Album of the Week, April 2: Jeffrey Osborne

JOsborneJeffrey Osborne was the born the youngest of twelve children in a musical family. His father was noted jazz trumpeter Clarence “Legs” Osborne, and many of his siblings went on to careers in music. Osborne began playing drums professionally while still in high school, working around his hometown of Providence, RI. A new R&B outfit called Love Men Ltd. recruited him while touring, and he joined the group, renamed L.T.D., in Los Angeles after graduation. His rich voice soon moved him out from behind the drum kit, and his brother Billy joined L.T.D. also on vocals and drums as well as keyboards. After nearly a decade of solid chart success with the band, Osborne wanted to write for other artists and explore occasional solo work. L.T.D. wasn’t interested in sharing his talents, so he left the band entirely, waiting a year for legal releases to come through while he planned his solo debut. During that time, he hooked up with jazz multi-instrumentalist and producer George Duke, who agreed to helm the project. Duke’s diverse talents — and his many friends and connections — allowed the singer to make the most of his own strengths, resulting in a powerful first release.

Title Jeffrey Osborne
Act Jeffrey Osborne
Label A & M Release Date 1982
Producer George Duke
U.S. Chart  #49 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. New Love
  2. Eenie Meenie [#76]
  3. I Really Don’t Need No Light [#39]
  4. On the Wings of Love [#29]
  5. Ready For Your Love
  6. Who You Talkin’ To?
  7. You Were Made to Love
  8. Ain’t Nothin’ Missin’
  9. Baby
  10. Congratulations

Duke and Osborne set the stage perfectly with New Love. It’s a joyous blast of romantic optimism, featuring nice horn work and a tight rhythm section. A well-produced choir provide harmonies, providing a rich backdrop for Osborne’s exuberant vocal. The track is a nice kickoff and a great declaration of musical independence. Eenie Meenie is a darker track with a soulful groove. Telling the tale of a romance broken once too often, it features bright strings and elegant percussion. Osborne sings of knowing when something is finally over, conveying sorrow without being broken.

The masterpiece of the disc is the searing I Really Don’t Need No Light. The first single, it showed off everything Osborne learned in his time touring with the band and his new confidence in his own right. It’s a great kiss-off song with smart lyrics; Duke’s production makes the most of Osborne’s distinctive phrasing, and the whole package is a perfect example of timeless dance pop. The next hit took a very different approach. On the Wings of Love is a delightful celebration song. Driven by a blend of keyboards and subtle strings, it’s a joyous ballad of hope and love. The subtle touches — like the snare riff in the chorus — provide texture that helps it rise above the typical happy pop love song.

Ready For Your Love is a smoldering dance track, with Osborne singing his regrets about almost letting romance slip away. He offers a grittier vocal than usual, adding variety to the disc and energy to the song. Duke’s sequencing of the album is part of its magic, and offering the jazzy showcase of Who You Talkin’ To? next is a fine example. With sassy horns, a searing guitar solo, engaging treated vocal backing, and a tight, band, it’s a big, bossy number. Osborne clearly has fun with it. You Were Made to Love is fine, but something of a letdown. A fluffy slow dance love song, it features a nice vocal but some frankly silly lyrics. Fortunately, Ain’t Nothin’ Missin’ blasts in with joyful energy. A track of unadulterated happiness, it features fun do-do-do backing vocals and one of Osborne’s best leads.

Baby is a swirling torch song, reminiscent of Al Green. It’s lyrically slight, but Duke and Osborne treat it with respect, turning in something surprising. Things wrap up with the remarkable Congratulations. Sung to a former lover as she prepares for her wedding, it could be a syrupy weeper. Instead, it’s treated with restraint, a slow, bare start that builds gradually, almost sneaking up on the listener. Osborne’s great phrasing makes the most of the telling line “Life goes on, I guess”, capturing the heart of the song. It’s a perfect wrap-up to a solid outing.

FURTHER LISTENING: Jeffrey Osborne continued to release solid, fun albums for a decade. His sophomore effort, Stay With Me Tonight, is nearly as good as the debut and a personal favorite. Don’t Stop follows the Duke/Osborne formula with diminishing returns but is still very worthwhile. From there, things are a mixed bag. Osborne’s voice is always amazing however, and his sense of musicality is so strong that he makes the most of even the weaker material. For the casual fan, the Ultimate Collection actually lives up to its name, offering 17 great songs including his best work with L.T.D.

