Song of the Day, February 9: Whatever’s Written In Your Heart by Gerry Rafferty

RaffertyHeartToday’s song is a quiet epic from Gerry Rafferty’s City to City. The album is built on meditations about relationships and distance. Whatever’s Written In Your Heart is a moving look at thoughts and actions and how they overlap. Reflecting on the tensions and misunderstandings that can arise in a relationship with long absences, Rafferty insists that in the end a true heart can win the day. Building slowly over six-and-a-half minutes, he lays down a deceptively simple voice and keyboard structure. Anthemic but folky, it’s brilliant and moving.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, February 8: Think Small by Tall Dwarfs

TallDwarfsSmallToday’s song is the closer to Tall Dwarfs stunning album Fork Songs. The Kiwi duo are known for their found instruments, stark observations, and proto-lo-fi sound. While many of their tracks buzz with varying kinds of energy, some of their finest moments are almost folky. Think Small is such a track, a cautiously hopeful song about making the most of what we have. Edging into “that’s all we’ll get”, it sets up a nice tension, allowing the quiet sonic palette to draw it toward optimism.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Album of the Week, February 7: She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper

LauperShesSoCyndi Lauper grew up in Queens, developing an eclectic fondness for music from an early age. Her older sister gave her a guitar for her 12th birthday, and she soon started writing her own songs. She left a difficult home life at 17 and began wandering the northeast, working odd jobs. Eventually she wound up back in New York, fronting a number of covers bands. Wanting to sing her own songs, she hooked up with sax player John Turi and formed Blue Angel. Their demos landed Lauper a number of solo offers, but she stuck with the band. They eventually signed with Polydor, but their eponymous debut sold so poorly that Lauper has joked “it went lead.” After an acrimonious split with their manager left Lauper bankrupt, the band dissolved. She battled vocal problems and worked more odd jobs, then finally decided to go solo. New manager David Wolff landed her a deal with Portrait, and she created one of the high points of American New Wave pop.

Title She’s So Unusual
Act Cyndi Lauper
Label Portrait Release Date October 14, 1983
Producer Rick Chertoff
U.S. Chart  #4 U.K. Chart  #16
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Money Changes Everything [#27]
  2. Girls Just Want To Have Fun [#2]
  3. When You Were Mine
  4. Time After Time [#1]
  5. She Bop [#3]
  6. All Through the Night [#5]
  7. Witness
  8. I’ll Kiss You
  9. He’s So Unusual
  10. Yeah Yeah

Lauper still wanted to sing her own songs, but the label insisted on a balance of covers, due in part to the regional success of Blue Angel’s version of I’m Gonna Be Strong featuring a stunning Lauper vocal. Portrait supplied a few outside options, Wolff tracked down some, and Lauper picked her own. Adding some strong originals, she put together an impressive set of songs. She also landed a great studio band, including Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of the Hooters. With a wash of synths, a Grammy-winning cover image, and a dizzying array of styles, She’s So Unusual lived up to its title.

Things open with one of the covers, the Brains’ Money Changes Everything. Lauper tweaked the lyrics  and turned in a gritty performance. Perhaps the darkest track on the disc, it’s a strange opener, but a powerful delivery. It would be the album’s fifth Top 40 single. Lauper and company buried the lede, saving her signature song for track two. Another cover — from a demo by Robert Hazard — Girls Just Want to Have Fun became a joyous anthem of independence. With sparkling synths and an infectious vocal, Lauper delivers the goods. She also rewrote this song — finding parts of the original version sexist — and has regularly thanked Hazard for letting her rearrange his song.

A prescient pioneer, Lauper covered Prince before it was cool. In fact, the Purple One had barely dented the Top 10 for the first time when she entered the studio. This time keeping the lyrics intact, she made When You Were Mine a ballad of bisexual heartbreak. She also turned in a Monroe-style vocal, keeping things simmering. The album’s centerpiece — and Lauper’s first #1 hit — was a track she wrote with Rob Hyman. Time After Time is a flawless pop ballad, a slow groove of yearning. Released on the heels of Girls’ success, it proved how versatile the singer was.

Side two opens with another startling moment, the masturbation ode She Bop. Lauper wrote it in code, “so the little kids could dance to it,” allowing it to work on many levels. When it went to #3, it cemented her star status. Surging with dance energy, it’s a subversive track that really works. Lauper selected her friend Jules Shear’s All Through the Night to cover. She transformed his solid pop approach into something delicate and fine. It’s #5 ranking made her the first woman to land four Top 5 singles from one album.

