Kirsty MacColl: What Do Pretty Girls Do?

Kirsty MacColl
What Do Pretty Girls Do?
Big Eye

From 1989 to 1995, the supremely talented singer/songwriter Kirsty MacColl (whose death last year shocked fans worldwide) recorded four “live on the radio” sessions for the BBC. Collected on this album, the songs amount both to a MacColl largely “unplugged” album and a counterweight to the Galore collection of 1995. That album presented MacColl’s singles and other representative songs in their fully produced record versions. Here, some of the same songs are given small-backing group treatments that should force even serious, longtime fans who already knew MacColl was a good songwriter to reconsider just how good a songwriter she was. Stripped of MacColl’s trademark backing vocal tricks or any production polish, the songs must get by on their own. And do they, oh man, do they. Those who pick up this album as an introduction to Kirsty (and in some ways it’s an even better one than Galore) will find it a revelation.

Many of the songs are improvements on their album versions. The title track, originally on 1989’s Kite feels somehow more compassionate than the original, a look at what happens to women who have used their looks to get by as they get older. “Caroline”, first found as a bonus track on Galore, is here in a version that sounds as though it deserves a place on the bittersweet “Titanic Days”. Around which time it was written, but MacColl felt it didn’t fit in with that 1993 album.

Are there any women songwriters (or songwriters, period) in this world of Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, & Pink, capable of the shock of cold water in the face that is the song “Free World” by Kirsty MacColl? MacColl made better records than any of them — and by “made” I mean she actually had something to do with them beyond (maybe) turning up for a bit of singing and dressing like a college town Rocky Horror Picture Show cast for the video. Stimulating, powerful and perceptive, “Free World” (also from Kite) is offered in an absolutely astonishing, hard driving version sung with only one guitar accompaniment. But the perfect example of a song being much better in its newer version is “He’s on the Beach.” Originally an over-the-top, whompingly synthed-up single from 1985, the gentle translation here was recorded 10 years later in a session that pours every bit of melody dripping out of the speakers and into your ears. This song must be sung along to!

Allowing us to note MacColl’s skill as an interpretive singer, “Walk Right Back”, by Sonny Curtis is one of the songs by other writers covered here. Investigation of Curtis reveals that he is a songwriter who, quite frankly, MacColl should have covered: Anyone who has had his songs recorded by the Everly Brothers, Perry Como, Anne Murray, the Clash and Lou Reed and wrote the theme song for The Mary Tyler Moore Show is clearly someone to whom MacColl, who tried on styles the way some women try on shoes, could relate. “Darling, Let’s Have Another Baby”, by Johnny Moped is sung with Billy Bragg; the singing is far from flawless and both can be heard cracking up on mike, but the real affection audible between the two makes it a gem.

As is this album. All of it, for anyone.