Album of the Week, February 14: The Watchman

WatchmanWatchmanAd van Meurs learned to love bluegrass and the blues listening to the music from the American military base near his home in the Netherlands. He learned piano and guitar and joined a folk-rock group in the 70s. When that group dissolved, he played the back of a guitar as percussion in a punk outfit that evolved into an abstract noise band. In the 80s he formed a minimalist synth band, then retired from music for a while to recover from bad habits and hard living picked up on the road. When he started up again, he returned to his roots. “I realized that I liked to just sit around a table and play bluegrass!” Creating the persona of the Watchman, a one-man band accompanied by his longtime musical and romantic partner, Ankie Keultjes, and an occasional bassist. Determined to break out of the Netherlands, he pestered legendary folk-rock producer Joe Boyd with demos. Boyd finally relented, signing Meurs to his Hannibal label and helming the Watchman’s debut release.

Album The Watchman
Act The Watchman
Label Hannibal Release Date 1991
Producer Joe Boyd
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Laundry Days
  2. Summer At the Empty Playground II
  3. The Captain’s Tune
  4. Freddy’s Race
  5. Considering the Lowlands of Holland
  6. Lowland Tune
  7. Darling Angel
  8. I Wanna Be With You
  9. Wiener Cowboy
  10. After the Night Shift
  11. Letter to Your Wedding
  12. Farewell Baby

Meurs and company crafted a charming, energetic set — what he calls hard folk — filled with stories, legends, and images from the lowland countries. Universalizing these personal and regional themes, he opts for simple, effective images and a sincere delivery that works nicely.

He opens with a bang with the surging Laundry Days, blending enthusiastic acoustic strumming, chiming slide work, and some finger-picking pyrotechnics. It’s an evocative song that gains power from his sandpaper baritone and Keultjes’ sweet harmonies. Summer At the Empty Playground is darker and more meditative, but no less compelling. Reflecting on the hollowness of nostalgia, he adds some haunting musical fills. He rounds out the opening with the instrumental The Captain’s Tune, a nice mix of guitar styles with a great slide solo.

On Freddy’s Race, he celebrates the bicycle culture of his homeland, echoing the pumping of the pedals with his playing. He considers The Lowlands of Holland with wistfulness, a nice homage to his homeland. Lowland Tune is another instrumental, a sort of bluegrass soundtrack to an unfilmed tour of the country.

With Darling Angel, Meurs grows pensive again. He warns a companion not to give in to despair, offering his love and support. It’s a moving lyric and delivery, one of the disc’s finest moments. I Wanna Be With You flips the equation slightly, declaring the singer’s need for an absent lover. With a rolling, bluesy backdrop, it’s a fun moment. Wiener Cowboy is the last instrumental, lightweight but pleasant.

After the Night Shift is a harrowing song of loneliness, the pleas of a man trapped in a hospital. Stark and grim, it’s beautifully constructed and another highlight. Keultjes provides the lead vocal on Letter to Your Wedding, a sad ballad to a lost love. Her delivery is fragile but confident, a smart switch for this bittersweet song. Things wrap up with Farewell Baby, a straightforward but effective lament for lost love.

The Watchman is hard to find, a long-deleted gem on a defunct label. For fans of bluesy, acoustic folk and perspectives outside the Anglo-American norm, however, it’s worth the effort. Ad van Meurs has real musical talent and a distinctive approach to his musical influences, offering something truly special.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Watchman became a band for a second album, Peaceful Artillery. The high points are amazing, but the whole package is less consistent and Meurs vision is sometimes blunted by the enthusiasm of his collaborators. Since then, Meurs and Keultjes have performed regularly and recorded sporadically, usually under their own names. They were also part of a fascinating experimental group called No Blues that blended their sound with Middle Eastern traditions.

BUYER BEWARE: Watchman and Watchmen are common musical names for both acts and albums. Many sources (including Amazon.com and AllMusic) often conflate Meurs work with others, so be careful if you’re tracking down his music.

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
Tracks
[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.

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
Tracks
  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.

Album of the Week, January 17: Private Revolution by World Party

WorldPartyPrivRevKarl Wallinger was born in Wales in 1957. He was a music fan from childhood, partial to the sounds of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and Love. He attended the Charterhouse school in England (birthplace of Genesis some years before he entered), then returned to Prestatyn. He was in a short-lived band with future members of the Alarm, then worked in music publishing before moving to London as musical director of a long-running production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Mike Scott recruited him to play keyboards in the Waterboys’ touring band. Impressed with his work, Scott invited Wallinger to become a full-fledged band member. After two albums, he decided to pursue his own musical vision, and left the Waterboys (amicably) to record his solo debut.

