If I Can Dream – Elvis Presley & The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (2015) – A Music Now Review

musicnowCurrently sitting at the summit of the UK Top 40 album charts is this extraordinary album which I, together with a considerable proportion of the population have been listening to over the last couple of weeks.  Extraordinary, in terms of remit as this resurrects Elvis, nearly 40 years dead, with new orchestral arrangements of fourteen of his songs and extraordinary in terms of achievement as his 12th number 1 album cements his position as the biggest male solo artist, bringing him level with Madonna and three behind the Beatles.  Extraordinary  also in terms of longevity, it is now 59 years since his first number 1 album.  Is it, however, extraordinary in terms of musical content?  This is what I wanted to find out…..

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I’ve never been a big Elvis fan.  I think the timing was wrong.  My parents favoured the music of the 40’s and were busy bringing up children so they missed out on the rock and roll era.  My sisters and I began our record buying in the 60’s and favoured the British sounds and Motown singles that were dominating the charts.  As a result I didn’t grow up around Elvis’ music, so do not have the lifelong devotion towards him shared by those slightly older and younger than me. By the time Elvis died I was in those sneering early teenage years when everything had to be cool and relevant and I didn’t perceive Elvis to be either.  I also thought he was elderly – which seems an extraordinary thing to think of someone of 42, but that’s the weird time perception of youth.    My sole memory of the music of Elvis is a copy of his sheet music for 1969’s “In The Ghetto” which was bought by my oldest sister in her hippy phase which involved walking around with a guitar strapped to her back.  We did use to have to listen to her version of this song, which involved her singing it whilst doing the odd bit of chordless strumming.  I can still hear her drama-laden vibrant strum between the “In The Ghetto” and “as her young man dies”.  In fact I hear it even when it’s not on Elvis’ version.  I hear it on the version of this CD with the Royal Philharmonic accompanying his vocals, so imprinted is it on my memory.  It did teach me I never wanted to play the guitar and when it was no longer such a fashion accessory my sister quietly abandoned it too, although the sheet music hung around for some years “just in case”.

I was fascinated as to just what these orchestral rearrangements would add to the music of Elvis Presley.  Ex-wife Priscilla (and executive producer of the project) has stated  “ He would have loved to play with such a prestigious symphony orchestra.” And  ;

“This is an album that Elvis always really wanted to do and he would have been so pleased to know his fans are still there and they continue to love his music… The most talented team put this album together and helped us all realize an unfulfilled dream.”

 There is obviously the market there and this just cannot be diehard Elvis collectors putting it up there amongst the big sellers of the year.  These are people rediscovering or even finding Elvis for the first time and choosing to purchase these orchestral versions.  With Classic FM being the fastest growing radio station in the country perhaps we’ve got more used to listening to orchestral music and so this whole concept it appealing to the pop, rock, casual music listener and classical music fan.  If this is so, then it is a stroke of marketing genius.

But is it any good?  First of all it would depend on how you view the whole concept of remaking a dead artist’s back catalogue.  It would also depend on how you would view an orchestra being introduced onto some tracks where an orchestra hadn’t been before.  In the old days it was called “sweetening” and it was often the difference between an R&B track and an artist like Pat Boone’s cover of the same track, which was “sweetened” by lush strings and choral voices.  If you can remember the difference between Fats Domino’s version of “Aint That A Shame” and Boone’s chart-topping cover you might feel wary of tracks like “Steamroller Blues” which I am sure would not have had an orchestral feel.  It would also depend on how you feel about the pairing of the dead with the living.  This was a technique which was eerie and sublime when Natalie Cole did it with her father but has been over-used of late to become somewhat macabre- Barry Manilow in 2014 put out “My Dream Duets” – a whole album dedicated to such pairings which felt, ultimately, disturbing.  On this CD it’s used for just one track as Michael Bublé “duets” with The King on “Fever”.

So what was I imagining before the first listen?  Big arrangements, lush orchestrations.  A couple of the songs have big sounds already – “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “American Trilogy” for example.  I imagined that these new versions would see them soaring into the stratosphere.  On the whole, that doesn’t really happen.  A couple of the songs you would need to know quite well to perceive much difference from the original.

