One of a Kind
Some of my favorite lines in popular music are penned by Joan Armatrading, who is nothing if not a brilliant lyricist.
“It would help me more, help me more, if you helped yourself.”
“I am not in love, but I am open to persuasion.”
“I wanna be by myself, I came into this world alone.”
“If you’ve got no love to give, baby, don’t give it here.”
“Light up if you’re feeling happy, but if it’s bad, then let those tears roll down.”
Simple, to the point, meaningful. Yet, she possesses so much more than a penchant for nifty songcraft and metaphorical muscle that permeate her vast ouevre. A helluva musician, equally proficient on many instruments, dynamic vocalist and (after seeing her last summer in Brooklyn for the first time) a magnetic performer. C’mon, she even played piano on a few Thin Lizzy albums! So why isn’t she a household name in the good ol’ USA? Uhh, ‘cause we be mad ignant, perhaps?
A little background. She was born on the West Indian island of St. Kitts before moving to Birmingham, England in 1958 at age eight. Her mother gave Joan her first guitar, swapping two baby strollers (“prams” as they’re known over there) at the local pawnshop. Growing up in the ‘60s, she was influenced by the many swirls of popular music concurrent at the time, from rock, reggae and folk, to jazz and soul. She got her break when she met lyricist and fellow West Indian Pam Nestor while they were touring together in that musical of musicals, Hair. Their collaboration became Armatrading’s 1972 debut, Whatever’s for Us, produced by Elton John’s engineer, Gus Dudgeon. A&M then snatched her up and would be her label for 20 years.
Armatrading became a unique force on the English music scene, her dark skin, big Afro, hearty voice, and poignant lyrics impossible to deny. She would become nominated for a few Grammys, go gold and platinum and have a top ten hit with “Love and Affection”. Furthermore, she would pave the way via her singing and musicianship for the likes of many popular women singer-songwriters today, from Tori Amos and Ani DeFranco to Norah Jones and Indie.Arie (yes, Tracy Chapman, too). But her dynamic range of styles is probably the reason why she isn’t bigger than she is. Joan Armatrading defies categorization, something the music business has always had problems with, less so in the ‘70s, but particularly now. In this sense she is most akin to Me’Shell NdegeOcello, another brilliant lyricist and strong musician who shares both Armatrading’s obsession with love and heartache and her willingness to conflate multiple genres within any song.
Though she’s churned out no fewer than 22 albums, this two-CD compilation, Love and Affection: Joan Armatrading Classics: (1975-1983) contains only Armatrading’s work from these eight years, arguably her most fruitful period. The title is apt, for classics they are, re-mastered and never sounding better. And, like her most known song, these songs tend to deal with the whim and weight of both love and affection. Armatrading is able to tackle these themes with sophistication, avoiding the pitfalls of corniness and cliché that claim so many other artists.
Disc one begins with the classic, tough to define (don’t bother, just listen and enjoy) “Cool Blue Stole My Heart” from her 1975 album Back to the Night, which combines elements of jazz, rock, and folk, changing tempo and stylistic flavor seamlessly throughout. If you are new to her music, it is a perfect beginning, as are the next two songs from this album, “How Cruel” and “He Wants Her”. Hereafter, all the songs on this disc are produced by Glyn Johns, who would work with Armatrading until the end of the decade. As evidenced here, he would bring further complicated arrangements and unexpected instrumentation, be it a mandolin run here, an organ vamp there, a clave keeping time or a marimba dancing in the background. What most amazes me, is that this diverse tapestry rarely feels disjointed and, in fact, often crescendos just right in an unexpected way. Disc one ends with a few superb live tracks previously available only in England from 1979, on which you can really hear Armatrading’s powerful guitar playing.
The songs contained on disc two mark a new direction for Armatrading. Having changed producers, she takes a more rock- and reggae-based approach to her craft. And it is this approach throughout the ‘80s that garners her largest American following. She collaborates with many popular ‘80s artists, from the Kronos Quartet to Sly & Robbie; from the E Street Band to Thomas Dolby. Steve Lillywhite produces most of the tracks found here and, though I prefer her less slick ‘70s work, are always interesting, regardless of often heavy electric guitar riffs and the occasional wailing solo. From the wrenching lyrics of her balladesque “No Love” to the hilarious “What Do Boys Dream”, Armatrading’s songwriting is consistently topnotch. Which is what sticks out most on this two-and-a-half-hour, forty-three song collection. The woman is consistent. Consistently good.
And just so you know, Joan Armatrading also graces the cover of one of the best album pics of all time: Track Record, an early collection of her work from 1983. I won’t give it away as to what she’s doing on the cover, so after you buy this latest excellent release, go to your local thrift store and rescue a copy of Track Recordfrom that dusty crate. Don’t worry, if you find yourself living in America, it’ll be there.