Title Private Revolution
Act World Party
Label Chrysalis Release Date March 1987
Producer Karl Wallinger
U.S. Chart  #39 U.K. Chart  #56
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Private Revolution
  2. Making Love (to the World)
  3. Ship of Fools [#27]
  4. All Come True
  5. Dance of the Hoppy Lads
  6. It Can Be Beautiful (Sometimes)
  7. The Ballad of the Little Man
  8. Hawaiian Island World
  9. All I Really Want to Do
  10. World Party
  11. It’s All Mine

Wallinger adopted the pseudonym World Party to reflect the global and ecological themes he wanted to explore. Private Revolution was a nod to the one-man-band approach he took to the project, whimsically creating pseudonyms for many of his own instrumental contributions. Three notable talents pitched in here and there: Waterboys Steve Wickham and Anthony Thistlethwaite and singer Sinéad O’Connor, whose debut included some Wallinger contributions. A talented musician and songwriter, Wallinger has an unusual vocal style that he understands perfectly how to adapt to his songs.

The title track is a perfect welcome to the proceedings. Talk-sung over a funky folk backdrop, it reminds us that “there’s a planet to set free” but that change must begin at home. It’s one of Wallinger’s best songs and showcases his talents nicely. Making Love (to the World) continues the theme, making it clear that all the best intentions won’t matter if we ruin the place we live. Wallinger mixes in some nice falsetto, a tribute to some of his childhood vocal heroes. The one big hit in the World Party catalog, Ship of Fools is a passionate declaration of independence, with the singer demanding his freedom to engage the world on his own terms. This eco-political triptych is a smart, well-executed kickoff.

Things change pace a bit with All Come True, a mysterious, ethereal song. The “she” who is making it all come true is never quite clear, but respect for her powers is demanded. Dance of the Hoppy Lads is a fun, brief instrumental featuring Wickham’s fiddle work. The falsetto returns on It Can Be Beautiful, another mystical song that conjures up Astral Weeks era Van Morrison.

The Ballad of the Little Man demands that we root out our own worst tendencies before trying to solve outside problems. A nod to early Dylan protest folk, it’s a strong track and a nice loop back to the themes of the first three tracks. Despite a nice backing vocal from O’Connor, Hawaiian Island World is the one filler track, a pleasant enough distraction that doesn’t quite fit. Thing pick up dramatically with a spot-on cover of Dylan’s All I Really Want to Do. It’s been done almost to death, but Wallinger infuses it with so much passion and fun that he reinvents it as a testament to his own vision. A risky move that really pays off, the song becomes another highlight of the disc.

World Party may not exactly be a title track, but it works with Private Revolution to create the mission statement for the album. It’s a delightful celebration of collaborative effort built on a layered musical foundation. Infectious and engaging, it makes the listener join in Wallinger’s invocation, “How can I say no?”. It’s All Mine is a dark coda to the album. Starting as a selfish demand, it evolves into a recognition that’s what’s wrong with the world is tied to what’s wrong with each of us. It’s a powerful statement that ends the celebration on a pensive note.

FURTHER LISTENING: World Party evolved into a bit more of a band over the years as members of the touring group contributed to the studio projects. It remains very much the channel for Wallinger’s vision, with each album staking out lyrical territory similar to the debut. Goodbye Jumbo won accolades and is fairly strong, but it suffers from less adventurous sonic choices. Bang! is a glorious mess. Both albums include one magical song — Put the Message In the Box and Is It Like Today? respectively — that stand up with the best of Private Revolution. After two more decent albums, Wallinger suffered a brain aneurysm that required several years of recovery; he continues to produce, perform and record. In 2007 he assembled Best In Show a nice overview of all four World Party albums and a fine starting place for casual fans.

Album of the Week, December 20: please by Pet Shop Boys

PSBpleasePet Shop Boys formed when journalist Neil Tennant and architecture student Chris Lowe met in an electronics shop. Both had some musical experience — Tennant on vocals, guitar, and cello; Lowe on trombone and piano — and a strong interest in dance music. They began working together, crafting songs while paying the rent with their day jobs. When Smash Hits sent Tennant to New York to review the Police, he took the time to meet with dance Bobby O. The producer was impressed with the Boys’ demo and agreed to record them. Those sessions yielded early versions of many later hits, including West End Girls. Growing dissatisfaction on both sides led Pet Shop Boys and O. to part company. Based on the club success of that work, however, the duo landed a deal with Parlophone, who eventually lined up noted producer Stephen Hague to man the boards for the long-time-coming debut album. The result was a dance-pop sensation, launching a smart, sneaky, superstar career.