The most successful of the musical marriages between these unlikely partners is for me the first track “Burning Love”.  A neo-classical introduction opens this brilliantly before Elvis’ familiar vocal kicks in.  This has a really big sound with cascading, soaring strings and the driving rhythms of the original.  This could be a hit single over again and may just be an improvement on the 1972 UK#7, US#2 hit.  I did think if the rest of the album kept up this standard it would be a thrilling proposition.  We in Europe do not mind a bit of meddling with our Elvis – witness his 18th number 1 UK single  “A Little Less Conversation” from 2002 originally recorded for a 1968 movie and re-mixed in a pairing with Dutch DJ  JXL which turned a pacy lesser-known rocking song into a dance track.

I also really like a couple of the other tracks- “Love Me Tender” once again has a beautiful introduction and the arrangement enhances the inherent simplicity of this song, although maybe I’m just getting slushy and sentimental and would now favour this in its original version.  I’ve always felt it’s dragged a bit as a song but the orchestra seems to flesh it out a bit and because of that it works.  It’s also a big thumbs-up for a song I was not at all familiar with “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”, an early Neil Diamond song which is lovely.  “Fever” will  please the legions of Bublé fans, although maybe I’ve heard too many versions of this song.  I do think the choice of songs is quite clever, there’s no meddling with the rock and roll classics, it’s either the ballads or later tracks.  Some are less familiar (“Steam Roller Blues”) and some (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” “How Great Thou Art”) are songs that could take the additional orchestrations.  I do think, overall, the new arrangements are more subtle than I was expecting them to be.  Is that a good thing?  Not absolutely sure…..

Of course, there can be no real changes to tempo without affecting the voice and it is the original vocal tracks that are being used.  Occasionally living artists have gone down the orchestral path – apparently Sting and Elvis Costello have both dabbled with this but then they, being living, are able to adjust their vocal performances.  This is perhaps best illustrated by Chaka Khan whose vocals on her 2004 album “Classikhan” with the London Symphony Orchestra were performed with such gusto that it would have had the percussion players weeping in submission!  The team working with this project would not have had that luxury.

So is the project a success?  Well, it had me listening to and enjoying an Elvis Presley album, which is not something I would have often done.  The fans on Amazon are certainly giving it the thumbs up with 314 out of 366 of current reviewers giving it 5 stars and only 19 not on board with the project rating it 1 or 2 stars.  The new versions of the more well-known tracks are unlikely to supercede the originals (although “Burning Love” certainly does it for me) but the balance of these with lesser known and good solid songs ripe for extra orchestration makes the whole thing highly worthwhile and the words “cheap” and “cash-in” never entered my head.  I think I agree with Priscilla Presley.  This is a respectful, well-executed project which is deservedly going to be in a lot of people’s Christmas stockings this year.

 

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“If I Can Dream” is released on RCA records and is currently available in the UK on Amazon from £9.99 and as a download for £8.09.  It is also available to stream on Spotify.  The US version is released on Legacy with a moody black and white cover (seen above)  and can be purchased from $10.99.

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs – Grace Jones (2015) – A Real Life Review

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This is the book I’ve waited years to be written.  Over the years I’ve completed a number of publisher surveys regarding Celebrity Biographies,  a question often asked is “Who would you most like to write their autobiography?”  Without fail I always answer “Grace Jones” and here at long last it is.

There are a number of reasons I wanted to read this book and ordered it from Amazon so it would be delivered on the day it came out.  Firstly, Grace is a true original, there really is no-one like her.  Also, she must surely have a story to tell, the people she has known, the whole surviving the hedonism of the 70’s thing, the whole Art, Celebrity, Music, Fashion involvement, but perhaps the most significant for me was because the image of Grace Jones is so strong, I wanted to know how much of the real Grace would be allowed to filter through in her life story.

We’re not hiding the ghost-writer here.  This is Grace’s story as told to Paul Morley.  British writer Paul has spent years as a leading music writer, has participated in the madness of the music business itself as member of the Art of Noise and worked with Grace on her 1985 “Slave To The Rhythm” album project.  He obviously has the experience and trust to get the best out of Grace and this is the result.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the importance of image and her background as a model, my first introduction to Grace Jones was through a photograph.  It was probably in “Blues & Soul” magazine or “Record Mirror” in 1977 and through the wonders of the internet I can produce this picture here

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At the time Grace had just released her first album and there were stories of her performing in New York nightclubs with whips and a leopard, arriving on the back of a Harley Davidson, performing in under-dressed extravaganzas which although commonplace today were really quite revolutionary then .  On the strength of the picture alone I went out and bought the album, without hearing a note from it.  I had to hear what the woman who looked like this sounded like.

