. Jennifer Hudson showed why she won an Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls, by reprising And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going, while Barbra Streisand gave a moving tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch, singing his Oscar winning theme for The Way We Were. There were musical numbers from Chicago and Les Miserables. We even got a surprise rendition of Goldfinger by the ultimate Bond diva Dame Shirley Bassey, proving that at 76 she has lost none of her power. Then her heir apparent Adele delivered a perfectly tense rendition of Skyfall shortly before collecting her first Oscar for Best Original Song.

In a good year the awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Soundtrack might merit a passing reference in Oscar write-ups, but Adele currently rules music and she seemed to get more coverage than Daniel Day-Lewis and Jennifer Lawrence combined. Adele is not the first female artist to win that coveted award, although as it is given to the songwriters and not the performers, it is a select crowd. Here are my favourites of the other female artists that have a little shiny man in their lives.

Irene Cara - Flashdance... What A Feeling - 1983

Irene Cara had already been the performer of an Oscar winning song with Fame in 1980, but she got to hold the trophy when her iconic theme to the movie Flashdance conquered all three years later. Irene came to prominence with her role as Coco in the movie Fame, but she passed on continuing on the spin-off TV series, choosing instead to focus on her music career. Initially Irene was reluctant to team up with the legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder to work on Flashdance, fearing she would be compared with Giorgio's main collaborator, Donna Summer. Luckily she took the risk and together with lyricist Keith Forsey they created one of the truly great movie theme songs. Irene's vocal on the track is fantastic, from the tentative, gentle opening, right through to the blistering dance anthem the song becomes, she shows the great range of her voice. Sadly this was to be the peak of Irene's career, as battles with her record label led to an under-promoted follow-up album and a prolonged absence from music. I have a major soft spot for Irene, so we'll leave it there for now, as I will be covering her career more fully in a future blog.

Barbra Streisand - Evergreen (Love Theme From "A Star Is Born") - 1976

Like Irene, Barbra had performed an Oscar winning song, The Way We Were, before writing one of her own. For her remake of the Judy Garland classic movie A Star Is Born, Barbra wrote the melody for a song, which lyricist Paul Williams then found just the right words to fit. Evergreen went on to become one of Barbra's biggest hit singles, as well as helping the film's soundtrack album to shift almost 15 million copies.

Carly Simon - Let The River Run - 1988

I know, I've already written about this one in my blog on Carly's many great songs for movies, Nobody Does It Better, but no rundown of my favourite Oscar winning songs would be complete without this theme from the movie Working Girl. This song is among Carly's crowning achievements, it absolutely works as a movie theme, but it also transcends that role and has, for many of her fans (myself included), become an almost spiritual piece. The lyrics pull off the difficult trick in pop of being true poetry while also accessible for the casual listener. The production is superb, the crashing drums, the soaring choir, it is a masterclass in creating an anthem. Carly revisited the song on her 2009 album of self-covers, Never Been Gone, creating a sparser, acoustic version, which is well worth a listen. That the song works both as a stripped back poem and a movie power ballad is a mark of the quality of Carly's songwriting.

Annie Lennox - Into The West - 2003

Annie has ventured into movie music a few times, probably most memorably when she and Dave produced the entire score for the movie version of George Orwell's 1984, released that very year. My personal favourite was her Love Song For A Vampire, written for Francis Ford Coppola's take on Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, it was her co-writing and performing of this achingly beautiful theme from The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King that caught Oscar's attention. Annie gives a suitably haunting vocal on this gentle track, that builds slowly to a gorgeous, swelling chorus. It provided a fitting end note to one of cinema's most epic film series.

So as you can see, Adele has indeed joined an elite group. While they may not be the most high profile awards, the Oscars given for Best Original Song and Best Original Soundtrack are an important recognition of the role music plays in bringing movies to life. And finally a Bond song won!

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider sharing it or linking to it from your Facebook, Google+ or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts above 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:Oscar's Golden Girls