Title please
Act Pet Shop Boys
Label EMI America Release Date March 24, 1986
Producer Stephen Hague
U.S. Chart  #3 U.K. Chart  #7
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Two Divided By Zero
  2. West End Girls [#1]
  3. Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) [#10]
  4. Love Comes Quickly [#62]
  5. Suburbia
  6. Opportunities (reprise)
  7. Tonight Is Forever
  8. Violence
  9. I Want A Lover
  10. Later Tonight
  11. Why Don’t We Live Together?

The opening track is the only song not credited to both Boys. Tennant wrote Two Divided By Zero with Bobby O. and it was included on the album as part of the settlement that dissolved their partnership. It’s a perfect introduction however, with dramatic synth work and a stirring, mysterious narrative. A bit cloak-and-dagger, a bit suburban escape, the track  announces the duo in grand style. Hague is a master sequencer, and the second track ups the ante. An international smash, West End Girls is a smart observational track, featuring Tennant’s now-famous speak-singing over an infectious beat. This one-two punch shows off the pair’s talent and pent-up musical splendor.

Opportunities is a delightful smack-down of Thatcherism. Somehow deadpan and enthusiastic all at once, its wry lyrics and delivery foretold another common theme in the PSB catalog. While the duo are best known as  cool, observant, and ironic, they also have a knack for very human songs. Love Comes Quickly has a great beat and you can dance to it. It’s also a gorgeous love song, switching up the energy of the album nicely and showing off one of Tennant’s finest vocals. Suburbia is another slice-of-life song, dissecting the calm surface of the hypothetical ideal life.

A strange little instrumental bit bridges the album’s two halves. Officially a reprise of Opportunities, it serves its purpose quickly and lets the groove switch back on. Tonight Is Forever is a strong club song, a soaring track that celebrates escapism and the power of music, however briefly they can be enjoyed. Things turn dark with Violence a nice counterpoint to Suburbia. The intervening tracks allow the sequence to read as a narrative of life in Thatcher’s Great Britain. I Want A Lover switches back to meeting the immediate need, another great club song with a smart edge.

Lush and literate, Later Tonight is a beautiful, haunting song with some great wordplay. Featuring a lovely piano line and a quiet synthesized string section, it evokes its own setting flawlessly. Things wrap up with Why Don’t We Live Together?, a near throwaway that allows the album to end on an optimistic note. With an aggressive drum machine and late New Wave keyboard work, it’s the most disco of the set, a curious coda that somehow works.

As would be the case with most Pet Shop Boys releases, please is almost all Tennant and Lowe. Roxy Musician Andy Mackay adds a sweet sax figure to Love Comes Quickly and Helena Springs provides an occasional secret weapon backing vocal reminiscent of Helen Terry’s work with Culture Club. Otherwise, the Boys know what they want and how to achieve it. This stunning debut serves as a clear mission statement, a great set of dance tracks, and a smart overview of the pair’s talents.

FURTHER LISTENING: Pet Shop Boys don’t have a bad album, but few fully match the power of please. Critics praised the commercially successful actually, their sophomore effort; for me, it manages to be more sophisticated and much less interesting than its predecessor. The best album in the Pet Shop is 1993’s Very, a powerful set of dance tracks brimming with maturity, confidence, and fun. It’s also sequenced as well as please, making it a delight straight through. A 30-year, 12-album career brimming with hits lends itself to compilations. The best are 2003’s two-disc PopArt and 2010’s Ultimate Pet Shop Boys, a less comprehensive single disc that hits all the high points.

Album of the Week, November 15: Madonna

Madonna(debut)The woman who would become the phenomenon was born in Bay City, Michigan and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was a successful student and skilled dancer, winning a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. In short order, however, she decided her path to success was in the big city, so she dropped out of college and headed to New York. She found work as a dancer and also began singing, first with the Breakfast Club and then with Stephen Bray — who would become a regular collaborator — in Emmy. Her energy and sense of fun came to the attention of producer Mark Kamins, who helped her land a solo deal with Sire records. She teamed up with writer and producer Reggie Lucas, releasing two singles and recording her debut album. Not fully satisfied with the results — demonstrating a life-long dedication to her musical vision and a solid work ethic — she enlisted boyfriend Jellybean Benitez to re-mix several tracks. The final result was a delightful collection of dance tracks that slowly took hold of the pop world as well.