Grace had got into music through modelling.  Because of her skin colour and her determination not to fit into a round hole she moved to Paris and became at one time one third of a modelling agency whose other two signings were women who became life-long friends, Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.  She became for a while The Disco Queen; recreated herself in 1980 with a completely different sound and became a household name.  Movies beckoned, most significantly, the part of Mayday in the Bond film “A View To A Kill”.  In recent years we know her for hula-hooping her way through the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration concert and still turning out music with her UK Chart album success “Hurricane” in 2008- over 30 years after her first album release.

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Grace and close friend Jerry Hall

Grace is surrounded in her own mythology.  Part of this has been because of the manipulation of her image by one time lover and father of her son, French artist Jean-Paul Goude which has made her seem at various times warrior-like, masculine, robotic, machine-like, animalistic even insect-like.  Grace has both exposed herself  totally and hidden herself totally and the lines between what is real and what is artistic representation have been more blurred for her than for any other performer.  Her background is chilling – a harsh upbringing amongst a very religious family in Jamaica which saw regular beatings and instilled in Grace the need to rebel.  Moving to be with her parents to Syracuse, USA at a time where there was greater freedom certainly turned her head and  from then there was no looking back, and very few regrets.  Grace is excellent in this book in conveying the difficulties of her background and what that has meant for her life.

But one thing you are never going to find from Grace is her age.  Time is a shifting concept for her and she goes to great lengths to explain why this number cannot be revealed.

“The world likes to know the age of someone, so I would often be asked.  I am honestly never sure, so when it comes to working it out, to work out how old I am,  I take something important, like my son’s age, and if he is thirty-three, and I was, say, twenty-nine when I had him, then I do the math.  So if you ask me now how old I am, nothing comes to mind straightaway.  To some extent, it could be any number.  Even then I am not entirely sure; it’s not because I am hiding my age, embarrassed or annoyed by it, but because it is not something I keep to hand.  It’s not the most important thing about me.  There are more important things about me than my age that will give you a better idea of who and what I am.”

The agelessness of Grace Jones is part of the myth.  She does look much the same as she did forty years ago but her view of time does give a kind of vagueness to all events and this autobiography lacks the usual chronological approach- although then again she can be hot on details.  It’s part of the contradictory thing which Grace admits is part of her make-up.

I was particularly fascinated by her views on the Disco Years, Studio 54 and her close friendship with Andy Warhol.   She gossips a little but not too much.  She is totally open with certain aspects of her relationships with the men in her life but is more likely to chronicle the break-down rather than the good times.  The whole thing is imbued with the philosophy of Grace and that is really quite intriguing.  This book is not therapy as Grace does not believe that helps but she is able to justify, explain and record her actions.  In the UK she is well known for slapping TV chat show host Russell Harty on his television show in an action that was obviously significant for her as it helped to both make and threaten her career.  This she places in context as she does many of her “wilder times”.  The Grace of now is a grandmother, who loves to swim, watch tennis and do jigsaws but can still become the performance Grace, the party Grace , the scary Grace.

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Grace and close friend Andy Warhol

I would have liked more photographs.  There are two sections of photos within the book.  These are slightly random and most come from Grace’s private collection.  There are times within the book when specific photos are being discussed.  I would have liked a third section of photos of those pictures and pieces of artwork relevant to the text.

The title of the book refers to a line in the song “Art Groupie” penned by Grace, which appeared on her 1981 “Nightclubbing” album.  The opening lines are;

I’ll never write my memoirs,
There’s nothing in my book,

After reading this volume that is certainly not true, although Grace said when she wrote these lyrics she believed every word.  I loved being immersed into this world of Grace Jones – I think she is one of the most significant performers of the last 50 years and we should treasure her.  Her autobiography does not shatter many illusions but does a lot to round out the character.  She and Paul Morley are to be congratulated for producing probably the only celebrity biography worth reading this year.

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“I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster

100 Essential Books – The Disco Files 1973-78- Vince Aletti (DJhistory.com 1998)

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I spent ages reading this book (44 days to be exact).  It wasn’t that it was a slog.  It was such a rich, nostalgic, evocative book that I couldn’t read it quickly.

