Sunday, 30 December 2012

Cher - Backstage (1968)

Backstage is the first major stylistic shift from Cher is also the first of her truly neglected albums. The album failed to chart and yielded no hit singles anywhere.

The bluesy opener Go Now is low key and moody. It totally puts Cyndi's Memphis Blues to shame. Its slow pace is a dream: the busy organ sounds, strings and smoldering guitar elements melting into something much more mature and restraint than before. Most of the covers are equally as successful. A real highlight is the subtle and soft textures of her dark Carnival. Her voice is impressive: rather than pouncing in loudly, it showcases in turn its husky prowess and capability for a softer, more rich approach. 

The dreamy equation It All Adds Up Now is a romantic vehicle. The simplicity of the ballad Reason To Believe is another bold stroke that pays off. "Knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried" flickers with a sentiment that Cher's delivering both because and beyond the lyric - her vocal expertise is well in truly coming into its own.

The brilliant Dylan cover Masters of War is deliciously cynical sounding. Seething slyly through a curtain of Indian influences, Cher sounds dry as ever but hugely passionate - her deadpan disdain is a thing of beauty. "And I hope that you die and your debt will come soon" couldn't be anymore brutal, until the final kiss-off. It plays perfectly alongside her more well known narrative songs.

She gets her stellar groove back on Do You Believe In Magic, and thank god for that. What is most impressive is that she's straddling between genres with an innate conviction that's accomplished without growling or sounding out of her comfort zone. Each song is sounding custom-designed. Her heavy flow continues on I Wasn't Ready, with more blues influences giving the groove more oomph.

Scaring the shit out of Dionne, A House Is Not A Home is dry and the production mimicking the splinters in a relationship, all the while Cher croons more smoothly than Jane McDonald polishing off a litre of gin in her bunker. Offering more still, Take Me For A Little While is girl-group heaven, supremely easy on the ears. "I gotta stop it." Those backing vocals are subtle but oh so effective. It's hard not to imagine her improvising some stand-still hand choreography whilst recording it.

The Impossible Dream pushes Cher to her voice-breaking limit.There are some unpleasant sounds here, but it's never any less than gripping. The musicality is lush and forgiving. The Click Song is just daft. I can't defend it objectively, but the bizarre choice of cover made it something of a Crickets Sing For Anamaria of its day. It would have sounded great as a dance number for Rita Hayworth in her 1953 film Miss Sadie Thompson. Ending on a terrific downer, Song Called Children is a dreamy piano ballad, with dashings of little twists and turns to its fragile melody and bare arrangement. I'd love to hear Cher sing this live as she is now - it's full of light and shade, and so sorry for itself at times. Exquisite. 

So there we have it. Cher's best 60s album, a flop. Her best 70s album, a flop, Her best 80s album, a flop. And so on. A commercial back-step, but a leap in maturity and interpretation. The songs are saturated in smoother grooves, moodier inflections and an overall sophisticated flair that make Cher herself sound like the sole reason the albums exists and not merely just lucky to be singing them.

Cher - With Love (1967)

US #47

Consistently considered Cher's strongest 60s set, With Love immediately benefits from her continually improving vocals, which are now richer with more agility and power. We're still not gliding at the same heights as on her 70s vintage peak, but it's still noticeable.

Morphing into a man well before Chaz, Cher doesn't bother to adapt the gender of You Better Sit Down Kids (US #9, CAN #7) of which Sonny had recorded first. It's the most famous Cher song here. It would be 4 years before she would grace the US top 10 again.

Failing to unlock the charts, Behind The Door (US #97, CAN #74) slams shut the fey pop she started out with in favour of the theatrical leanings of her most popular work from the following decade. One of the album's biggest growers. Initially I hated it, but I love the sense of foreboding drama that's almost too contrived to take seriously. 

Taken from the soundtrack to the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (sadly not a Cher pun), I Will Wait For You is a familiar whimsical and flighty sounding ballad with a serene string section stretching things out. Cher sings really well on it, without being drowned out or trying to hard to sing above it all.

The commercially infertile Mama (When My Dollies Have Babies) (US #124, CAN #45) is a tad meandering for my taste. The po-faced drama of the chorus is completely undermined by the fact that she is singing about her dollies having a babies. I'd say it's actually dreadful, but merely interesting for the fact that it seemed controversial for its time (and I do love this theme of Cher herself, or with Sonny, taking the American facade apart whether on purpose or not - no one was listening anyway).

The predictable Dylan cover The Time's They Are A-Changing seems like an ironic admission as to why her record sales were slowing down. My least favourite of her Dylan setlist (I'm highly surprised they were never grouped together for one separate project, which may have just sent the man himself over the edge).