Title Madonna
Act Madonna
Label Sire Release Date July 27, 1983
Producer Reggie Lucas with Jellybean Benitez and Mark Kamins
U.S. Chart  #8 U.K. Chart  #37
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Lucky Star [#4]
  2. Borderline [#10]
  3. Burning Up
  4. I Know It
  5. Holiday [#16]
  6. Think of Me
  7. Physical Attraction
  8. Everybody

Let’s start with the hits. After two successful dance singles, Madonna released the album’s only track written by outside talent. Holiday is a joyous confection, a fun, infectious number that makes the most of her early talents. It entered the charts as the 1983 holiday season got started, and the combination of a seasonal feel and a smart song eased the track into the Top 20 in an impressive five-month run. As it faded, she released the Lucas-penned Borderline. A wistful bit of romantic frustration with a solid pop groove, it made a perfect second single, showing off a bit more depth and arguably her best vocal of the album. With an enviable 30 weeks on the Hot 100, it became her first Top 10 and kept up the momentum. Then came Lucky Star, one of the tracks she wrote herself. A splendid, happy celebration and a smart dance number, it combined her musical passions in one fabulous package. It went quickly to #4, making it clear that the future Queen of the Dance Floor was here to stay.

Lucky Star is also the perfect kick-off to the album. Madonna is brilliantly sequenced, a steady flow of varied grooves that could run uninterrupted in the clubs. Borderline is a smart second track, changing up the energy. Burning Up is a club sensation, a rush of hormones that you can — indeed you MUST — dance to. The singer wrote both that track and the side one closer, I Know It, a great love-is-doomed song that flirts with the classic girl group sound.

Side two opens with the shimmering Holiday. Up next is a declaration of independence, Think of Me, a great tell-off song delivered with just the right edge. Showing off more of her sense of musical history, it references the Queen of Soul while remaining distinctly Madonna’s own. Physical Attraction parallels Burning Up as a song of passion. Where the latter was urgent, however, this track is simmering. A mature I-want-you song — hinting at future directions in Madonna’s catalog — it’s the slowest dance number on the album, featuring some classic disco sounds in a shiny new wrapper. The album ends with a powerful exhortation. Everybody is a dance anthem, one of the finest in the Madonna catalog. It was her first single (#3 Dance and a near-miss on the Pop charts) and a perfect introduction to the star’s energy. It could have opened the album, but saving it for last is a great move, encouraging the listener to keep the glorious party going.

When Madonna started recording, dance music had been shoved off the charts and back into the clubs. Disco was dead, and while the occasional dance number sneaked onto the airwaves, the New Wave sounds of the second British Invasion dominated. Rather than force her talent into the popular mold, Madonna stayed true to her own vision. Slowly introducing her sound to the airwaves, she spent over a year easing out tracks from her debut. It worked. She made dance cool again and built a steady momentum that would catupult her into superstardom in 1985. It all started with a short, smart collection of fun tracks that may not be her finest effort, but is certainly the perfect introduction and holds up as one of the best launching pads in pop history.

FURTHER LISTENING: Madonna is one of the most successful and influential entertainers of the past 40 years. Her musical catalog is full of great songs: dance tracks, pop gems, rockers, and ballads. Her first four albums — excluding the lightweight, multi-artist soundtrack Who’s That Girl — are amazing. Like A Virgin is the perfect second album, a pop tour de force. True Blue shows more diversity and sophistication while clearly a part of a strong trajectory; it’s also one of the best-selling albums of all time (and my personal favorite). Like A Prayer is arguably her best long player, a stunning set of songs with energy, passion, and great vocals. Since then her many projects and media omnipresence have often overshadowed the music, but she has released a fairly consistent, if not always magical, series of albums. Ray of Light and Music are standouts.

Sadly, even though she has been a hit machine — the most successful artist on the Billboard dance chart and the most successful female artist on the Hot 100 — she lacks a single, solid compilation. The Immaculate Collection is a good overview of the first phase of her career, but has odd remixes, truncated songs, and some glaring omissions. 2009’s Celebration is a decent package, but suffers from the inclusion of some Immaculate versions. Both are good representations, but we’re still waiting for the definitive overview of  this amazing career.

Album of the Week, September 13: Dream A Little Dream by Mama Cass Elliot

Mama_Cass_Dream_a_little_dreamEllen Naomi Cohen was born in Baltimore and grew up in Alexandria, VA. She was bitten by the performing bug young, and left high school to pursue an acting career in New York. She began singing for fun, and pursued it as a serious career when she returned to the DC area for college. By that point she had assumed the name Cass Elliot as a tribute to Peggy Cass and to a friend who had died. She became the anchoring voice of the Big 3, which eventually transformed into the Mugwumps. Other members of that group helped found the Lovin’ Spoonful and the New Journeymen. When Denny Doherty convinced the latter’s leader, John Phillips, to add Elliot to the lineup, the quartet became the Mamas and the Papas. With her big voice and personality, Mama Cass became a focal point of the successful group, much to Phillips’ annoyance. When their label, Dunhill, chose to promote a single as “Mama Cass with the Mamas and Papas”, the growing fractures split the group. Taking that single as the launching point, Cass Elliot — stuck with the “Mama Cass” label at Dunhill’s insistence — began her solo career.