We’re talking niche writing here and I may only be interesting a small handful of people with my review of this book but that’s fine – It was such a labour of love on behalf of its author that even those with only a limited interest in the subject matter should be encouraged to seek this one out.  Sometimes all that is needed is passion –and Vince Aletti’s certainly comes across in this book. It was that passion and incredible intention to detail I found so captivating.

From 1974-1978 Aletti wrote a column “Disco File” in the American magazine “Record World” and these are his columns, week by week, new release by new release, club chart by club chart  providing an important body of work on disco music and perhaps the most comprehensive, chronological study of a popular music genre.  The dates are significant- Aletti was there right from the start, watched the phenomenon sweep the world, from the underground New York clubs peopled by the initially largely gay, black and Hispanic audience until it imploded (in America anyway) in the late 70’s fuelled by what was largely a racist, homophobic Rock Music backlash.  He is credited as writing one of the first articles about Disco for “Rolling Stone” magazine in 1973 (this article forms part of the introduction). I loved this book and spent quite a bit of money trawling obscure downloads from Amazon and building on my music collection.   I have a thing about obsessives.  Aletti did have a British equivalent, a man called James Hamilton who wrote a column in “Record Mirror” at much the same time.  For a time it became important for DJ’s to know how many beats per minute were in a track to enable them to mix them together without bewildering dancers.  In the absence of any sophisticated way of measuring this Hamilton would reputedly arm himself with wristwatch and count and did this for every track he listed!

Prior to reading this the ultimate disco music reference book has been the very likeable “Saturday Night Forever” by Alan Jones & Jussi Kantonen (Mainsteam 1999).  This work is more important as it is a primary source with which we can see how history has skewed the importance of some artists in this genre (eg; The Bee Gees who for the general public are synonymous with Disco) to the detriment of others who better caught the imagination of their contemporaries.   The development of the clubs over the time, from the sweaty warehouses to the monster that Studio 54 became can also be clearly tracked.

In each column Aletti wrote about what was new, what was happening and published a number of club charts which he collated together to make a Disco File Top 20.  I’ve always been something of a music chart nerd so this might explain some of the appeal of this book to me.  Just opening it at random I am transported back to the 1970’s and Aletti’s column is, like Disco Music itself, full of surprises.

My random opening is August 6th 1977 and in his column Aletti has this surprise to reveal;

“Much of the Demis Roussos album (“The Demis Roussos Magic” on Mercury) is heavy-handed and sentimental and slow, but two tracks – “Let It Happen” (4.04) and “I Dig You” (4.17) are real departures, dipping as they do into the particularly European, lushly electronic sound dominating the disco charts right now.  Roussos’ version is closer to Randy Pie and Barrabas than Love & Kisses and Donna Summer, but there are touches of both styles, and plenty of synthesizers, in these two cuts.  Left field, perhaps, but worth checking into…………..”

Number 1 in the Disco File Chart that week was Donna Summer and “I Feel Love” which was also number 1 the same week in the UK charts showing how mainstream this formerly underground music had become and what about Demis Roussos as a disco star?  Who would have thought….  Actually, in his appraisal of this artist’s  album Aletti may have been hastening disco’s demise as the bandwagon-jumping that was occurring made disco music ubiquitous and began to alienate its original fans.  Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones began to dip their toes in the Disco Pool amongst many others.  The nadir that is often cited is Ethel Merman who made a Disco album in 1979 (I have a copy of it and it is something of a guilty pleasure). The soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” was released at the end of 1977 and became one of the biggest selling albums of all time around the world.  Aletti does not realise that the success of this would also be a millstone around Disco music’s neck. It was just another release amongst many that week.  He recognises the album as

“ a fine collection of new and familiar material, and it certainly whets our appetite to finally see the film.  (It should be noted that disco music also forms the bulk of the material on Columbia’s “Looking For Mr Goodbar” sound track album too).

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By the time Aletti gave up his column, the secret world of disco he loved so much was not so secret any more and the establishments were no longer about the music, but about the money.  The “Disco Sucks” movement drove Disco and Dance music back into the underground in the USA (we Europeans never totally let it go) back to the Latin, gay and African American clubs it emerged from morphing eventually into the Club Dance music which is the mainstay of the industry still today some forty-two years after Aletti began chronicling the rise of this popular music form.

Aletti survived Disco – The author info at the beginning of the book states he went on to become a senior editor at The Village Voice and photography critic at The New Yorker.  “He donated his record collection to the Experience Music Project, but still has one of the greatest collections of fashion magazines in the world.”  Vince Aletti, I salute you!

