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.
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.
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.”
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.
This is an even better showcase for her multi-faceted musical talents than her last album, and that album was stunning. Again produced by Glyn Johns but now featuring a wider cast of characters, Show Some Emotion includes two of her best songs, “Show Some Emotion” and “Willow,” and strong material from end to end that tries out a variety of styles. At this stage, the comparison to other artists is meaningless as Joan has entered an incomparable state. There isn’t another artist who moves so gracefully and confidently between ballads, rockers, reggae and blues, or would lead an album off with a vulnerable song like “Woncha Come On Home” and then sucker punch you with “Show Some Emotion.” Her last album was a leap forward in terms of musicality, yet Show Some Emotion feels even more saturated in sound. Much of the credit goes to Glyn Johns, who assembled a stellar backing band for Joan that re-used a few familiar parts (Jerry Donahue, Brian Rogers) and added Georgie Fame, Bryan Garofalo, David Kemper and others to the mix. Given the right musical accompaniment, Joan’s compositions soar. Although I did say that comparisons no longer applied, the presence of Georgie Fame did get me thinking about Van Morrison and the great musical support he’s had over the years. Like Van, Joan needs to make an emotional connection for her music to truly work, and that can sometimes be daunting given the complexity of her music. In the right hands, it runs like a graceful tiger. Even when Joan slows down on this record, the stride is perfectly paced, the steps perfectly placed, and happy are the hunted.
Joan’s third album, and first with producer Glyn Johns, was a charmer; her third album with Johns, not so much. To The Limit is the weakest of her classic albums. There are no big hits, no breathtaking melodies, no heart-melting ballads. What you will find here are quite a few near-misses: “Barefoot And Pregnant,” “Wishing,” “Bottom To The Top,” “You Rope You Tie Me.” In a different setting (say, without the lyricon, which was always a strange musical beast) and, sorry, with a different producer (so much for services rendered, Mr. Johns), To The Limit could have been a better album. Or maybe the restless feel of the record reflects the artist’s fractured state of mind; I’m just some dork speculating on a computer, right? What I do know is that the albums before and after got under my skin, and this one kind of makes my skin crawl with its ungainly and difficult arrangements. The lovely live version of “You Rope You Tie Me” from Steppin’ Out suggests that the studio arrangements are the main culprit. You want “Baby I” to flow as smooth as “Warm Love” (it’s still a pretty great song) or “Barefoot And Pregnant” to jump with joy like “Show Some Emotion.” They don’t, instead limping along some of the time (“Let It Last”) or running too fast (“Taking My Baby Up Town”). You wish Joan would slow down, stop changing speeds, let the melodies breathe. The talent on To The Limit is obviously there, even if the mood is dour. But it appears the Glyn Johns honeymoon was over, and the man seems as baffled by her musical contradictions as previous producers. This might make my top 10 Joan Armatrading albums because of the creativity behind it, but top five, no.
A live album recorded with yet another backing band, this time featuring Richie Hayward and Lon Price. Steppin’ Out is a little out of the ordinary: unreleased in the U.S., unencumbered with popular songs like “Show Some Emotion” or “Down To Zero.” Clearly not the concerthall compilation of classics, this is a more intimate setting, an opportunity to celebrate the early Night and happy memories from Limit, Emotion and the eponymous third nipple. Highlights include a lovingly rendered “Cool Blue Stole My Heart,” “You Rope You Tie Me” and the tender “Love and Affection.” Maybe not what you were expecting from the artist in 1979 (“How Cruel” provides a peek into the electric adventures to come), if you were expecting a live album at all. I wasn’t. Wasn’t disappointed either. Joan is softspoken on the intros, fiery during the performances and a strictly top-shelf band treats the material with care. More or less what you’d expect in terms of Joan’s tones, with no great revelation and no gaffes. Unlike the other Joni, Joan doesn’t reinvent the arrangements. “Cool Blue” steals more of the spotlight than I expected, and this version of “You Rope You Tie Me” is bound to catch your attention. The rest of them roll like I remember, played out in front of a modest North American audience, which one can only assume is some secret code for Canada. In 2006, Hip-O re-released this on CD with a new cover and no new tracks (uncharacteristically unhip for them).
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…
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.
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.