Kirsty MacColl

Tropical Brainstorm

by Ben Varkentine


Kirsty MacColl is the cheeky answer to the saying, “It’s the singer not the song.” She’s the singer and the song, singing like an angel songs she’s written like a dream.

It’s always a mistake to assume too much autobiographical intent in a songwriters work, they’re storytellers too after all, though some stories are more autobiographical than others. If I were to turn to MacColl’s new album in search of an answer to the question of what she’s been doing since her last collection of songs (Titanic Days, 1993)? I might think she’d been looking at the rise of airbrushed photograph girl groups and singers young enough to be her daughters with something of a jaundiced eye, though not without her usual trademark wordplay:

cover art

Kirsty Maccoll

Tropical Brainstorm

US: Available as import
UK: 20 Mar 2000

“I’m stalking a fan. He’s gone to the record store
To buy a CD by some other girl not me
He’s taking her home, getting her out of her box
And putting her on and dancing around in his socks.”

Okay, I admit, Kirsty, while you were away, I listened to Leslie Uggams, Astrud Gilberto (& Stan Getz) and Dawn Atkinson, but I was thinking of you the whole time!

I’d also get the inescapable idea that she’s spent a lot of that time visiting various islands and South American countries; and at least I’d be right there. MacColl visited Cuba and Brazil many times in the past few years, and life there has infused her new record with the music of Latin culture. But this is not a “world music” album, though you might be forgiven for the mistake. It’s a Kirsty album that lets the interest in Latin/American culture that’s popped up musically and lyrically on the last couple of albums (the aforementioned Titanic Days and 1991’s Electric Landlady) bubble over into a full boil. Throwing other ingredients—hip/trip-hop, acid jazz, Euro pop, and even an autoharp(!)—into the soup as well, all on top of a fire made of her folk roots. At the end it’s like having spent an hour listening to a friend tell you stories of her trip, if you were lucky enough to have friends who could convey things as well as can Ms. MacColl.

There’s a quality to MacColl’s songwriting that is at once the teenage nymphet she once was (and I’ve got the picture of her in leather pants, circa 1980, to prove it) and the divorced mother in her early 40s that she now is. The reason, most likely, is that there were suggestions of the divorced woman in the nymphet, and the divorced woman remembers what being the nymphet was like.

“In These Shoes?” is full of the sound of a girl just beginning to imagine the extent of her power, a time when dressing is not to kill but to pin down. Yet it’s also got the sensibility of the older woman who doesn’t need exotic locations, adventure or kink for her sex, the act itself is lovely enough, thank you, and you’ll deliver it right now if you know what’s good for you.

I might intuit that Ms. MacColl found two or three good men down South. Certainly there is more of an overt passion and sexuality to some of these songs than on her previous records. And it’s sexuality that is a third to a half part humorous as well as serious, which is about how it works out in the real world. “Here Comes That Man Again” is a story of exchanging a pornographic word or two on the Web, and name-checks a Dalek just to make recovering Doctor Who fans like me happy. “Celestine” is the repressed “token wife” of “Bad” off Titanic Days turning her attentions to lighter, less threatening things. In that earlier song she told us she wanted to feel “a hand on my buttock in a Spanish bar” as she eyed a carving knife. Now having traveled to Brazil, and presumably rid herself of her obligations one way or another, she wants to feel a little more than that—“Us Amazonians” tells of Kirsty punching out a boyfriend who’s “afraid of his joy,” and bringing him to a hut in a country where they “make love all day.” I, for one, would go with Kirsty anywhere without having to be punched, and if it’s a warm beach that encourages nude sunbathing, so much the better—I’m sorry, I seem to have drifted.

Or I might think that in the intervening years since her divorce from producer Steve Lillywhite, she’s found new examples of the fact that men, no matter what the country, can be such bastards:

“Oh, you shouldn’t have kissed me and got me so excited…”
—“England 2, Columbia 0”

The gem of the album is “Wrong Again.” Starting with a contemporary dance/pop drum program, which hits a wall and the song is quickly transformed by one of the most vulnerable vocals MacColl has ever sung, and Pete Glenister’s soft yet sharp guitar. Throughout, there is a subtle interplay between these elements and Lee Groves’ samples that come up from the well time and time again. Like the shudders of someone who knows they will start crying if they let their mind linger too long on their burden. So they shoulder it and keep telling you their story, but you know they keep sneaking peeks.

And there is, of course, That Voice. Kirsty groupies like myself have come to want our fixes of it, especially in those ecstatic moments where she acts as her own background singer, multi-tracking her unearthly voice and stacking harmony upon harmony till she’s the Beach Girls all by herself. Others have tried, most recently Judith Boyle of Adventures in Stereo, but I have to go back to Marvin Gaye to think of another artist whose vocals are such wonders of invention. “Autumngirl Soup” and “Alegria” are particularly sly, smooth examples here—but when one buys a Kirsty album, one prepares for a weekend’s worth of that sort of thing, and one is rarely disappointed.

Tropical Brainstorm is a warm, typically stylistically diverse not to say perverse album by one of the most angelic singers of the past two decades. And now, having skirted the edge of presumption for most of this review, I will plunge deep into it’s waters by making so bold as to suggest a future path for our beloved revolutionary sweetheart.

The album ends with the fairly straightahead trip-hop/acid jazz of “Head.” By quoting the basic saloon Sinatra of “You Go to My Head,” this makes me yearn for an album of MacColl covers of great classic pop songs. Like from the first half of the last century.

Gaye made such an album, unfortunately unreleased until after his death (Vulnerable, 1997), and it was some of the best singing he ever did. MacColl’s songwriting voice would be missed, but man, think of her singing voice on the likes of “You Go to My Head,” or something from Billie Holiday, or the Rodgers and Hart catalogue, or “Street of Dreams,” or “Temptation.” Admit it: If you’re reading this and you’re already a Kirsty groupie, you’re thinking of titles.

Kirsty should go into the studio with Pet Shop Boys or Massive Attack and make a dance/pop/trip-hop collection of period songs (she’s already recorded two Cole Porter songs with the Pogues for the Red Hot and Blue AIDS charity record). Or she should go all the other way and make the album with a chamber group, perhaps a string quartet joined by Glenister’s (who also co-produced Tropical Brainstorm with MacColl and drummer Dave Ruffy) guitar. But it’s an album she should make.

And wonderful smart-ass that she is, if she reads this, she’ll probably make the next record heavy metal, just to spite me.

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