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“The Disco Files 1973-78” was published in 1998 by DJhistory.com

100 Essential CDs – Number 94 –Rockferry– Duffy

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Rockferry – Duffy  (A&M 2008)

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position – 4

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And now for the second appearance of a Welsh Female Singer on my Essential CD countdown list, but unlike the first artist, a certain Dame with a sixty year recording career this is a flame which shone very brightly but without longevity.

This debut album was certainly one of the musical highlights of 2008 and was extremely successful.  In the UK it stayed at number 1 for five weeks and remained in the charts for virtually two years.  In the US, where it spawned just the one Top 30 single, the album did exceptionally well reaching the Top 5.  Critically acclaimed as well as popular, it won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal album and Best Album at the Brits in 1991 where Duffy became a triple award winner with victories in the Best British Female and Best British Breakthrough Act.

At this time British Females were enjoying a turn- about in fortunes caused at least in part by the huge international success of Amy Winehouse whose “Black To Black” had been released in 2006.  Just a month before “Rockferry” charted, Adele’s first album “19” made the charts.  I would concur with the Brits panel that Duffy had the better album. It’s surprisingly short coming in at just under 38 mins, so is not the greatest value for money CD on the list, but it is an album of consistently high quality.  (The Deluxe edition, which I do not own, offers 7 more songs, so is certainly worth considering but it is the original version 10 tracker I am reviewing today).

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Seven years on there has been the follow-up album which only achieved a fraction of the sales of its predecessors and not a great deal since.  At the time it seemed that Duffy would become a long-lasting world-wide star.  On the basis of this album I would hope we are in  just a career hiatus rather than a permanent stall.

All of the songs were co-written by Duffy alongside three separate songwriting/ production teams.  These are ex- Suede member and Guitar Legend Bernard Butler, Steve Booker and Jimmy Hogarth.  Joining Duffy and Hogarth in songwriting is Eg White, who was responsible for perhaps the best song of the 00’s, “Leave Right Now” by Will Young (2003).  The album contained three Top 40 singles (four if you count “Rain On Your Parade” from the Deluxe edition), and a debut single which reached 45.

Despite this debut single the first most people would have heard from Aimee Ann Duffy was the sublime “Mercy”.  This track soared to the top of the charts just a couple of weeks before the release of the album and became an international hit (although quite a lowly 27 in the USA where it remains her only hit single).  It was the reason why many people purchased the album and it also reached the top spot in amongst other places, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland.  It captivated us all because it managed to sound both fresh and like the coolest forgotten Northern Soul track.  The Wigan-Casino like video reinforced these connections but it sold like no other Northern Soul track had.  The voice was different to all other female singers around at the time.  The first time I heard it I actually wondered if it was an old track by Lulu remixed to give it a new Noughties coolness.  It does seem to have that universal appeal of songs such as “Happy” and “Rehab” and is the most danceable track on the album.  Duffy wrote this alongside Steve Booker.  He has since gained another huge hit with John Newman’s “Love Me Again” which can very much be seen as a companion piece to this track.   Despite the tempo it does fit in with the over-riding theme of the album.

“Rockferry” is an album of failed relationships- the need to tell someone it’s over, the need to move on. This is achieved with a range of musical styles. On most of the tracks there is a passivity, a recognition of the need to change but not being quite able to bring that about.  Obviously, the most striking thing about the album is Duffy’s voice and there is a raspiness to it which can also show pain and vulnerability- rather like the greatest of soul singers and it creates a sound which fits in perfectly with the album themes.   The other Steve Booker track “Stepping Stone” has more of an Adele/Paloma Faith feel.  It reached number 21 as a UK single and sees Duffy showing determination not to patch things up with an ex who broke her heart.  It is an extremely effective track.

