March 10, 2008
MUSIC: Nov 05, AU Edition
An old dog learns new tricks. Plus: deep in the heart of Texas (and England)
‘Rock Swings’, Verve
Paul Anka is another pop cat seeking new life in jazz. Known for such hits as ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’, the 63-year-old creates a curious amalgam, performing rock and pop songs of the 1980s and 1990s with big-band backing.
The effect is kind of cool. Anka shows a decent high range that conjures up Bobby Darin and generates some dramatic heat on Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s a Sin.’ He manages to swing through Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ with reasonable sass and elan.
But brassy horns get tiring. Also, it’s odd to hear a tune like Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ done as a Vegas revue number. Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ is interminable, and the dark world of Kurt Cobain’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is better left untouched by the Anka treatment.
Reviewed by Karl Stark
‘Somewhere Down in Texas’, MCA
When you think of Texas, you think big, bold and freewheeling. Leave it to George Strait to deliver ‘Texas’, a tribute to his home state, and make it restrained and reflective. But that’s Strait: always tasteful and classy.
Mr. Consistency’s new album is typically solid, but not in the top rank of his considerable ouevre. ‘Somewhere Down in Texas’ has excellent moments, including the ‘Good News, Bad News’ duet with Lee Ann Womack and the on-the-verge-of-a-breakup lament ‘Ready for the End of the World.’ But the ballad-heavy set could use some of the energy Strait usually provides with shuffles and western swing – in other words, some of the feel he rhapsodizes about in the opening cut, ‘If the Whole World Was a Honky Tonk.’
Reviewed by Nick Cristiano
Eliza Carthy & The Ratcatchers
‘Rough Music’, Topic Records
Carthy is a revelation for the verve with which she is reinvigorating traditional English folk music. Fiddles, violas, guitars, melodeons and hurdy-gurdies swirl and rise. The lyrics sing of dashing highwaymen and gallant hussars. But there’s nothing somber or fussy about ‘Rough Music.’
Lovers of Celtic music will savor deft instrumentals such as ‘Upside Down.’ But Carthy’s voice, a combination of Judy Collins and Alison Moyet, continues to improve. Her signal accomplishment is that she manages to make a quaintly old-fashioned style sound so fresh.
Reviewed by David Hiltbrand
‘Weather and Water’, Dualtone
The Greencards are an Austin, Texas, bluegrass trio of immigrants – not from Mexico, but west and east. Singer and bassist Carol Young (who’s got a bit of Alison Krauss in her cool, clear voice) and mandolin/bouzouki player Kym Warner are Aussies; fiddler Eamon McLoughlin is a Brit.
‘Weather and Water’ shows that the trio (which just finished a trek opening for Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson) is up to speed on dexterous, quick-picking instrumental breakdowns such as ‘Marty’s Kitchen.’ But it the lovely, soul-searching ballads, including ‘Who You Are,’ and the depressive, Warner-sung ‘Long Way Down’ that mark them as real comers.
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
MUSIC: Dec 05, AU Edition
HIT AND MISSY
Elliott’s latest fails to impress. Plus: soul survivors, and a moving tribute to Sublime
“The Cookbook”, Goldmind/Atlantic
Missy Elliott has a remarkably consistent track record of combining stylistic innovation and commercial success, with a series of freakishly catchy hits that match her outre sensibility with her producer pal Timbaland’s off-kilter beats. All of that came to a creative peak on the brilliantly strange 2002 hit “Work It.”
On “The Cookbook”, though, Timbaland is in the kitchen on only two cuts. As a result, Elliott delivers the first merely mediocre album of her career.
It has its soulful, compelling moments, such as the confessional “My Struggles,” with Grand Puba and Mary J. Blige, and even better, “Irresistible Delicious”, which makes excellent use of the insouciant flow of rap legend Slick Rick. But “The Cookbook” is ultimately not much more than a serviceable party record. From Elliott, we’ve come to expect a more nourishing repast.
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
“Classic Moments”, Def Soul
“Vivian”, Sony Urban
To hear these Philadelphians tell it, soul never really got too hijacked by hip-hop. For veteran Patti LaBelle and youngster Vivian Green, soul is all about desperation and joy within supple arrangements and vocal twists beneath the rhythms.
Lacking a memorable song, Green’s voice inhabits the colors of each careful arrangement, such as the flying strings of “Under My Skin” and the flickering guitars of “Mad”. From her lyrics to the ache in her high register, Green conveys how some emotions surprise her, from the sadness of “Frustrated” to the carnality of “Damn”.
What Green is just gathering, LaBelle has cultivated during her decades-long career. Without too much sass or gloss, she takes to these slow classics with the sort of simmering and seasoning any great cook would.
