So Close – Dina Carroll (UK Album Chart Position -2)
With only 100 albums in my Essentials List there’s going to be a considerable number of greatest hits/compilations packages so a studio album has to be really good to stand out there and this one is really good. When Dina emerged with this debut it seemed like a new worldwide major talent had arrived and that she would be around for years. This was the biggest selling debut album by a British female artists of the 1990’s and one of the biggest selling albums of 1993. Dina also won Best British Female Vocalist at the Brits in 1994. Twenty two years later Dina seems to have been all but forgotten but this is where her star shone brightest. What happened to make Dina into one of those “Whatever happened to ……?” artists? Most of the songs are written by Dina together with Nigel Lowis who is also the main producer. It also contains input from then-hot duo Clivilles and Co (C&C Music Factory), C J Mackintosh, Howie B and Steve Boyer. This CD produced six UK Top 30 singles, an impressive statistic for a debut album.
After eight years or so of making the occasional recording with limited success Dina first appeared on the charts as part of Quartz Introducing Dina Carroll when their version of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” got to number 8 in the UK Singles Chart. This was at a time when miming to songs on “Top Of The Pops” was still commonplace and I remember Dina appearing and not doing too well in getting the vocals in synch. This stuck in my mind. Later on it was revealed that, throughout her career Dina suffered from paralysing stage fright and meant performing took increasingly a back seat. This may have been an early example of this and may go some way to explain why she did not become as huge as initial sales suggested she would. There were issues with management and record labels too, probably, as her second and last- to-date studio album would show a move to Mercury/First Avenue Records. However, let’s head back to 1993 for this shining example of British Pop R&B.
“So Close” opens with “Special Kind Of Love”. Written and produced by David Cole and Robert Clivilles this is a joyful start to proceedings. The producers had by this time notched up seven UK Top 40 hits as artists in their own right and their brand of uplifting gospelesque house is an excellent match for Dina’s vocals and a great workout for the backing singers. The duo took Dina to New York to record this, their first collaboration with a British act. This is a great start and got to number 16 when released as Dina’s second solo single. By the time Dina’s second CD was released David Cole had died of AIDs- related spinal meningitis at the age of 32 and so this happy union of talents could not be repeated.
“Hold On” resembles “Careless Whisper” in its sax introduction and is a tale of empowerment and survival with chunky rhythms and echoing background voices. The sax is there throughout giving it a soulful edge and Dina’s clear-as-cut glass voice powering through the song, written by Dina and main producer Nigel Lowris. There’s an interesting combination of urgent vocals and a kind of laid back feel from the instrumentation with the meandering sax. It all works very nicely. There is no denying that Dina is a great ballad singer and we get the first example of this on “This Time” (UK number 23 hit single). There is strong interplay between her and the background vocalists (two thirds of top British group Eternal who, not long after the release of this album would be having chart-toppers of their own with a similar pop/gospel/soul blend). This backing vocal/lead vocal combination are a feature of this CD as well as the big cavernous, echoing sound which turns this track into a real power-house and emphasises the quality of Dina’s vocals.
There wasn’t a vast amount of originality in mainstream popular music of the early 1990’s. This is a CD which respectfully shows its influences yet creates its own sound, which was very much of the time. “Falling” has a Lisa Stansfield “All Around The World” feel together with an Italian house vibe in the piano work and a touch of the Love Unlimited Orchestra in the cascading strings, all of which go to make it a solid dance track. “So Close”, one of the highspots, is a stylish ballad with elements of Phyllis Nelson’s surprise UK chart-topper “Move Closer”. This does seem to be a throwback to the Quiet Storm phase of the 80’s when ballads could make it big. This song could have been a vehicle for Natalie Cole, Anita Baker or Angela Bofill from eight or so years before but it’s a Dina Carroll/Nigel Lowis penned song with a lovely vocal performance. This track got to number 20 in the singles chart. There’s more classy balladry in the closing track “If I Knew You Then”. “Ain’t No Man” ups the pace again. It’s a track with the verve and drive of a Ce Ce Peniston hit. This was Dina’s debut solo chart hit and got to number 16. It’s a real sing-along dance track. In 1992 this sounded fresh and it still does twenty-three years later. This is a big song which needs a big vocal and Dina shines. There’s a Whitney- ish feel to “Heaven Sent” with a big gospel choir. This is not surprising as the choir arrangement is by no other than Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum. “Why Did I Let You Go?” reminds me of the type of songs that the superior boy bands were turning out at the time combined with an acid jazz feel to the instrumentation.
“Express” is unlike anything else on the album. A funky track with a honking sax – Dina comes off like a one-woman En Vogue in this club stomper. The fifth single it reached number 12. .“You’ll Never Know” has a lengthy dramatic instrumental build-up and a real tension is maintained throughout the song. This is the second track where En Vogue spring to mind yet that big sound and big voice gives it an identity all of its own. It is, however, the 6th single which made it seem that A&M were just toying with us, saving the best till last. There cannot be many occasions where the sixth hit single on an album becomes the biggest hit. But then again, it is the best track. A top 3 single ten months after the album first went into the charts and probably one of the reasons for the longevity of this album (63 weeks) “Don’t Be A Stranger” is a gem from its dramatic introduction. Different writers for this track (Coral Gordon and Geoff Gurd) but it fits in beautifully with the concept and with Dina on lead and background vocals this is a great achievement. There’s a build up that Celine Dion would have been proud of. This is Dina’s best moment.
Considering the quality of this album it is extraordinary that Dina did not break it big in America. There were rumours that record honcho and then husband of Mariah Carey, Tommy Mottola was not keen on promoting Dina because he felt she would threaten Mariah’s sales. It’s unlikely this would happen. Dina’s voice would have appealed to those who found Mariah too trill-y and this selection of songs Mariah would no doubt have given her high notes for as she never came up with an album of this consistency. So what happened to Dina Carroll? It’s not as if she faded away with diminishing sales. Her version of the “Sunset Boulevard” chestnut “The Perfect Year” gave her a Top 5 single at Xmas 1993 and “Escaping” got into the Top 3 as a taster for the second CD. This 1996 follow-up “Only Human” is a strong collection of songs and also reached number 2 in the UK album charts, although it faded quite quickly. Like “So Close” it contains songs that seem to have stood the test of time. In 1998 and 1999 she had two more top 20 singles but no accompanying album. “So Close” and “Only Human” are to date Dina’s only studio album releases. A 2001 song “Someone Like You” scraped into the Top 40 but then appeared on the “Bridget Jones Diary” soundtrack and is according to Spotify Dina’s most streamed song. All these tracks I’ve mentioned (together with the collaboration with Quartz) are on her 2001 compilation “The Very Best Of…”. I wouldn’t argue if you said this would be the more essential purchase, but because I bought the first two CDs I didn’t need to get it.
I think it’s time to reclaim Dina Carroll as a big British star. Let’s get her music back into the limelight again and get her back as a recording artist. Buying, downloading or streaming this debut would be a very good start.
At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £2.15 new and used from £0.01. American listeners can buy new from $9.99 and used from $0.01. It is available to download for £5.99 or $9.49. This CD together with others by Dina Carroll (including “The Very Best Of”) is available to stream from Spotify.