The big hit for the Duffy/Jimmy Hogarth/ Eg White team was the delicious “Warwick Avenue” (UK#3) which joins the select group of hit songs named after tube stations (Baker Street, Waterloo, Uxbridge – are there any more?  Okay, not Uxbridge, that’s where I grew up and I think I would know if it featured in a hit song).  There’s a real story to this – an arrangement has been made to meet at Warwick Avenue for a talk to try and sort things out but there is the distinct impression that the mind has been made up, the actual talk might not do much good, relationship-wise, but the neutral territory will help the line to be drawn under the failed romance.  This is a painful, vulnerable track which was enhanced by a very simple video of Duffy sitting in the back of a cab shedding the most heartfelt tears since the video of Sinead O Connor’s “Nothing Compares To You”.  Their “Hanging On Too Long” has a gospelesque feel and reflects the desire to move on with a life- the difficulty of doing this is represented in “I’m Scared”- perhaps emotionally the lowest point on the album.  Fear has replaced the relationship and Duffy sings of a time where;

Dust gathers on my stereo
‘Cause I can’t bear to hear the radio
The piano sits in a shaded space
With a picture of your face

I’m scared to face another day
‘Cause the fear in me just won’t go away
In an instant you were gone and I’m scared

 

The feelings at the end of a relationship are very effectively and very sensitively handled in this song.

The Bernard Butler co-written and produced tracks have a very big sound which is reminiscent of the work he did as McAlmont & Butler (David McAlmont helps out on backing vocals on a couple of these tracks).  The simplest on display is the bluesy “Syrup and Honey” which may be my least favourite track on the album.  The title track opens the album and from the introduction we get the feel of an updated Shangri-Las track, a sound which served Amy Winehouse so well on her “Back To Black”, but this has a rockier edge than Winehouse and a Butler guitar solo.  It’s an epic production which does slightly overwhelm the song.  Rock Ferry is an area of the Wirral where Duffy’s father grew up.  It’s a very good starter to the album as the stall is being set out here.  It shows the sound and the performer to very good effect.  The best Butler/Duffy collaboration is saved to the end track, and this has become my favourite track from the CD.  “Distant Dreamer” is the track that bucks the trend.  It’s the one that says enough of this misery let’s give optimism a chance and as such it’s a perfect conclusion to the album as the message of hope brings us around to full circle.  This is a great track with an excellent vocal performance and boy does it build.  There is a real Spector-ish Wall of Sound going on here and the whole thing gets so big, with its honking sax and brass which almost sound like bagpipes.  Listening to this I almost expect Roy Wood and Wizzard to come passing through.  After so much dealing with failure throughout “Rockferry” its great to hear lyrics like;

I’m thinking about, all the things
I’d like to do in my life
I’m a dreamer, a distant dreamer
Dreaming far away from today

The whole thing is exhausting in its intensity and leaves the leaver feeling drained and yet exhilarated by such empowerment and knowing that Duffy will survive.  There’s also a clever calm down before the end which further reinforces the full circle of the songs that have gone before.

Inexplicably, somewhere between the release of this album and Duffy’s second 2010’s “Endlessly” the record buying public fell out of love with her.  There’s nothing wrong with the follow-up, although the only track released as a single “Well Well Well” was not the best.  The album got to number 9 and to 72 in the USA and the single didn’t make the UK Top 40.  It’s not essential like “Rockferry” yet there are a good set of songs and it should have sold better.  This must have hurt hard.  Since 2010 Duffy has taken a back seat music-wise and concentrated on an acting career (her literal back seat performance in the “Warwick Avenue” is testament to her ability here).  This album is, however, so well loved that there must surely be a career revival in the future.  There is no doubt that she has been eclipsed by artists such as Adele, Paloma Faith, Jessie J and Jess Glynn but there is room in the upper reaches of the charts for this extremely talented writer and performer.

At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £3.47 new and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £4.99. American listeners can buy new from $10.66 and used from $0.01 and as a download for $9.49.   In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

 

 

 

100 Essential Albums – Number 26 – Bell’s A Poppin’- Madeline Bell (1967/2004)

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Something a little more obscure here and a CD I discovered relatively recently. Madeline Bell is best known in the UK as lead singer of Blue Mink who scored four Top 10 chart singles in the early 70’s. She was regularly used for advertising jingles and forged a career as a top session singer. She had strong associations with Dusty Springfield. She began recording over here in the mid 60’s when she relocated to London from New Jersey. Periodically there were solo releases and she scored her only Top 40 US chart position when her 1968 version of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” got to number 26 in 1968. This track is included on this CD. The album “Bells A Poppin” was originally released on Philips (same label as Dusty) in 1967 and this RPM 2004 CD release has the tracks from the album together with tracks from singles from around the same period. It is an excellent mix of tracks which should have seen Bell become a household name.   Produced by Johnny Franz, who had huge success with his work with Dusty and The Walker Brothers and had big hits for Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan and many other British acts under his belt by the time he saw star potential in Bell. The late 60’s was an excellent time for songwriting and the song selection on this is first class. As on many UK albums of this era, it is mainly cover versions, but here most of the songs would be not very well known which gave Madeline the chance to really make them her own.