Her hefty voice bounces off the Fender Rhodes bump of “I Keep Forgetting” and winnows through the gospelish “Ain’t No Way.” Amen to that.
Reviewed by A.D. Amorosi
“Look at All the Love We Found: A Tribute to Sublime”, Cornerstone
Nothing overshadows the tragedy at the heart of Sublime’s legacy: Singer Brad Nowell’s succumbed to a heroin overdose, leaving behind a wife and baby just before the band’s self-titled breakthrough LP appeared in 1996.
Sad too, in an altogether different way, is the unrealized potential of the trio, which loved punk, reggae, pop and hip-hop. This solid and varied tribute – with contributions as far gone as the Greyboy Allstars’ jazz vamp on “Doin’ Time” and as faithful as Fishbone’s bug-eyed “Date Rape” – underscores that point in a way the perpetual radio play of “What I Got” does not.
Yes, Sublime inspired hokey beach bums such as Jack Johnson, who strums on till the break of yawn here on “Badfish.” But it also dared fellow So-Cal punk-reggae kids No Doubt (who deliver a live version of “D.J.s”) to dream big.
That’s a legacy worthy of a tribute.
Reviewed by Patrick Berkery
MUSIC: Apr 05, AU Edition
Chemical Brothers’ new dance album starts out slow,
plus, it’s a spice world – we’re still living in it
“Free Me”, 19
Does the world really need a new Spice Girls? Of course! Then thank the “reality” TV gods for Girls Aloud, five saucy femmes brought together in 2002 by the British show Popstars: The Rivals. Their second album, What Will the Neighbours Say? is everything prefab pop should be: fun, cheesy and, of course, maddeningly infectious. Songs such as “The Show” and “Thank Me Daddy” channel the giddiness of teen-age lust and rebellion through sleek, jittery dance beats. The cover of the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You” is pure slow-dance-at-the-prom schlock.
As they yearn for the same bad boys they insult for playing too rough, Girls Aloud exude PG-rated sexiness and grade-school feminism – an irresistible combination, as anyone who ever sang along to “Wannabe” knows.
What the world doesn’t need is the old Spice Girls, if Free Me, the second solo album by ex - “Baby Spice” Emma Bunton, is any indication.
Seemingly aiming for a more “mature” audience, Bunton coos wispy pledges of love over breezy soft pop that’s as pleasant as an afternoon spent sunbathing on the beach, and just as boring. The gently pulsating “Maybe” and “Breathing,” as well as her cover of Marcos Valle’s “Crickets Sing for Anamaria,” indicate that Bunton and her collaborators have been listening to a lot of bossa nova, but her expressionless voice makes you yearn for Astrud Gilberto. It all sounds flat, lifeless, and in desperate need of – dare I say it? – spice.
Reviewed by Amy Phillips
The Chemical Brothers
“Push the Button”, Astralwerks
It’s hard work to stay at the top of a field as mercilessly mutating as dance music. And “Galvanize,” the first track on the Chemical Brothers’ fifth full-length, suggests that, eight years after their mainstream breakthrough, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons might finally be ready for the cut-out bin.
“A Tribe Called Quest’s Q Tip” delivers a dull, witless rap over a relentlessly repetitive 6-minute big-beat groove that fails to get the party started.
So skip it. And don’t worry: They may not be innovating anymore, but the Brothers still know how to work it out. Because starting with “The Boxer,” a stuttering groove with vocals by Tim Burgess of Charlatans U.K., and the thumping “Believe,” with Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, Rowlands and Simons get back on track.
Stepping into the role usually reserved for Beth Orton, Anna-Lynne Williams does the ethereal female vocal turn on “Hold Tight London,” which starts in the chill-out room, then makes its move to the dance floor.
The Brothers would do well to note that Button’s finest creation, the elegantly paced closer, “Surface to Air,” takes care of its trippy, ecstatic business without the distraction of a guest vocalist.
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
MUSIC: Mar 05, AU Edition
BAD SEEDS, GOOD TUNES
Also: Seven CDs of suave swing, and what happens when career changes go bad
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
"Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus", Anti
With his deep, portentous voice and grave manner, Nick Cave demands to be taken seriously. His literate lyrics often rely on biblical and mythological allusions: even the titles of the two-disc set Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus could use footnotes.
But Cave’ s pretensions are a large part of his appeal, and after 20 years with his ever-evolving band, the Bad Seeds, he still pulls off audacious rhymes like “Orpheus”/ “orifice” without sounding ridiculous.
The mainly acoustic, piano-driven Lyre is the more accessible album. The rolling ballad Breathless is the most beautiful song in Cave’s vast catalog, and Babe, You Turn Me On isn’t far behind.
