Listening to her first two records, you had the sense that Joan Armatrading was someone special, but you didn’t know how special until you heard this album. Produced by Glyn Johns (The Who, etc.), Joan Armatrading is a quantum leap from her last. “Down To Zero,” “Love And Affection” and “Save Me” captured the peculiar beauty of her music in perfect detail. All of the songs on Joan Armatrading come from a place of strength, bolstered by a backing band that added the right amount of familiar rock, country and blues to Joan’s unconventional rhythms and unexpected melodies. The strings are also handled well here, which is always a delicate balance to strike. But the real star is Joan, from beginning to end. Her voice shimmers like a candle flame in the softer settings, a sense of humor emerges (“Water With The Wine,” “Tall In The Saddle”) and throughout Joan upends the traditional idea of the female songwriter with her unorthodox guitar playing (e.g., “Like Fire”) and musical muscle flexing (“Join The Boys,” “People”). Armatrading herself must have liked the results (I’m sure her label did), as Johns produced her next three albums as well (although, to be honest, only Show Some Emotion returned to the same plateau). If I were compiling a list of the greatest albums from the 70s (and I’m not), Joan Armatrading would make my Top 100 along with Court And Spark and Tea For The Tillerman. Joan has made albums that rock harder (Me Myself I) and include more high points (Walk Under Ladders), but I don’t believe she’s made a more powerful record. Here, subtle inflections and well-turned words are arrows, and Armatrading is a skilled archer who can find the human heart, even in the darkness.
Despite the title, The Shouting Stage is one of her most restrained albums. The opening “The Devil I Know,” with its sophisticated jazz/blues setting, lets you know that Joan won’t be trying to rock your socks off. Instead, she tickles you with the charming melodies that have always been at the core of her best work (“Living For You,” “Straight Talk”) and moves you with deep observations about the cunning art (“The Shouting Stage,” “All A Woman Needs”). The arrangements are subtle yet supple, the supporting band (featuring Mark Knopfler and a returning Pino Palladino) typically excellent. The Shouting Stage is in many ways where you would expect Joan Armatrading to be at this stage in her career: mining familiar melodies with richer results. It’s not about the hits anymore, although if you’re looking for them, “Living For You” and “Straight Talk” won’t disappoint. It’s about quality, consistency, experience. Maybe it’s the participation of Knopfler and Alan Clark, but The Shouting Stage reminds me of the softer moments on Brothers In Arms. It flows from a natural, organic place that her last few albums didn’t in their attempt to (at least partially) please rock audiences. It isn’t an optimistic album; the lyrics are some of her darkest yet, dealing with broken trust, jealousy, being out of love. In fact, there isn’t one positive perspective on love to be found on The Shouting Stage. It’s her ability to create something beautiful out of sadness and frailty, however, that makes Joan so very special. At the same time, she continues to seek new sounds in her restless quest for idealized love, which has made the journey far more interesting for us, her traveling companions.
Joan took matters into her own hands this time, producing the record and handling all the guitar parts. Sleight of Hand does contain a pair of brilliant tracks that are worth the album’s price, “Russian Roulette” and “Jesse.” But Secret Secrets had better songs and, frankly, better production. Originally, I had it the other way around, calling this record sleightly better than her last. Maybe I just warmed up to the funky “Kind Words” faster than “Persona Grata.” It is great to hear Joan’s guitar front and center, but not so great to hear them compete with the bass and drums on nearly every song. As a producer, Joan’s touch is surprisingly indelicate. “Reach Out” manages to win out over the over-the-top production, yet most of Sleight of Hand suffers for it. Joan has since called it a “rock” album, which I guess it is if your idea of rock is heavy beats in 4/4 time and modern studio effects. I’ve always thought of Me Myself I as a rock album, but that’s just me. It’s a funkier record than I expected, reminiscent of Prince at times, with fewer of the musical twists and turns found on Secret Secrets. The thing is that I like Joan most when she’s being less like everyone else, and Sleight of Hand isn’t an outlier album. “Russian Roulette” and “Jesse” are charming and eccentric, “Don Juan” is romantic, “Reach Out” is powerful. The rest of the record is compressed, conventional and cold—words that you won’t usually see in a Joan Armatrading review. Then again, Joan herself has admitted a fondness for Sleight of Hand, so maybe you should take her word for it and not mine.
Joan’s second album is a stronger effort than her first, in more ways a harbinger of the good things to come on her breakthrough third album. While nothing on Back To The Night is as powerful as “Down To Zero” or “Love And Affection,” there are a few near misses including “Back To The Night” and “Dry Land,” both of which were released as singles. Where her first album felt precious, producer Pete Gage favors flesh-and-blood arrangements that allow Joan’s raw energy and emotion to shine through. The Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens comparisons still hold, as the music shifts from piano/guitar confessionals (“Come When You Need Me,” “No Love For Free”) to pleasantly oblique pop melodies (“So Good,” “Travel So Far”). The backing band is completely new, a technique that has kept Joan’s music fresh over the years. On this record, you’ll hear tabla, Moog, double bass and other exotic sounds that you wouldn’t encounter on later albums. Now, a significant amount of time had passed since the release of Whatever’s For Us, and in some ways Back To The Night is a re-introduction. The Joan Armatrading here is a complete songwriter and a distinctive artist with a confident voice. She’s willing to talk about being hurt (“Cool Blue Stole My Heart”), letting go (“Steppin’ Out”) and even finding God (“Get In Touch With Jesus”), although it’s unclear whether Joan is being autobiographical or simply personal with her subject matter. What is clear is that Joan wouldn’t need to suffer comparisons for long. This album is her stepping out party, just as her eponymous third album would be her step up to the big leagues. Oh, and if you care about these kinds of things, that really is a pre-Police Andy Summers—credited here as Sommers, which is a hybrid of his real name (Somers) and stage name (Summers)—playing lead guitar on the serendipitous “Steppin’ Out.”