Title Dream A Little Dream
Act Mama Cass
Label Dunhill Release Date October 19, 1968
Producer John Simon
U.S. Chart  #87 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Dream A Little Dream [#12]
  2. California Earthquake [#67]
  3. The Room Nobody Lives In
  4. Talkin’ to Your Toothbrush
  5. Blues For Breakfast
  6. You Know Who I Am
  7. Rubber Band
  8. Long Time Loving You
  9. Jane, the Insane Dog Lady
  10. What Was I Thinking Of?
  11. Burn Your Hatred
  12. Sweet Believer
  13. Darling Be Home Soon
  14. Sisotowbell Lane

Elliot ran into producer John Simon at a Frank Zappa concert. They struck up a friendship, and she decided that he was the best choice to helm her project. A rather eclectic production, it featured the singer trying on a variety of musical styles. Very much a product of her passion, it hangs together because of the vision that she and Simon crafted together. Originally called “In the Words of My Friends”, the disc features tracks written by many of the pair’s famous colleagues.  They built the song list quickly and clearly enjoyed the process of making one of the most fun, quirky solo debuts of an era filled with group members going it alone.

Things kick off with the single, Dream A Little Dream. A decades-old song originally intended as a dance number, it benefits greatly from Elliot’s meditative delivery. The song opens  and closes with radio noise and announcements, setting up the disc as a journey through the stations of Elliot’s imagination. The second track is one of the singer’s finest moments, the delightful California Earthquake. It’s a surprisingly rock number for the pop singer with jazzy roots and glows with joyful energy.

John Sebastian contributed The Room Nobody Lives In, a song that seems lifted from a musical that never was. It’s a sad, quiet song that shows off Elliot’s ability to tell a story. That vein continues with the unexpected Talkin’ to Your Toothbrush, a Simon composition. It’s a smart look at relationship politics framing deep emotions in the trivial to underscore their universal quality. Simon had produced albums for the Band, and Richard Manuel contributed Blues For Breakfast, a song with great pop energy and a dark, folky framework. Side one wraps up with rising folk star Leonard Cohen’s You Know Who I Am. Elliot clearly understands the poet’s epic vision, creating an almost Spectoresque vehicle for it.

Where the first side was held together by radio sounds, the second is connected by odd musical moments — like flute warmups — feeling like  a performance set. Rubber Band is a great starting point for that theme, a goofy, infectious number that Elliot clearly enjoys. On Long Time Loving You, she lets loose with the pop energy that made her famous, surging through the song with enthusiasm. Simon’s Jane the Insane Dog Lady is set up as a carnival performance by a sister act, a nice conceit that makes the Vaudevillian tune work. Elliot’s sister Leah contributed What Was I Thinking Of, a torchy song of regret that shows off Elliot’s vocal power. It’s a highlight of the disc, with a slow build and a smash finish.

Graham Nash contributed Burn Your Hatred, a nice track that works on multiple levels. Ostensibly a breakup song, it also fits in with the burgeoning peace movement, showing off a glimmer of political consciousness amidst all the musical adventure. Sweet Believer follows the same pattern, a song of frustrated encouragement for a friend who can’t quite commit to moving forward in life. It’s a strong track and a great wrap-up to the proceedings.

Elliot and Simon had two other tracks recorded for the album; both are included on later releases and add significantly to the musical journey. John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful had already hit the charts with Darling Be Home Soon, but Elliot makes it very much her own. It’s one of Sebastian’s most clever songs, with smart wordplay and sincere emotion fusing together into a wonderful pop package. Elliot undersells her vocals just enough to convey that emotion without overwhelming it, demonstrating her great understanding of herself as a performer. Joni Mitchell’s elliptical vignette Sisotowbell Lane receives a similar treatment, while showing off a higher part of Elliot’s range. This originally neglected pair bring serve as a lovely coda to the album.

Cass Elliot’s sense of musical adventure is infectious. On this solo debut her talent shines in a dazzling variety of hues. Too eccentric for the public, it stalled out the enthusiasm for her solo career. She continued to pursue her distinctive vision in sold out Vegas shows and new albums, but label confusion and narrow market tastes stymied the breakthrough her talent deserved. She died — of a heart attack, not a sandwich incident — in 1974, only 32 years old. Her whole catalog is fascinating and filled with great songs, but nothing matches the joyous energy of Dream A Little Dream.