But I Can't Love You More safely covers familiar ground and could easily slot into any of her previous LPs. Similarly, Look At Me is light on the ears for the same reasons (but is much better).

The show number Sing For Your Supper signifies the direction her career would soon take (songs such as this would be common place on her TV shows). On this evidence, songs such as this explain her nimble frame. 

Hello, Hey Joe (US #94), you wanna give it a go? It's a slow-burning bluesy number that gets to grips with yet more gun-related solutions. Cher's hollering with no specific aim, but thankfully avoids the rabid frothing at the mouth style she'd growl with on some of her 80s material. It understandably wasn't a hit, but does deserve attention.

There But For Fortune flirts with the chiming motif of her early records, but has a plaintive quality that's really lovely. It's also nice to hear some of the gravel-like textures to her voice alongside the smoother form being showcased. One of the highlights here.

Sadly record buyers treated With Love with indifference, which is a crying shame. The vocal improvement is a big draw for me, but it's not as songful as her debut even if it's a more accomplished record overall.

Cher - Chér (1966)

US #59 

Moving swiftly on to her self-titled third album, which may as well serve as a warning to the overall lack of originality. Of the covers, she's aiming too high: competing with Dusty Springfield on an unnecessary You Don't Have To Say You Love Me was ridiculous, although I've always enjoyed the way she seems to slur "just be close at hand" in a rather rushed manner. Her version of Alfie (US #32, CAN #26) is the one that appears on the official soundtrack, but the Dionne Warwick reading has became the most well known. Cher would later re-record the song for the movie's 2004 remake, but when test audiences thanked her with laughter the idea was quickly scrapped. Will You Love Me Tomorrow makes me hope the answer was no. Cher never suited such drippyness (even on I Got You Babe she was sticking the knife in to her soul mate). Sunny (UK #32, NED #2) is a huge success, the steady charge of the enthusiastic musical elements and Cher's grimacing chorus really take hold. Until It's Time For You To Go breathes some of the same French air of the previous record, and has always been a personal highlight - the holler of the chorus worth every dollar of the album cost. Homeward Bound is another soft stream of folk-pop agonies. 12th of Never is good, coated with a serenade of lush instruments. I Want You maintains the form of all her Dylan ditties - far more chirpier than the notable Sophie B Hawkins version, which is more meditative. Sonny's I Feel Something In The Air (CAN #89, UK #43) considers unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock with a pretty chorus, which perhaps explains why it never went full term at radio. A what will the neighbours say? for the 60s as she ruefully considers what people will think of her for being such a slut.

Despite its abysmal chart placing, the album sold moderately well in the US. Another souvenir of the showbiz Cher tale, but sidestepping some of the covers its another more than decent LP under her Bob Mackie sleeve. The simplicity of many of the arrangements have meant time has been relatively kind.

Cher - The Sonny Side of Chér (1966)

US #26, UK #11

Taking forever to release more music, Cher finally released another album 4 months after her debut. Leaving so long between operations has something she's tried hard not to repeat ever since of course. On her second solo shot, the clear stand out is Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) (US #2, UK #3). The song is brittle and fully-loaded with atmospheric strings, chilly flourishes and a casual off the cuff quality, all the while the lyrics drag with adulthood disappointments of a graphic nature. It boils my blood whenever Cher's original version (which was a major hit to boot) is overlooked in favour of the more "fashionable" Nancy Sinatra version. You could say we have the template for the broken woman anthems, of which I am sure she has referred to as "the whore ballads" (ie, her big US pop number 1s Gypsies, Half Breed and in particular Dark Lady).

Bono's wistful Where Do You Go (US #25) does a good enough job trying to be Bob Dylan. Tackling the subject of a broken family, the close to home forecast is evident in hindsight with Cher's gentle but lingering coos and the juxtaposition with the jaunty arrangement seemingly magnifying the real life outcome.

A European influence breezes through Our Day Will Come: the vocal still lacks the subtlety she will master in the 70s, but the sharper edges remain pleasing and a unique pleasure.

Ellusive Butterfly flutters with much the same arrangements. For those unfamiliar with the original, like myself, this is serviceable if not terribly exciting.

Excavating Dylan's songbook yet again, Like A Rolling Stone is tremendous. The arrangements ache and echo with the kind of melancholia waltzing through some of Sonny & Cher's hits.

Come To Your Window (US #23) is more smashed in and clattering arrangements. I'm fond of it whenever it comes on, but I can't deny it's 'framed' (okay I'll stop) with much of what you can hear on any other song from the period.

Slightly disappointing, The Girl From Ipanema really needed a gear change in Cher's vocals. Instead her drawl just sounds bored, which is a shame as singing more quietly and expressively could have made this rather special.