The more visceral “Abattoir raises a holy clatter of apocalyptic noise in songs such as There She Goes, My Beautiful World, an invocation to the Muses to cure writer’s block that links St. John of the Cross to Johnny Thunders and features a gospel choir. Based on the inspired songs in these albums, the Muses must have listened.
Review by Steve Klinge
Robert Downey Jr.
“The Futurist”, Sony Classical 1
Robert Downey Jr. found fame as a talented yet troubled actor. He’ll need to leave it at that with this partly laudable, partly laughable transition into music. The downtrodden, introspective vibe of The Futurist – one mid-tempo piano-driven ballad after another – is tiresome, despite the earnestness of the whole affair. To his credit, singer-songwriter-pianist Downey (who sang on Ally McBeal as well as in his Oscar-nominated turn in Chaplin) brings a solid sense of melody to his own compositions, smartly enhanced by subtle flourishes of jazz and folk. But his voice is hardly endearing, even on his understated rendition of Chaplin’s “Smile”. And he’s painfully off the mark on a cringe-worthy version of Yes’ “Your Move” that even Jon Anderson’s backing vocals can’t save. There’s raw talent here, but Downey had best stick with his day job.
Review by Nicole Pensiero
Art Farmer/Benny Golson
“The Complete Argo/Mercury Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet Sessions”, Mosaic
The jazztet created in 1959 by the trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist/composer Benny Golson more than merits this seven-CD extravaganza from Mosaic Records.
The two created a group with a suave sound that showcased great melodies from a swinging core. Farmer, who died in 1999 and helped popularize the flugelhorn in jazz, was among the most sensitive of brass players, while Golson, a heavyweight reed man, remains one of jazz’s top composers.
Included here is his classic tribute to trumpeter Clifford Brown, I Remember Clifford, which encapsulates the greatness of the partnership: Farmer’s trumpet finding poignant nuances in Golson’s elegiac composition.
The jazztet, which ran through 1962, was a great vehicle for Golson’s tunes, which range from Killer Joe, with its spoken and theatrical introduction, to the goose-stepping Blues March, and from the earthy Blues After Dark to the noir ballad Park Avenue Petite.
Review by Karl Stark
MUSIC: June 05, AU Edition
$20 million still can’t buy Will Smith respect, but Tracey Thorn’s remixes more than satisfy
‘Lost and Found’, Interscope
On his ninth CD, Will Smith takes on the intersection of Hollywood and Philadelphia as if jovially taking on another amiable movie role. Mostly, it’s business as usual.
The stutter-tronic ‘Switch’ is the party track.In accordance with hip-hop law, Snoop Dogg appears. ‘Here He Comes’ features a patented Smith sample gleaned from our childhood, the SpiderMan TV cartoon theme, with chunky beats by ex-partner Jazzy Jeff.
Big Willie makes merry about getting dissed by Eminem, blabbing happily about getting reamed by rap radio. So what, right? With more than one reference to making ‘20 mil’, you can’t help but think that Smith is giggling all the way to his broker.
But listen harder. Smith ain’t feeling quite so jiggy.
‘Sometimes y’all mistake nice for soft, so before I go off...’ spits Smith on ‘Mr. Niceguy’, taking on haters through bucking rhythms with the sort of veiled threats his Shark Tale co-star Bob De Niro usually proffers. When not busy taking the offensive on being defensive, Smith wails on religious hypocrisy, star-stalkers, and the rap game’s relentless copycatting (from Smith, yet, goes the boast of the title track) with a sneer to match his cheer.
Reviewed by A.D. Amorosi
Everything But the Girl
‘Adapt or Die (Ten Years of Remixes)’, Atlantic/Blanco y Negro
Someday, perhaps, there’ll be a new Everything But the Girl album. Until then, aficionados of Tracey Thorn’s smoky, sensual purr of a voice will have to settle for this delicious set of remixes.
To recap: Vocalist Thorn and guitarist (and now DJ) Ben Watt emerged from Britain as a haircut band in the 1980s, then suavely evolved into masters of chilled-out electronica after Todd Terry’s remix of ‘Missing’ became an international hit in 1995. ‘Adaptor Die’ gathers a decade’s worth of reinterpretations of the duo’s fetching pop songs, with DJ Jazzy Jeff and King Britt among the knob-twiddlers, along with Terry, Adam F, Brad Wood and others.
It works perfectly, with Watt and Thorn’s compositions – plus a seductive version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado” – reinvented but not unrecognizable, and Thorn’s soulful, contemplative vocals leaving you yearning for more.