Album of the Week, August 2: Icehouse by Icehouse (aka Flowers)

IcehouseWeCanicehouse_flowersIva Davies is a classically trained oboist who decided to pursue a career in rock. He taught himself guitar and hooked up with bassist Keith Welsh in 1977. The pair called themselves Flowers and quickly built a band to play covers in the local Sydney pub circuit. Davies’ voice and musical inclinations were well suited to the sounds of Lou Reed, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Roxy Music. As they developed a following, Davies and keyboard player Michael Hoste began experimenting with a variety of synthesizers, slowly building Flowers’ own musical style. They signed with Regular Records in 1980, releasing the single Can’t Help Myself and the album Icehouse. The band and album were overnight sensations in Australia, which landed them an international distribution deal with Chrysalis. To avoid legal problems with the Scottish band the Flowers, they assumed the name of their debut album and became Icehouse.

Title Icehouse
Act Icehouse
Label Chrysalis Release Date  June 1981
Producer Cameron Allan and Iva Davies
U.S. Chart  #82 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks [U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Icehouse
  2. Can’t Help Myself
  3. Sister
  4. Walls
  5. Sons
  6. We Can Get Together [#62]
  7. Boulevarde
  8. Fatman
  9. Skin
  10. Not My Kind

At this point the band were a four-piece, with Davies and Welsh joined by drummer John Lloyd and keyboard player Anthony Smith. Hoste — who had been in and out of the band — co-wrote four tracks and provided some keyboard work but was gone from the group for good by the time the Chrysalis deal was inked. With the encouragement of their new label, Icehouse remixed the album and Davies recorded new vocals. Icehouse by Icehouse saw international release in 1981 with a new playing order and the lone dud, Nothing to Do, dropped entirely. Refined and bolstered by their success the band created a distinctive, compelling album that helped set the stage for 80s synth-pop.

Icehouse is an aptly named track, a chilly, haunting metaphor for isolation and madness. With a quietly gripping synth line and cold, martial drumming, it remains one of the band’s finest moments and a perfect track on which to hang their legacy. Can’t Help Myself has a churning, surging sound, over which Davies intones an urgent vocal. The breakthrough single perfectly captures obsession, nicely building the tension between wanting and NOT wanting to act on one’s impulses.

On Sister, Davies presents a slice of sci-fi fantasy, where robotic servants can fulfill one’s every need. The steady, mechanical keyboard work provides a flawless backdrop as the band crash away. A nice counterpoint to the title track, Walls finds the singer contemplating the security provided by boundaries. Davies explores his vocal range more fully, adding emotional punch to the song. Michael Hoste is the star of Sons, a creepy, compelling song of austere heroism. It’s a track that could have fallen off Bowie’s “Heroes”, right down to Davies’ intonation; Hoste provides an amazing piano figure that both supports that sensation and makes the song something very Icehouse.

We Can Get Together is a delightful song of romantic longing, a dance-floor infatuation with hope for more. It’s a great change of pace, showing off a rare fun side of the band, and is one of their best moments. Boulevarde is a rippling night drive with a great rock beat, and a strong marriage of guitar and synth. When the vocal kicks in, it almost feels like Gary Numan fronting the E Street Band. (Yes, that’s a good thing.) Fatman is a fun bit of fluff, an almost throwaway that works as a bridge song and another glimpse at the diverse sounds the band was exploring. On Skin, cranks up the subtle momentum that has run through the whole album, a brief, insistent track about identity.

Things wrap up — on both versions of album — with the stirring Not My Kind. Anthemic and sweeping, it’s a fine closer to an adventurous, carefully considered album. Over ten tracks and less than 40 minutes, Icehouse emerge from Flowers and announce themselves as a fresh talent with something grand to offer the changing musical landscape of the 80s. Seamlessly part of the New Wave era, Davies and company bring something original and Australian to the scene, launching a career that has lasted nearly 40 fascinating years.

FURTHER LISTENING: Iva Davies is the only constant in the band, with every album featuring  a slightly different lineup. As the vocalist and primary songwriter, he ensures that each album is a logical progression despite the changes, however, and almost every disc has something wonderful to offer. Man of Colours was the commercial breakthrough, filled with hits and easy sounds. It’s also a bit boring, but still a finer disc than many of its contemporaries. The best original album is 1986’s Measure for Measure, the bold statement that prepared the band for their breakthrough and shows more confidence and consistency that most Icehouse albums. White Heat, compiled in 2011, is a two-disc singles compilation that represents the many phases of Icehouse well.