I get no satisfaction from It's Not Unusual. Similarly naff, Milord must have sounded dated even then, but has a quaint charm to the speed increase during the chorus and the velvety story telling of the verses, which make it good fun for what it is.

Bang Bang is magnificent, Cher has a stronger and more confident presence and the arrangements are seeking influences from further afield. Another important stepping-stone in her 30 album + career. Taking Cher at face value has always been her problem, but her early albums cannot be denied their merit.

Cher - All I Really Want To Do (1965)

US #16, UK #7

Like any shy young docile man with a deep throat hiding behind an older man's shadow, going solo (with a future of fake tan, Oscar winning performances and a penchant for a wig every now and then) was only a matter of time. But onto Cher, let's rewind back to when it all began. The clink-clank Spector-influenced pop of Cher's Dylan cover All I Really Want To Do (US #15, UK #9) was her first major hit as a solo act after a few experiments under different pseudonyms. Sonny Bono was not quite a protege of Phil Spector, but the connection is evident in his own approach of using intricate production layers and doubling up specific parts. The starry-eyed moment is understandably adorable and precocious: catching a glimpse of the singer at a particular moment in time, right at the start, and with the benefit of hindsight the song is soaked in a nostalgia that makes every flaw going seem as though it couldn't be more perfect. I'm really partial to this era of Cher music, but the repetition of this sound will wear thin on subsequent albums. Cher's dense vocal quality is basically the cement that holds everything together - a solid substance that pretty much renders all of her recordings as structures to be admired whether what's going on is pleasing or not. Cher's voice of steel is strong, but she sounds as if she doesn't quite no how to fully utilize it on this opening song. Here, her brazen approach benefits the lyric, which is in turns shy and defeated, then bold and determined the next. Dipping into the songbook of Bob Dylan was something of a habit for Cher in the 60s (much to the suppressed irritation of the man himself), but the overrated curmudgeon should be grateful as they are wonderful readings.

The same dreamy density of production is applied to I Go To Sleep, but with slightly more whimsical flourishes. Again, Cher's drowsy drawl is captivating in its most raw form, and sounds both naive and appalled by unthinkable nightmares at the same time.

Folk-pop classic Needles & Pins is a by now familiar Cher sensation: Cher's burning voice is especially haunting and wayward. A missed opportunity as the Sonny Bono co-write became a hit in the UK, but not for Cher.

My very favourite early Cher song of all, Don't Think Twice, It's Alright is a plodding, pavement-gazing number. The vocal is in turns pure, plaintive and pouring with her distinctive passion. The gentle Blowin' In The Wind is restraint and beautifully makes use of the harsh sandpaper texture of her voice.

Switching the gender of the original faster than Chaz armed with a staple gun, He Thinks I Still Care is predictable, but endearing and fully committed to the style of the record. You know what to expect.

Oh here we go. Dream Baby was one of her solo false starts, but this is fueled with all the familiar 60s Cher splashings of Spector, a hold-steady girl-group tempo to the sensual rhythm of the verses ("and I ... feel so good") and a sing-song sensibility in the trail of The Beatles.

The Bells of St Rhymney is yet more startled, sparkly, strummy folk-pop. With a voice so androgynous, it sounds as if that throat of her's is like a caldron that could cough up coal, or maybe one is just stuck there.

I'll group together Girl Don't ComeSee See Rider and Cry Myself To Sleep. They're pretty perfunctory filler. Curiosity value only.

Back on track, Come And Stay With Me never fails to put a delirious smile on my face. The stop-start thumps give the song an amateur feel, with Cher's unflinching conviction seemingly oblivious to the slightly rushed and clumsy clatter of sound clouding around her.

Many of these songs offer the same chimes and overall style, but it's a record that stands up as a bold and casual introduction for Cher as a solo threat. She's anything but subtle, but her approach is exactly what renders the whole affair so engaging.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Lena Philipsson - Världen Snurrar (2012)

Making a comeback earlier this year, Lena's new album is drunk on dance, but not without a contemplative trio of closing tracks to cure any hangover from the sublime club crusades. The first 7 tracks are so joyous, the final three take a down-tempo turn when the album has something of a power cut, which is worth it to finally arrive at the very special track 8. Lena and her emotive voice thrives in any setting: milking the Swedish pink pound or the whimsical acoustic benders to coax back everyone else. 

The dramatically charged du följer väl med really gets this thing going. She's on fine vocal form, even if when spouting off "du följer fäl, du följer fäl, du följer fäl" like she's just bit her tongue. The lower tone is noticeable compared to her vintage prime, but the sheer euphoric ejaculation of the chorus is divine.