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
“Sean Costello”, Artemis
Though he started out as a precocious blues-guitar hotshot – releasing his first album at 16 and backing fellow up-and-comer Susan Tedeschi before he was 20 – Sean Costello seems more interested in emulating Eddie Hinton than Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Hinton was the great Muscle Shoals session guitarist who was also a superb singer and songwriter. Like the late Hinton, the 25-year-old Costello has a soulfully rough-hewn voice and is mostly content to make his guitar one element of a taut, earthy R&B sound.
Here he covers Al Green and Bob Dylan, among others, but for the first time he focuses on originals. From the punchy soul of ‘No Half Steppin’’ and ‘Hold on This Time’ to the roadhouse urgency of ‘I’ve Got to Ride’ and the anguished balladry of ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, Costello shows that his lyrical are catching up to his formidable musical talents.
Reviewed by Nick Cristiano
MUSIC: July 05, AU Edition
VAN’S STILL THE MAN
The grumpy Irishman brawls with mediocrity – and wins – while Nash and Stigers show where jazz is headed
‘Magic Time’, Geffen
After four decades of peerless soul music, Van Morrison has nothing left to prove. No wonder he complains that ‘you gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay’ on ‘Magic Time’: Even when he coasts, his deeply embedded mastery of blues, jazz, Celtic and R&B styles ensures a consistently high baseline.
‘Magic Time’ holds few surprises, and Morrison knows this: ‘You can call it nostalgia, I don’t mind’, he sings in the title track. With three covers of jazz standards, two songs (‘Gypsy in My Soul’ and ‘The Lion This Time’) that allude to his 1972 classic ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’, and several doses of Celtic mysticism and misanthropy, he’s revisiting styles and themes that have long preoccupied him.
But it’s hard to complain when Morrison sings gently rolling ballads as beautifully as he does ‘Celtic New Year’ and ‘Stranded’, or swinging blues as locked-in as ‘Evening Train’ and ‘I’m Confessin’’.
Reviewed by Steve Klinge
Ted Nash and Odeon
‘La Espada de la Noche’, Palmetto
Jazz was born in a cradle of many cultures, and the music’s future is likely to be full of cultural excursions to new realms. Ted Nash pulls off such a fusion. He uses a primarily tango vibe to create a kind of film-noir jazz that’s engaging and probably even better live than on disc.
The son of trombonist Dick Nash and nephew of swing saxophonist Ted Nash, this saxophonist has recently made a career swinging with the backward-looking Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the forward-careening Jazz Composers Collective.
His band here is anchored by Clark Gayton on tuba, trombone and baritone horn. Violinist Nathalie Bonin and accordionist Bill Schimmel enhance the tango feeling, while drummer Matt Wilson is a jazz cat with Latin moves.
The session makes for good bullfighting music. The quintet covers two Latin jazz standards, ‘A Night in Tunisia’ and ‘Tico Tico’, with tango high in its consciousness. But elements of klezmer and traditional New Orleans jazz creep in, forming a worldly stew.
Reviewed by Karl Stark
‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’, Concord
How many singers make a rock recording that sells nearly two million copies and walk away to be a jazz vocalist? Curtis Stigers, whose self-titled hit came in 1991, is one.
Stigers is not, surprisingly, a high-voltage artist. He’s an expressive character who looks for some heart in a song and often plumbs it. The Idaho, U.S.A., native shows an independent-cuss view of songs, expanding the usual suspects here to include ditties by Randy Newman, Sting and Tom Waits.
He shows an affinity for country on Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’ and gets folksy and direct on the title track, a poignant Newman original.
Waits’ ‘In Between Love’ carries the emotional oomph of an old Tin Pan Alley standard, and Willie Dixon’s ‘My Babe’ gives Stigers soulful credentials. Keyboardist Larry Goldings is a big collaborator here, creating the sympathetic backing with a revolving cast that includes bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson.
Reviewed by Karl Stark
MUSIC: Sep 05, AU Edition
VISIONS OF EMBARGOES
Ed Bark is stuck inside a screening room with the can’t-talk-about-this-movie blues again
BEVERLY HILLS, California – Now you see him, or else you don’t. The secretive society known as Bob Dylan and his ‘people’ called the tune for PBS (think ABC, but with explicit corporate sponsorship) last week. It was something of a protest song, but more a marketing ploy tied to September’s DVD and PBS unveilings of the Martin Scorsese-directed No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. Here’s how it went down.
PBS told TV critics in late spring that their only opportunity to see the 3-hour film would be on the night of July 13 at a closely guarded theatre screening in Beverly Hills. No review copies would be sent out between the screening and PBS’ Sept. 26 premiere of the film as part of its acclaimed ‘American Masters’ series. Critics were also strongly encouraged to keep their opinions to themselves for at least the next two months.