Album of the Week, June 21: Where Are All the Nice Girls by Any Trouble

Any TroubleAny Trouble formed in Crewe, England in the late 70s, initially working as a covers band in local pubs. When their vocalist left, guitarist Clive Gregson took charge, assuming vocal duties and writing original songs for the group. With the amazing Phil Barnes providing a propulsive bass line, drummer Mel Harley keeping things nicely on track and guitarist Chris Parks rounding out the tight-knit sound, the group began to get noticed. Gregson — a bespectacled singer who wrote wry songs — was plagued by Elvis Costello comparisons. While there were similarities, his view of romance was more similar to that of Joe Jackson. As a bandleader, he could also be compared to Graham Parker, whose band the Rumour were second to none on the pub circuit. Gregson and Any Trouble were very much their own band, however, crafting energetic pub-punk songs with wistful observations and smart lyrics, usually pounded out fast and melodically. Signing to Stiff records (which fueled  the Costello comparisons), the quartet released a debut album that stands up proudly in the company of its peers.

Title Where Are All the Nice Girls
Act Any Trouble
Label Stiff Release Date 1980
Producer John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Second Choice
  2. Playing Bogart
  3. Foolish Pride
  4. Nice Girls
  5. Turning Up the Heat
  6. Romance
  7. The Hurt
  8. Girls Are Always Right
  9. Honolulu
  10. (Get You Off) The Hook

The band blast out of the gate with Second Choice. Bitter but restrained, it’s a flawless song of romantic resignation. Gregson’s vocals are amazing and the band crank out the music with power and passion. It’s an amazing single and one of the finest moments in Gregson’s long career. Somehow he manages to up the ante on track two. Playing Bogart is a magnificent song of hope against hope, a look at the “dreaded singles game”. Trying to be tough and tender like the title character, the singer notes that if if fails, “you’re better on your own.” The images are sharp and clear, the music is smart, and the vocal is aching with just the right edge of hope.

After that powerful one-two punch, the band keep up the energy. Foolish Pride moves the onus from circumstance and bad romance to the actions of the central character. It’s a good conceit that enriches the lyrical territory of the album nicely. Nice Girls is a slow song, a meditation on the challenges of idealizing romantic partners. What is an ideal? What makes a “nice girl”? What do we really want, and will it lead to happiness? A thoughtful analysis, it changes the pace but maintains the lyrical integrity while showing off the band at a different tempo.

Side one wraps up with Turning Up the Heat, an energetic number that looks at the mating rituals of the urban male. It’s a fun song that scorches by. Side two picks up with almost as much power as side one, with Romance wondering just how well those rituals pay off. It’s rare that a pub band singer would acknowledge that he cries himself to sleep, and Gregson makes it work as the bravado crumbles.

The Hurt picks up where Romance leaves off. It’s a solid song, continuing the album’s narrative and energy well. Girls Are Always Right features great harmony vocals and reads a bit like a Four Seasons look at life. Spiced up with a dash of irony, it’s a great number that changes the pace again. Honolulu is the disc’s lone throwaway, a fine bit of fantasy that continues the narrative but doesn’t stand out musically.

Things wrap up on another high note, however. (Get You Off) The Hook features a wink-and-a-nod title and a breakneck delivery. Collecting all the lessons learned in the previous songs, Gregson and company decide to make the best of things and find a good romance rather than a perfect one. Ten songs fly by, each building on the other and showing off a fun, amazing band. Where Are All the Nice Girls? is a nearly perfect song cycle and a should-have been hit that ranks among the finest hidden gems of the end of the punk era.

ALTERNATE TRACKS: When released in the US, the album featured a different set of songs. Re-releases and a long-delayed CD release created even more versions of the disc. Honolulu was frequently dropped, while two covers and two stunning originals showed up on various versions. The US vinyl version featured a great live cover of ABBA’s Name of the Game, with the band making the song truly their own; for licensing reasons, it has not appeared on any later version. They also recorded a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Growing Up as a b-side. It’s another smart choice that works well and fits onto the album. The definitive release opens with Yesterday’s Love, the band’s first single. While it isn’t as powerful as Second Choice, it’s a great song and works as a prequel to the proceedings. Another b-side, No Idea, is one of Gregson’s best early lyrics and a wonderful fit for the disc.

FURTHER LISTENING: Any Trouble recorded three more albums with minor lineup changes and a couple of long breaks during which Gregson recorded demos and pondered ending the group. Wheels In Motion is a very good album that suffers only by comparison to the debut. Any Trouble is a spotty album with moments of true brilliance and one of Gregson’s finest ballads, Touch and Go. Wrong End of the Race loses steam, offering a mixed bag of songs including a couple of needlessly reworked tracks. If you like Clive Gregson, all four are fine releases. Gregson recorded a solo album, joined Richard Thompson’s band, and had a long career with Christine Collister. When they called it quits in 1992, he began a long, quiet solo career, continuing his sharp observations and wonderful singing.

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