Witness is the album’s hidden gem. Written with Blue Angel’s Turi, it’s a reggae influenced track. Bursting with dance grooves and a gritty, determined vocal, it’s one of the strongest tracks on the album and a clear sign of the singer’s eclectic power.

The last three tracks continue that trend while slowly running out of steam. I’ll Kiss You, written by Lauper and Shear, is a pleasant enough twist on Love Potion #9. A bit of a rocker, it changes things up nicely but doesn’t offer much more. He’s So Unusual — the de facto title track — shows off the Betty Boop inspiration for Lauper’s best known vocals with a charming retro feel. Things wrap up with the very unusual sound collage Yeah Yeah, written by Swedish rocker Mikael Rikfors. It’s interesting, but a bit of a let-down as the closer of an otherwise delightful album.

Lauper was awarded the Best New Artist Grammy, achieved multi-platinum sales, and influenced girls’ fashion choices for a couple of years. More importantly, she turned out a fine, diverse set of songs that holds up admirably three decades later.

FURTHER LISTENING: Unfortunately, her strong persona made building on that success difficult, especially because she was interested in so many forms of music. Her recordings continued to be diverse, sometimes confusing fans. True Colors was a solid — if less magical — second outing. After that, the offerings have been sporadic and inconsistent, although everything she releases has some magic moments. The strongest discs are the standards album At Last and the unique dance outing Bring Ya to the Brink. Lauper has also been anthologized heavily. The best collection — unless you insist on having The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough for some inexplicable reason — is 1994’s Twelve Deadly Cyns.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending February 8, 1986

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 That’s What Friends Are For Dionne & Friends 4
R & B That’s What Friends Are For Dionne & Friends 3
Country Hurt Juice Newton 1
Adult Contemporary The Sweetest Taboo Sade 1
Rock Stages ZZ Top 1
Album The Broadway Album Barbra Streisand 3

PalmerAddictedThis week sees an eclectic singer launch the most successful phase of his career. Robert Palmer was born in England in 1949 and fell in love with American R&B as a child. He joined his first band at 15, spending a decade in a variety of groups ranging in style from jazz fusion to R&B to smooth pop. He recorded his first solo album in New Orleans, drawing inspiration from the city’s sounds. With his next couple of albums, he landed two Top 20 hits — the smooth pop Every Kinda People [#15, 1978] and the rocker Bad Case of Lovin’ You [#14, 1979] — then faded from the charts for a while. He blasted back onto the airwaves as the singer for the Power Station in 1985.

Returning to solo work, he picked up the dance grooves of his last pre-Power Station disc. This week the lead single from his smash Riptide debuted on the Hot 100. Addicted to Love received a boost from a stylish video and an urban dance sound that fit into current airplay nicely. It eased up the chart, becoming Palmer’s sole #1 hit three months later. Sticking with a blend of dance and rock, he notched two #2 hits in the next three years, then faded from the charts again. He died of cardiac arrest in 2003 at the age of 54.

Song of the Day, February 5: If You Saw Thro My Eyes by Ian Matthews with Sandy Denny

MatthewsDennyThroToday’s song is a showcase of former Fairport Convention talent. Singer Ian (later Iain) Matthews departed the band after their second album, wanting to pursue the pop side of folk rather than the traditional tunes that the band had begun to explore. He formed Matthews’ Southern Comfort and recorded three albums mixing his original songs with well-chosen covers (including Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, which hit #1 in the UK). Realizing that the band format was too restrictive, he quickly recorded his first true solo album, 1971’s If You Saw Thro My Eyes. While the album is definitely Matthews’, he does get some help from Sandy Denny — who left Fairport two albums after he did — and Richard Thompson — who would leave the band before Matthews’ disc hit the racks.

The title track is a quiet pop gem. Matthews sings it a  duet with Denny, their gorgeous voices intertwining over her fragile piano work. A pensive track on relationships, it shows off the folky side of Matthews’ pop strength and the pop side of Denny’s acoustic power. It was also the last time their two amazing voices were recorded together, a reminder of how charming and sympathetic their partnership could be.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, February 4: Green by Barbara Manning

BManningGreenToday’s song is Barbara Manning’s Green. It appears on her 1991 mini-masterpiece One Perfect Green Blanket. Manning’s liner notes indicate that the song was “recorded on a particularly sad day”. With just a clarinet and bass accompanying her vocal and acoustic guitar, it’s a quiet, almost somber affair that captures that spirit nicely. Using green rather than the typical blue to reflection her sadness, she engages in a bit of synesthetic exploration, giving the color a variety of attributes — “green is a cat’s purr,” for example. It’s a sweet, sad package that distills an emotional moment in a unique, resonant way.