This is hardly business as usual. In an increasingly crowded TV universe, PBS and rival networks routinely send shows to critics weeks and often months before their air dates. But No Direction Home would be a glaring exception. Why? Because Dylan and his manager, Jeff Rosen, who interviewed him for the film, are either paranoid or pragmatic about piracy.
‘The Dylan people say that he is the most bootlegged artist in the world’, PBS president Pat Mitchell said in an interview. ‘And they are terrified that if screeners are sent out, the next thing we know it would be all over the Web and everything else. As you might imagine, it’s a challenge working with someone of Bob Dylan’s stature and reputation, and his history of being very much in control of his product.’
There will be plenty of product this spring. An expanded DVD edition of No Direction Home will be in U.S. stores a week before PBS presents its two-part version. A double CD set with ‘key songs’ from the film hits stores around the same time. And ‘The Bob Dylan Scrapbook, 1956-66,’ retailing for $45, is due to arrive shortly thereafter. Still, there’s no official Bob Dylan ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ harmonica coming – yet.
Meanwhile, ‘American Masters’ executive producer Susan Lacy tried to make the best of the situation before last week’s screening at the Zanuck Theater on the Fox Studios’ Hollywood lot. For the record it was preceded by an outdoor Mexican food buffet accompanied by beer, wine and piped-in show tunes.
‘I truly think this film is a masterpiece’, Lacy then told 100 or so critics. Dylan ‘has not seen it. We don’t think he ever will.’
No Direction Home is only about the early performance years, 1961-66, of the now 64-year-old legend. There is ample ‘never-seen’ footage provided with Dylan’s blessing. Much of it is extraordinary, capturing both the tenor of the times and a vibrantly young Bob making his way from traditional acoustic folk tunes to electrified versions that initially stunned and angered audiences.
‘I think he’s prostituting himself’, says a miffed Britisher during Dylan’s 1966 tour of Europe.
Joan Baez contributes a new and candid interview while the current-day Dylan’s diction at least is clear. He otherwise reveals little of any real substance about either his music or himself.
Baez says she long since has given up trying to figure him out. About all we really know is that he’s definitely a capitalist.
MUSIC: May 05, AU Edition
Also: Thievery Corporation steals the show, and Waylon Jennings’ son is on-target
‘In Between Dreams’, Brushfire/Universal
Woody Allen once likened being mellow to a process of ripening, then rotting. Listening to terminally chilled surfer/folkie Jack Johnson’s latest album feels like a similar fate, at least initially.
Johnson blissfully faces the music – all of it – with a grin, a sandy voice, and a Catalina-bound sound. His sparsely arranged tunes sometimes lean toward soul-jazz (‘Situation’) or percolating funk (‘Staple It Together’). But there’s scarce variation to Johnson’s doggone-diddly cheery demeanor.
However, Johnson’s deceptive simplicity, subtlety and understatement become shockingly infectious upon (many) repeat listens. ‘Dreams are made of real things’, he sings on ‘Better Together’. That attitude guides his cozy romanticism through shuffles (‘Banana Pancakes’) and sambas (‘Belle’).
Oh, and he’s also releasing this latest CD in environmentally-friendly packaging and converting his fleet of tour buses to run on green bio-diesel fuel, making his band’s movements “carboneutral”.
Reviewed by A.D. Amorosi
‘The Cosmic Game’, ESL
Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, the Washingtonbased duo known as Thievery Corporation, are master collaborators: The guest vocalists they enlist define the character of each album, whether it’s Bebel Gilberto on 2000’s sultry The Mirror Conspiracy, the Farsi-singing Loulou on 2002’s multi-culti The Richest Man in Babylon, or the elder-statesmen alternative rockers who join the Jamaican, African and Indian singers for the psychedelic Cosmic Game.
Anchored in the dub, trip-hop, and down-tempo club grooves that make Thievery Corporation the American Massive Attack, Cosmic Game pulses with a swirling, trippy tension that’s more pent-up than chilled-out.
‘Well, let’s start by making it clear who is the enemy here’, the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne softly croons on ‘Marching the Hate Machine (Into the Sun)’, establishing the political paranoia that courses through ‘Revolution Solution’ (with Perry Farrell), ‘The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter’ (with David Byrne), and other simmering sonic journeys.
Reviewed by Steve Klinge
‘Put the O Back in Country’, Universal South
Shooter Jennings comes out swinging on his debut – and we’re not talking about Western swing. As the band leans into the chip-kicking honky-tonk of the title song, he complains that ‘there ain’t no soul on the radio’ and throws out a challenge: ‘Are you ready for the country? Are you ready for me?’
