Emiliana Torrini

Megan Milks

Singer/songwriter snobbery is written on my palms. I can't leave without it and I tend to sneer at vocalists who get help with their material. We all do. So are we wrong?

Emiliana Torrini

Emiliana Torrini

City: Arlington, VA
Venue: Iota
Date: 2005-06-21

Emiliana Torrini
Yeah, yeah, I know: singer/songwriter snobbery is no better than any other kind of elitism. But it's written on my palms; I can't leave without it. Yes, I do tend to sneer at vocalists who get help with their material. Come on, you do it too. In the arena of break-up/been-done-wrong songs: Elliott Smith or Kelly Clarkson? In the arena of hip-pop girl struts: Missy Elliott or Ciara? But, then, those are easy. What about Billie Holiday, who only wrote two songs in her extensive catalog? Should she be considered less of a musician than, say, Joni Mitchell? Of course not. And yet, it's the age of over-achievement and I'm rarely impressed unless a solo artist is singing, playing, and writing every part of every song on every record. This is why I have a hard time fully embracing artists like Emiliana Torrini, who do a lot of co-writing and covering, and who record songs written, or given, to them by others. In this respect, Torrini, most known for her haunting contribution to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, is something of a Norah Jones to me: Both are captivating vocalists who own their performances if not, necessarily, their songs. So when Torrini took the stage with empty hands, backed by three fairly busy musician-dudes, my brain rolled its eyes even as my hands clapped politely. Unfortunately, Torrini is terribly gorgeous, and, as fem-educated as I am, my unwarranted pre-judgment was that she's been getting by more on looks than talent. It didn't help that the intoxicated middle-aged men behind me wouldn't shut up about how hot she was. (Later, one of them actually shouted it out, met with another audience member's corrective response--"Because you're talented!" Amen.) In short, I was made to feel foolish as soon as Torrini started in on "Today Has Been Okay" lulling me into a hypnotic dream-state that stayed with me for some 70 minutes. With friendly chatter and fluttery, nervous laughter, Torrini romanced the audience all evening. In song, she serenaded with her eyes closed, lost in blissful reverie. In speech, she chirped in fast, accented English (she's Icelandic) that was always charming, if sometimes hard to follow. She told the story, for instance, of going "camel-toe spotting" in Austin, Texas, during her stay with Bill Callahan of Smog. Like I said it was, ummm, charming… That was her attention-getting intro for Callahan's "Honeymoon Child", which glowed with the warmth of her near-whisper. With a sensibility like Amelie, whimsical and romantic, Torrini was every bit as sweet in person as she seems on record. And if it sounds like there's a smile in her voice, it's because there's one on her face -- looks to be chronic, as I don't think I saw her even once without one. The set pulled hard from Torrini's second album, Fisherman's Woman, which favors acoustic folk-pop over the trip-hop leanings of her debut. And maybe it's her new place in that genre that makes her dependence on collaboration a bit off to me -- the smoky chanteuse is par for the course in a lot of blues, jazz, trip-hop, and pop, but not folk. It's unusual to see confessional acoustic songs performed by a singer who's not also playing and writing all of her material, and because of this fact Torrini does lose some authenticity. Her standalone vocals benefit from this less saturated sound, brought to life by the three musicians on tour with her -- an acoustic guitarist, another string player, and a drummer/percussionist/multi-instrumentalist. Slide guitar, mandolin, and what may or may not have been a toy guitar were all employed to provide a lushness that lifted Torrini's quiet voice. For its quietness, that voice is strong, and it's a shame she doesn't do more exploring with it. Only on the set's penultimate song did she venture out of her favored octave to produce some lower notes, and it was about time, for the sweetness had begun to suffocate. Though most of Torrini's songs are slow-to-midtempo affairs, the set's middle third jacked up the mood with the healthy rolling beat of "Sunny Road" and the cheeriness of "Heartstopper", both of which got big responses. Throughout, Torrini introduced cover songs by describing the moments she fell in love with the originals. So obviously does she love the songs she wears that it's easy to forgive the songwriting help -- if there's anything to forgive. She writes some, she borrows some; you take some, you leave some. At the end of the show, I would've gladly spent another two hours at Torrini's magical helm, especially after hearing the final tune, "Unemployed in Summertime", get everything right. A fun, carefree pop song about being young and penniless in a new country, it was Torrini at her best -- sunny, bemused, and breathing life in deep.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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