Kronomyth 11.0: SECRET ADMIRER. Poor me, pity for me, I didn’t appreciate this album for years. It sounded overproduced a la The Key, and the endless game of musical chairs was beginning to grow tiresome. Then there was the fact that little on Secret Secrets got under my skin, so much as on my nerves with its edgy, off-kilter production. The singles “Temptation” and “Thinking Man” are the obvious winners, and a pair of collaborations with labelmate Joe Jackson, “Talking To The Wall” and “Love By You,” are gems. The rest of it struck me as standoffishly noisy. That is until I recognized that, under all of the production lipstick, “Persona Grata,” “Secret Secrets” and “One Night” were really lovely songs. You won’t hear Joan’s piano or guitar on these songs. What you will hear is some of her strongest songwriting over a storied career. Secret Secrets is a very sophisticated album. Mike Howlett’s heavy production hand won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, it’s not soothing at all. Scratch the glossy surface, however, and it’s the same raw emotion and revitalizing energy that fuel her best work. As I said, it took me years to get to this place. Initially, the modern production touches, saxophone solos and Pino Palladino’s fretless bass were distractions. If you have the same reaction, go back to “Persona Grata” and “Temptation” and listen to the way those songs shift gears so effortlessly. There’s an ominous tone to both songs in their beginnings, but they prove to be walls that quickly crumble, revealing the artist of the beautiful underneath. Now, to go back and give The Key another turn…
Kronomyth 1.8: HEIRING AID. A year after Live Aid, Midge Ure and a smaller, star-studded cast returned to Wembley Arena to celebrate the 10th anniversary of (and raise money for) the Prince’s Trust Charity. This disc highlights the biggest stars from the concert, including bits by Ure, Dire Straits, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Sir Macca himself. As concert discs go, this one is pretty tepid; so was Live Aid for that matter. Performers don’t get a chance to set up the acoustics the way they’d like, they don’t get a chance to warm up, in some cases they’re playing with ad hoc bands (albeit with very good players), all of it conspiring toward mediocrity. The sound engineering on this one isn’t particularly good either; a lot of sound seeps out and what remains sounds thin. So if you weren’t invited to the original party, Highlights is no magic ticket. Some of the performances are good, most of them fall flat. Honestly, if you’re interested in hearing an oldies revue like this, pick up one of Ringo’s All-Starr albums. Speaking of The Beatles, McCartney does a decent version of “Get Back” with Tina taking a few lines and a short, spirited revival of “Long Tall Sally.” (The elpee version featured a bonus single with Sally and I Saw Her Standing There.) As someone who still isn’t completely sold on the merits of live albums, I’m rarely charitably disposed to these save the worldwind tours. The Trust’s Tenth is a great cast for a good cause, but a good live album it isn’t.
Joan released this second, nonalbum single in the late summer of 1973 before breaking her relationship with Cube in the UK. Both tracks are produced by Gus Dudgeon and co-written by lyricist Pam Nestor, which would place them firmly in Whatever’s For Usterday. (In fact, they were later appended to that album as bonus tracks on the CD remasters.) They show some slight development: “Lonely Lady” has a bit of bite to it (notably a narsty electric guitar lead), “Together In Words And Music” features mandolin-like sweetness in the mix (light shades of Cat Stevens). Neither are lost gems but rather a pair of lost shoes left behind after the debutante’s ball, soon discarded as outmoded.
It’s no accident that Joan Armatrading’s debut, Whatever’s For Us, invites comparison to Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens. Producer Gus Dudgeon was also Elton’s producer, and the backing band–which includes Davey Johnstone, Gerry Conway and Ray Cooper–draws heavily from the camps of John and Stevens. As for Joni’s influence, one need look no further than Joan’s intimate piano and guitar accompaniment. As with many singer/songwriters, quantity gets the better hand of quality; these fourteen tracks could have been pared down to ten and still retained the same impact as an album. Lyricist Pam Nestor, who appears here as full-time collaborator in a role similar to Bernie Taupin, is concerned primarily with social issues (“My Family”) and character studies (“Child Star”). Joan isn’t the compelling presence here that later albums would reveal, instead seemingly content to let the songs speak for her. And a handful of songs do stand out: “Visionary Mountains” (which features Johnstone on sitar), “Mean Old Man,” “Head of the Table,” “Spend a Little Time,” “City Girl” and the album’s single, “Alice.” Like Elton John’s Empty Sky, the songs tend to be of a piece, suggesting a talented artist who hasn’t quite found their true voice. Subsequent albums would find her incorporating elements of rock, jazz, and island music while shifting the lyrical focus to matters of the heart. As a result, casual fans of her later records may find Whatever’s For Us too preachy and folksy for their tastes. Still, you don’t need to be a hardcore fan to hear and appreciate this material for what it is: a talented young artist’s attempt to break into the singer/songwriter field of the early ‘70s.