It’s not hard to figure out where he got the attitude: he’s the son of Waylon Jennings. That’s a giant legacy to live up to, and if the 25-year-old doesn’t quite yet come across as the saviour of country music, or if he doesn’t possess a voice with the deep authority of his father’s, he is certainly off to an impressive start as he stakes out his own territory.
‘Busted in Baylor County’, ‘Steady at the Wheel’, and ‘Daddy’s Farm’ are swaggering blasts of Southern rock, but Jennings shows there’s real heart behind the bravado with more reflective numbers, such as ‘Lonesome Blues’, ‘Sweet Savannah’ and ‘The Letter’.
Reviewed by Nick Cristiano
January 27, 2007
Charlene 'I've Never Been To Me': March 06 issue
I’ve Never Been To Me
Ian Wishart talks to Charlene
When Charlene Oliver first heard the song that would make her a household name worldwide, she burst into tears. “Those lyrics – ‘Hey lady, you lady, cursing at your life, you’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife’ – they hit me hard. I was a battered wife, I’d married at 16, had a child to my first husband, and Ron Miller’s song just spoke to me. I didn’t even know him but I just cried and cried. He actually stopped the tape to give me space to cry. It was such a beautiful song.”
Just 26 years old, Charlene felt she knew the story of the song innately, and she knew it would also speak to women worldwide. The young singer was part of the Motown stable, working with artists like Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, and she really, really wanted to record ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’, penned by Miller and studio partner Ken Kirsch.
It was 1976, however, and Rick Dees’ ‘Disco Duck’ was doing big business in the charts. The little known Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’ was released as a single, but only reached 97 in the Billboard Top 100 before disappearing forever – or so she and her record company thought.
In fact, so spectacularly unsuccessful was her debut album and a follow-up that Charlene gave up music, became a Christian, worked with autistic children and eventually moved to England with her new husband. By 1982, she’d almost forgotten her former life. But little did she know what Providence had in store.
“In 1982 a DJ, Scott Shannon, started playing it on his Florida radio station and it just absolutely caught on and people were calling in asking for it all the time. Now I was living in England at the time, working in a candy store doing cleaning, selling sweets and cigarettes and everything, and I got a call from my mom saying that somebody at Motown was looking for me, and then I got a call at 2am from Jay Lasker at Motown telling me my song was on the charts! I thought at first it was a bad joke!”
They brought her back on a Concorde flight to New York as her song rocketed to number one around the world.
How did it change her life?
“My gosh, you can imagine earning a real simple wage in a sweet shop in London, and all of a sudden they want you signed back up with a label again. It changed my life. I had basically given up the music because I was so burned out. But it was funny because when I was in England I had a feeling that something was going to happen but I didn’t know what it was. I remember just crying and asking, why hasn’t ‘Never Been To Me’ made it, this song is so beautiful?
“And then bam! And I plan on doing the same thing again, I plan on it happening again, and I want to come to your country! I want to come to New Zealand so bad – it seems like an amazing place!”
Charlene may yet get the chance. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the writing of ‘Never Been To Me’, she’s about to release a dance-mix version.
“You should hear it,” she laughs down the line, sensing my skepticism that the song could translate to a dance beat. “It really, really works. We’re going to put it up on the website soon (charlenesmusic.com where, incidentally, you can also listen to the original version online for free) so people can listen to it, and then I’ve got a new album out, probably mid year.”
For a song that sold somewhere in the region of six million copies (and in today’s frenetic music industry 4,000 copies is enough to secure a number one record some weeks in Britain), and continues to be played on classic hits stations worldwide, I ask the inevitable question: did ‘Never Been To Me’ set Charlene up for life?
“That’s a whole new story. I don’t get anything. I’m one of those stories in the industry. It was me not taking precautions.”
Indeed, says Charlene, the come-from-behind slow-boiler took her so much by surprise she was in no position to cash in on the success.
“I was offered Vegas at $50,000 a week, but I had no band. I just wasn’t ready and wasn’t prepared, so I couldn’t do it.”
Motown, on the other hand, was ready. It dusted off Charlene’s songs from the seventies and repackaged them, and work began swiftly on a follow-up single, the duet ‘Used To Be’ with Stevie Wonder and a new album. Her gospel album The Sky Is The Limit followed soon after, along with a rock album, Hit & Run Lover.
Although she’s been largely out of the music biz since having children in the late 1980s, Charlene is looking forward to a comeback this year.
“Can lightning strike twice? Well, I’m certainly going to try. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”
July 28, 2006
Donny Osmond interview: June 06 issue
AND THEY CALLED IT...