Kicking things of is “Picture Me Gone”. This is a track which cemented Madeline’s reputation on the UK Northern Soul scene. Kev Roberts’ 2000 tome “Northern Soul Top 500” has this listed as number 467 of all time. The backing singers are there from the get-go with the taunting refrain – “picture me in someone else’s arms, picture me making love to him”, then Madeline eases into what is a very good song. It manages to be both very smooth and very jangly, creating an air of tension which works so well. It is inexplicable that this did not make the charts when released as a single. You can’t help feeling that a version by Sandie Shaw, Cilla, Lulu or Dusty would have scored big. That feeling does not go away throughout this CD. It really is a showcase of Madeline’s talents, you do get more in the way of Northern Soul Stompers (her version of Shirley Ellis’ numbers driven “Soul Time” and “Don’t Come Running To Me”). There’s songs written by equally under-rated talents, a couple of early Ashford and Simpson compositions and one written by Doris Troy, who like Bell and other American girls like PP Arnold were regular visitors to the UK where they had higher visibility than in their homeland. There’s a couple of Bacharach/David songs which can’t help but make comparisons to Dionne Warwick and Bell’s American hit was originally recorded by Dionne’s sister, Dee Dee, another greatly under-rated sixties singer. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is best known as a Top 3 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969 by the pairing of supergroups Supremes and The Temptations. Madeline’s version is more subtle and less sugary than this and works very nicely. There’s a Lennon/McCartney track “You Won’t See Me” given a delicious girl-group feel; a rewritten Italian song (this was big business for girl singers in the sixties, there was considerable trawling for songs which would work well translated, think Dusty’s “You Don’t Have To See You Love Me” and Cilla’s “You’re My World”). Big productions, emotive lyrics, Madeline’s take on “It Makes No Difference Now” fits the bill exactly. Of the songs that would be familiar to the record-buyers of the time “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” is given a delightful Spanish Mariachi feel and “Climb Every Mountain” was put out as a single in 1967 probably to capitalise on the continuing success of the film version of “Sound Of Music”. There’s a real warmth to this version (I’ve always thought it to be a rather cold song). An effortless vocal performance over soaring violins make this a cover of a “Sound Of Music” song which has perhaps not been bettered since Mary J Blige recently tackled “My Favourite Things”. In “Mercy Mercy Mercy” there’s a Southern Soul feel with a gospel edge to Madeline’s voice which is surprisingly effective for an orchestral recording session in London in the mid 60’s. And of course there is the Dusty connection. Sleeve notes do not tell us whether Dusty was vocally present on these tracks (although it is highly likely she appears uncredited in background) but “I’m Gonna Leave You” was co-written by the two girls and they both recorded it and Dusty and Johnny Franz redid Jerry Butler’s “Mr Dream Merchant” for her 1968 “Definitely..Dusty” album. I prefer the arrangement of this haunting, plaintive melody on Bell’s earlier version.

All in all this is a top class British production by a top class Black American singer. Maybe the mid 60’s was not ready for such a combination but it’s a sheer delight that these recordings have survived to show what should have been.

At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £12.86 new, from £10.73 used or American listeners can buy new for $15.23, used for $14.98. It is not currently available as a download in the UK or on Spotify.

 