Enjoy this sad song today.

Song of the Day, February 3: Darling Angel by the Watchman

WatchmanReverseAngelToday’s song is a quiet tour-de-force from a Dutch folky. Ad van Meurs adopted the performing identity of the Watchman as he launched an international career with the help of superstar folk producer Joe Boyd. His eponymous debut is a lovely album, with Meurs doing most of the playing and singing. Darling Angel is sung to someone who can’t see the best in anything. The Watchman quietly but firmly reprimands this dark angel, insisting that together they can improve their corner of the world enough to be happy. Over an acoustic background Meurs intones his compassionate advice, creating a simple but compelling package.

Enjoy this smart song today.

Song of the Day, February 2: I’m In A Mood by Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight

MarryOliverMoodToday’s song is a wonderful lyrical journey from siblings Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight. After their mother — the great Lal Waterson — died in 1998, Oliver spent a few years tying up the loose ends of her musical legacy. Marry pitched in and gradually renewed her interest in music after a decade or more pursuing other arts. The pair formed a musical partnership, and their second album, Hidden, is a delight.

Marry’s quirky mastery of lyric fits nicely with Oliver’s distinctive soundscapes. Her voice settled into its own groove, pulling the elements together. I’m In A Mood is a perfect opener for the disc. An exploration of darker emotions, it captures the confusion of despair and the unintended consequences of other people’s actions — even when well-intentioned. Relying on nuance rather than emphasis, Waterson and Knight create an evocative, resonant emotional package.

I’m in a mood, I’m in a rage
I’m in a shocking state of grace…
And I’d like you to know
I’m not feeling myself

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, February 1: River Deep Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner

TurnerRiverDeepToday’s song is a famous failure with a lasting legacy. Legendary producer Phil Spector signed Ike and Tina Turner to his Philles label in 1965. Familiar with Ike’s controlling ways, Spector paid the musician $20,000 to stay away from the studio during the recording of the couple’s first single for the label.

Spector wrote River Deep — Mountain High with superstar songwriting couple Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. He knew it was the perfect song to explore his Wall of Sound production to its fullest. Centered on Tina Turner’s stirring lead vocal, the sessions included 21 musicians and a score of backing vocalists. Credited under the terms of their contract to Ike and Tina Turner, it was in fact a Phil Spector production starring Tina Turner.

Spector felt that it was his masterpiece. The song was reasonably successful in Europe, going all the way to #3 in the UK, but flopped at home, scraping into the charts at #88. While he put a brave face on it, Spector’s disappointment led to his temporary withdrawal from the music world and hinted at his eventual breakdown.

Despite this early disappointment, the song has become a classic, inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and coming in at #33 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest songs of all time. It’s been covered by dozens of artists ranging from the Animals to Deep Purple to Celine Dion. It found its one chart success in a flaccid 1971 version by the Supremes and the Four Tops [#7 R&B, #14 Pop].

The finest version will always be the first, however, with one of the great Tina Turner’s finest vocal performances. Enjoy this classic track today.

Album of the Week, January 31: Sing Children Sing by Lesley Duncan

DuncanSingCSLesley Duncan is best known for the work she’s done for other artists, but she was a talented singer and songwriter in her own right. Born in northeastern England in 1943, she started writing songs in her teens. She sent a demo of her “I Want A Steady Guy” to EMI in 1963, hoping to become a staff songwriter. To her surprise, the label was impressed enough to offer her a recording contract. She spent five years recording angsty love songs with no real success. At the same time, her distinctive vocals made her an in-demand session singer, working with a wide variety of performers, notably Dusty Springfield and the Dave Clark Five. During this time, she met Reginald Dwight, a session pianist who became a close friend. When Dwight began recording his own material under his more famous name, Elton John, he asked Duncan to provide backing vocals. She did one better than that, lending him a new song that would become her signature. The inclusion of Love Song helped make John’s Tumbleweed Connection a standout in his early catalog. When she recorded her first album, he returned the favor, playing piano and providing moral support.