Ian Wishart catches up with Donny Osmond ahead of his upcoming tours downunder and discovers a pop survivor
(to listen to the podcast of the interview, click here)
It was Wellington, 1973. There was only one TV channel, it was black and white and in our home it beamed in on an old (even then) Bell TV set with an iconic late 50’s US design and a rotating dial numbered 1 to 12 that acted as a channel selector, provided you could find a spanner to wrench it with. With only one channel, programmes rated through the roof, all of them. And in kids TV that season, it didn’t get much bigger than Lost in Space and the Osmonds TV cartoon series.
If it wasn’t enough watching the cartoon Donny being chased by hordes of screaming cartoon chicks across the screen, you could get a dose of the real Donny later in the evening when the weekly dose of the Osmonds live screened for older audiences.
AND THEY CALLED IT….
In other words, the first Donster was inescapable and – being a child superstar – held out by parents everywhere to their kids: “See, look what he’s achieved, and he’s just a few years older than you”, mine would say as they read my lackluster school reports. I remind Osmond of this down the phone line to his Utah home, and he bursts out laughing.
“Yeah, before they ended up hating me!”
They may have called it puppy love once, but thirty-something years later there’s a more mature mongrel edge to the former kid crooner, a sense that life has dished out the same things to Donny Osmond as it has to most of us: love, loss, pleasure, pain, success, crashing failure, hard work, making an honest living and rising again from the wreckage.
Few people know that, apart from singing, Osmond is a master electrician and completely wired his recording studio and home from the ground up. These are skills you learn when the stardom rollercoaster has ground to a halt and you suddenly find yourself with time on your hands and people to feed, as Osmond did when his Donny & Marie TV show ended in 1979. The years that followed pushed him almost to bankruptcy.
“Hand to mouth, basically. It was pretty lean in the early to mid 80s. I was bankrolling everything and I couldn’t get a record deal, couldn’t get a publishing deal, so I was doing demos, and whatever I could do. There was a residual interest out there for Donny and Marie, but that kind of ended in 1985, 1984 because I saw a dead end there. I thought, if I’m going to turn my career around I’ll have to do some drastic things. But I had to do Donny and Marie gigs just to feed the family. I had two mortgages to worry about, trying to sell a home.”
The transition from child star – he was on US national TV at the age of six – to teen idol, was a natural one. But Osmond says the gap between teen idol and adult performer is a much wider bridge to cross.
“Huge! Huge. To make that cross. How do you change the mindset of a whole generation? There’s a certain generation that remembers me for Puppy Love. There’s a certain generation that remembers me just for the Donny and Marie show. How do you alter that, how do you alter history? You just can’t do it.”
“You actually did it quite well in 89 with Soldier of Love,” I venture, recalling the out-of-nowhere hit that took all of us working in radio by surprise that year. I remember the programme director at Auckland’s 89FM playing the new track and trying to make us guess who was singing it, and a collective “you’re kidding??” when the Osmond name was mentioned.
“Yeah,” concedes Osmond, “but see what’s interesting – by the time the Donny and Marie show ended, which was 79, to 89 – that’s a ten year gap. So to a lot of people it was either a surprise to hear that Donny Osmond was recording music like that again, it was a novelty, and it was a whole new generation that discovered me. When Soldier of Love hit it didn’t really feed the bank account that much, but what it did is that it brought up the notoriety to where the demand became a little bit greater. Then Joseph came along and pretty much saved us, and from that point on we were back on track.”
He’s talking about Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, and his invitation to star in the Canadian production in the early 1990s. That, in turn, led to him starring in the movie version of the musical released worldwide in 1999, and public acclaim that continues even to this very afternoon that we’re talking.
“As a matter of fact, this happened today. I was at the hospital watching over my dad, and as I was pushing him outside the hospital, giving him some sunshine in his wheelchair, this little eight year old girl was being pushed and she’d broken her foot or something, she was coming into the hospital, and she was crying but she saw me, looked up to her mum and said, ‘Mum, there’s Joseph!’
“So to her, Puppy Love – what’s that? Donny and Marie – who’s Marie, you know? I’m a different artist to that generation of people.”
And just look how different they can be:
“For instance, this just happened to me an hour ago. They’re building a house right behind our house, and construction workers are no-bull kind of people, and this guy came around with the biggest beard – he looks like a Deadhead follower basically, or he’d go to a Stones concert – and he came over and he was staring at me. And I was putting up a playset in the back yard for my kids, and I thought – this is freakin’ me out here, you know? And so he said, ‘You Donny?’, and reluctantly I said ‘Yeah, what’s your name?’