100 Essential Albums – Number 80- 20 Of The Best – Shirley Bassey (1996)

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I think everyone needs some Shirley Bassey in their music collection. There are times when only the Dame’s sense of heightened drama and unique interpretations of songs will do. With a career spanning over so many decades it can be hard to know where to begin. Studio albums can be a little patchy, song choice is not always on point but the novice cannot go wrong by choosing from one of her many compilations. Having said that a few years back the label BGO paired her studio albums and ended up with some first class material (try “You Take My Heart Away/Yesterdays” or “Never Never Never/Good Bad And Beautiful” the latter featuring the superb track “Living” where Shirley goes into battle with a Welsh Male Voice Choir) . Anyone looking for a more contemporary edge to their Bassey should check out her 2009 “The Performance” where she was produced by David Arnold and had songs especially written for the album by the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, Rufus Wainwright, Pet Shop Boys and KT Tunstell to good effect. Anyone wanting a bit more getting- ready- to- go- out- on- a- Saturday night with their Bassey should consider her “Diamonds Are Forever (The Remix Album) where a selection of her familiar hits are remixed by names such as Groove Armada, Kenny Dope and Mantronix for a selection of tunes which end up more bangin’ than cheesy. For me, if I could only have one Bassey CD on my shelves the one I would choose would be this, my 80th best CD of all time.   Budget label Music For Pleasure put this out in 1996   It picks up the Bassey story from 1960, by which time she had scored 6 Top 40 singles (her first number one the sublime “As I Love You”dating from 1958 isn’t actually on this collection). However from first track “As Long As He Needs Me” it features in chronological order all of her big hit singles to 1973’s “Never Never Never”. Of course, you get the ones everyone knows “Big Spender”, “Diamonds Are Forever” and both sides of her 1961 Double A sided number one “Reach For The Stars/Climb Every Mountain”, but amongst the lesser known tracks “Gone” her number 36 1964 is a dramatic, string-laden ballad which ranks among her best. And then of course there’s “Goldfinger”, the archetypal Bond Theme (I was surprised Shirley didn’t cover Adele’s “Skyfall” on her most recent album, as it sounds like a song written for her). “Goldfinger” is the song most associated with Bassey yet amazingly only reached 21 in the charts in 1964 (it was however her only US hit single reaching number 8). It was good to see on a guest spot on “Strictly Come Dancing” last year she is still able to reach that incredible final note at the age of 78. Dame Shirley Bassey is a true British living legend and this CD is testament to this.

At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £6.03 new, from 1p used or as a download for £5.49.  It can also be streamed on Spotify. American listeners can buy new for $16.88, used for $0.01 or download for $11.49.

100 Essential Albums – Number 32 – Evolution – Oleta Adams (1993)

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Something a little different today ……………

I have recently compiled my list of my top 100 albums/CDs of all time and would like, over the coming months to share these with you.  These are my recommendations for the ultimate music library.  Maybe you’ll agree with some of my choices.  I’m not going to count them down but do them alphabetically starting with the “a’s” and Oleta Adams who sits just outside of my Top 30.

32. Evolution – Oleta Adams (1993) – UK Chart Position – 10

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This is the 1993 follow up to the UK chart-topping (yet in my opinion) patchy 1990 album “Circle of One”. With this album Oleta delivered a much stronger collection of songs and probably one of the Ultimate Quality Soul albums. This is sophisticated soul music at its best. Oleta puts her stamp on the album from the off by penning the first two tracks- “My Heart Won’t Lie” is an attractive, understated opener with a similar, slightly mournful and elegiac tone as “Get Here”, the previous album’s big hit. This is followed up by the lovely “Hold Me For A While”- excellent song, brilliantly performed – what more could one ask? James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” has a jazzier feel with David Sanborn on alto sax “I Just Had To Hear Your Voice” is a beauty – perhaps the highpoint of the album. A lovely, stately reassuring performance and an excellent song. Inexplicably, as a single it only limped to number 42 in the UK charts. The next track “(Baby I’ll) Come When You Call” takes things at a slightly lighter pace and is a really attractive little number. The pace speeds up a little more for Adam’s own “Easier To Say Goodbye” – this is the closest we get to dance yet a rocky guitar solo detracts a little from it. “A Lover’s Holiday” is another Adams song – a lilting, mid-tempo track which drifts along very nicely. Another stand-out track from this outstanding album is the Diane Warren penned “The Day I Stopped Loving You” – it’s a cool, classy song topped off with an exemplary performance from Oleta- sounds like another big hit single, but it wasn’t. We are Billy Joel territory for “New York State Of Mind” – a muted trumpet intro into a jazzier/bluesier feel to this track and of course, another excellent performance from Oleta and good keyboards. The title track is up next and it’s another favourite of mine- It’s such an attractive song with that lovely couplet “Welcome back tyrannosaurus/ Evolution is a state of mind”. Can’t think of that many songs that name-check dinosaurs! This just leaves the joyful, gospelesque closer “Window of Hope”- Oleta’s sixth song on the album where she has sole writing credits. It’s a lovely way to close this album which for me has proved to be the highlight of her career.

 

At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £6.25 new, from 1p used and downloaded for £5.99.  American listeners can download from Amazon.com for $9.49 and purchased used for $0.01