Album Sing Children Sing
Act Lesley Duncan
Label Edsel Release Date June 1971
Producer Jimmy Horowitz
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Chain of Love
  2. Lullaby
  3. Help Me Jesus
  4. Mr. Rubin
  5. Rainbow Games
  6. Love Song
  7. Sunshine (Send Them Away)
  8. Crying In the Sun
  9. Emma
  10. If You Won’t Be Mine
  11. Sing Children Sing

Duncan’s husband at the time, Jimmy Horowitz, produced the album and played some instruments. With the many connections from her session work, they were able to assemble a crack band, including established guitarist Chris Spedding and drummer Terry Cox of folk-rock pioneers Pentangle. With Duncan’s smart songs, warm vocals, and sensitive acoustic guitar, the group created a lost classic of early singer-songwriter magic.

Chain of Love opens the album on a strong note. A song about the power of music and friendship, it explores the many relationships that Duncan built in her early career and the strength she draws from them. Quietly moving, it’s a touching, appropriate way to start the proceedings. Lullaby is a song written to her as-yet unborn child. It’s a standard make-the-world-better song of cautious optimism. Duncan’s delivery saves it from being trite, instead moving it far ahead of its class and offering a good example of overcoming tropes. The same isn’t quite true of Help Me Jesus, a perfectly sincere song that doesn’t offer much beyond a glimpse into the songwriter’s personal beliefs and a very catchy chorus.

Things take a darker turn on Mr. Rubin. A firm believer in the healing power of love, Duncan was disgusted with some of the counter-culture rhetoric, particularly that of Yippie co-founder Jerry Rubin. In a long, slow burn, she offers an open letter to him, underscoring each concern with a clear demand: “Don’t forget love, Mr. Rubin”. It’s a powerful track, demonstrating Duncan’s versatility. It also found a surprising second life. Elton John borrowed it when he co-produced Long John Baldry’s 1971 album It Ain’t Easy.

Duncan and Horowitz cleanse the sonic palate with the sweet Rainbow Games, a light love song that works because of its charming delivery. That paves the way for her signature song.

Over 150 artists have covered Love Song over the years, including John’s famously brilliant take and a much-bootlegged early recording by David Bowie. Nobody matches Duncan on her own turf, however. At once intimate and universal, it perfectly captures the fragmenting spirit of optimism of the late 60s. Offering hope while insisting on faith, Duncan delivers her finest vocal. For this track alone, the album is more than worth the price of admission. Amazingly, Duncan initially thought of it as “a little song I’d knocked off as a suitable B-side”!

She gets political again with Sunshine (Send Them Away), demanding that light drive out the darker forces in modern life. With one of her deepest, roughest vocals it’s a stirring song that transcends its place and time. Crying In the Sun is a sad lost love song reminiscent of Carole King. Emma is another ode to Duncan’s soon-to-be-born child (who would, in fact, be a boy named Sam). It looks at the parent-child relationship from a different angle than Lullaby, offering a more intimate view. The pair work nicely together, although Lullaby is the stronger track. With If You Won’t Be Mine, Duncan cements her talents as a writer of wistful love songs, turning in another fine vocal.

The album wraps up with the title track, a stirring ode to the power of music and hope. It bookends the album perfectly with Chain of Love, providing two different looks at similar themes. Sweetly anthemic, it sums up the best of Lesley Duncan’s worldview.

Sadly this little masterpiece was long out of print, and is now available only as a fairly pricey import. That’s a shame, because Duncan was a unique talent with a knack for turning out smart, folky pop. Her songs are very much of their time, with traces of Summer of Love blending into a somewhat skeptical early 70s consciousness, but her craftsmanship and delivery make them timeless.

FURTHER LISTENING: Duncan followed up with Earth Mother, a much darker look at similar themes including the monumental, nine-minute title track. When it also proved to be a commercial failure, she lost her contract and changed labels, recording three more albums for GM. Plagued by stage fright

“I hated it. I’d throw up before I went on, I was just a basket case. I didn’t look it on stage but that’s because I’d had to drink a quadruple brandy to get up there.”

she never toured to support her albums and eventually retired to Cornwall, doing rare session work. Producer Alan Parsons was particularly fond of her voice, and included her in the sessions for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as well as asking her to provide one of only two female leads for an Alan Parsons Project track. Duncan died in 2010, leaving behind a small body of her own work and an astounding legacy of session performances.

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