“He says, ‘I’m Dennis. Do you need any help?’
“ ‘No, I’m fine,” I said.
“ ‘OK, I just wanted to talk to you, because I’ve been following you, I quite like you’.”
“But my point is that if you can have staying power, there’s an amount of respect that not just the industry but the public at large can give you.”
Having endured the hard knocks, Osmond is more appreciative of success these days.
“I guess I’m in a better place now than I’ve ever been, because I’m in control of my career. You analyse the early years, and I was pretty much being dictated to about what to do, when to do it and where to do it. What to sing. Now I can guide the ship myself, and at this point in my life I don’t really have to worry about what next plateau I want to go to, it’s which next plateau would make me happy – just satisfy me as an artist – rather than just a good strategic move to make.”
“Were you happy as a child performer?,” I venture.
“I didn’t know any other life. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Certainly some things weren’t very pleasant, like the amount of work that goes into being in show business. You analyse a lot of other careers and they’ve kind of gone to the wayside, in my opinion, directly because of the lack of work that they won’t put forth, because it takes a lot of work not only to get a career but to maintain a career.”
I wonder aloud if it is a product of faster-shifting tastes, a musical here-today, gone-tomorrow mindset amongst the public.
“Well, there’s several philosophies there,” reflects Osmond. “I’ve certainly had a lot of time to think about why that happens. I call it the iTunes society, everybody just wants little bits and pieces. Music has really become disposable, and along with it so are the bands and the artists. They become yesterday’s dinner, you know, leftovers. And more and more it becomes, instead of flavour of the month, or flavour of the moment, it’s flavour of the nano-moment, nowadays.
“Because you can gain stardom quickly if you get a lucky break – what do they call it over there, Australian Idol – well if you can get a lucky break there you’ve got your 15 Minutes of fame, but then the work starts after that 15 minutes.”
So why is Donny still in the business, still hauling in crowds?
“Tenacity,” he suggests, having released his 54th album last year.
Nostalgia? I ask, or is it that we’re harking back to the seventies and eighties as part of a subconscious yearning for lost innocence?
“Interesting observation,” he reflects after a moment. “I have no idea whether it’s to recapture the innocence, but that’s an interesting way to look at it. I’ve never looked at it that way.”
But for Osmond, he’s also been finding success with cover versions of songs like Neil Finn’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. Why that, I wonder?
“Ah, because I wanted to come back to New Zealand and have a great aud –” Osmond cracks up laughing down the end of the phone, and I have a vision of his trademark grin and wall to wall teeth. “No, I just liked the song! It was weird, when I did that album “Somewhere in Time”, I thought, this is a recording artist’s dream, to be able to just take hits – cherry pick the ones you really love – and do them the way you want to do them, and that was one of them.”
“You also did a good cover of Without You, the Harry Nilsson hit?”.
“That is one tough song to sing. You’ll never see me sing that in concert. It took me three days to get the vocal that I kind of settled on. I mean, there’s always places where an artist wants to tweak and make it a little bit better, but my producer said ‘Leave it alone, that’s exactly the way it should be’. But it was three days of spitting blood trying to hit those high notes.”
Still, according to the comments of those attending his concerts, the boy can still deliver. Nevertheless, when your fanbase stretches from unlikely ZZ-Top look-alikes to eight year olds, and then “legions of nostalgic forty-something women – all clad in de rigour Osmondmania uniform of silky scarf and over-tight spangly T-shirt” as one British reviewer put it, there are “dynamics” to be balanced.
“The difficulty there though is that when you do a concert tour, and mum is all excited about coming to see Donny Osmond, the last thing the teenagers want to do is exactly what mum’s doing. Because that’s for the ‘older generation’. So there’s a dynamic that you kind of have to balance, but every once in a while you look out in the audience and it’s just such a cross-section. But primarily I would say it is the 25 to 55 year old women.”
Father of five – the youngest is eight and the oldest 26 – Donny Osmond is now a grandfather at 48, and happy to have found resonance in his life and 28-year marriage to wife Debbie.
“I’m pretty busy [now]. To the point where it’s nice to be able to turn down gigs. But I like to balance my life a little bit more now than I used to. So I turn down more than I accept.”
Having said that, he’s also apologetic about having to postpone his NZ concerts until the end of July due to a terminal illness in the family, but says he’s looking forward to making his first trip here since 1981, trusty video iPod in hand to keep him company on the long flight, packed with thousands of songs including current favourites, Coldplay.
The Donster epitomizes the drive within him. From a seventies child star when CDs hadn’t even been invented, not only has he outlasted most of his peers but he’s happily embraced the latest technology and bands. If that’s not staying power, I’m not sure what is.