Arrving on a bed of piano keys and atmospheric synths, Live Tomorrow has a plaintive disco pulse as Lena comforts herself with lyrics that appeal to the environment around her to alleviate doubts of her own mortality. It's very Gloria Swanson meets Gina G meets someone who can sing and stuff. The way she emotes is sensational: "I don't like to wait" sounds like a command and regret simultaneously. The swirling disco pathos of the airy pause of the middle eight before she wails into the moonlight is a proper goosebumps moment. 

bli galen is so fabulous it barely remembers to have a melody. Only a diva can keep you waiting for a full minute before deciding to do some singing. Devoting myself to words I don't understand, this is such an absorbing creation for something so throwaway in its essence.

Idiot is a dreamy blend of gentle keyboard treats and Lena's effortless diva treacle dripping all over it.

The shiny synthesized momentum of vart tog du vägen is gentle and the Moroder-esque rhythms is impossible to resist.

When the piano sounds trip over the campy disco elements and Lena yelps for the sheer glorious abandon of it all, igen och igen really ebbs, flows, throbs and spurts with all the dance-pop juices I could ever ask for. Undeniable.

The summit of the 7 track operation, världen snurrar is another masterstroke execution of her glamorous vocal flair and the fluid pulsating decadence of it all.

The abrupt shift into folk music is justified by the beauty of ett hjärta. Parts of it remind me of the pre-chorus to the Bluetones' Slight Return, parts of it remind me of My Guy (let's just say Whoopi Goldberg sang that one). If I had the time or self-pity I'd have a cry to it, it's so lovely.

Piano ballad botten is nådd is nice enought, with some wonderfully expressive deliveries (especially of the title lyric along with the addition of strings).nästasSäsong is more poised and more taken with the idea of having a chorus - one of longing and a drum beat to keep things moving in her 5 glasses later swept up fashion.

So the erogenous zones are most definitely the first gin-soaked disco vibes of the first 7 cuts, but overall the resulting pop is a huge score and the ballads sound like three gorgeous numbers she was keeping for a rainy day.

Lena Philipsson - Fantasy (1993)

So much of what on offer here owes itself to soft dance-pop grooves melted into Rn’B inclinations, with the whole shebang given a mid-tempo house gloss. Think Cathy Dennis delivering quality album tracks as if her life depended on it. What Lena has going for is her strong, sultry voice, powerfully restrained and prone to getting hot under the collar with ad libs most divas would sell their souls for.

The clear stand out for me is the hypnotic Give Me Your Love, piano keys rippling on top of some intoxicating keyboard riffs and typically flashy dance drum-machines clattering to make the most of the seething rhythm. Or something euro-dancey along those lines. It's a deluxe disco showcase, and one where Philipsson finds her best form. Immersed in its Moroder-esque synthesized votlage, the title track is no less alluring.

Elsewhere, For The Love Of You is a phoney sentiment (as if she'd give up ANYTHING for her man), but the sheer performance elevates the competent song-craft with her innate diva allure. There's a cover some song called Take My Breath Away: Lena naturally doesn't even break a sweat, and although the contemporary dance make-over gets going in a subtle manner, it's nothing more than a mildly titillating curiosity. On Make It Last, an after-hours torch song, the party has finished, but Lena is set adrift, getting her sax-appeal on with some lovelorn emotions.

Overall, solid and sporadically impressive.

Lena Philipsson - Dansa i neon (1987)

This is an album at times incredibly exciting, exalting, emotional or else just explosive. Singer Lena pushes herself into emotional extremes that I’ll never understand without enrolling in a Swedish night class. Drenched in romantic intensity and soaring vocal flourishes, I was not expecting something this advanced from a second album by someone so young (the only person younger at the time would have been Kelly Llorenna).

The well-executed Saknar dej innan du går is romantic, expressive and sharply melodic. Lena’s radiant (and at times slightly haughty) delivery of the chorus is restrained and just gorgeous. The track itself is atmospheric and uplifting. The folky texture juxtaposed with an ornate dance setting is a winning formula. 

Dansa i neon is immediately stark and hypnotic. With a trembling chorus that ignites into something ABBA would have been proud of, the production values are fully immersed in Lena's heart-felt tumult. I don't understand a word, but I'm thrilled to hear it.

Performing her seriously experienced feelings on Du är mitt liv goes over my head, but the performance is ravishing. The salsa textures are a climax and a half.

In such a torrid climate of humid pop romance fever, it's only expected some sort of slow number would wash ashore. Regn faller is poignant in ways I'll never realize, the production is minor and yet decorated with synths, ripples and a slightly Disney-esque odor (think more Aerial in a curtain-rope ensemble than Ursala all the while in a black ensemble). This could easily have been serviced to Tina Arena, but Lena lends her untouchable charisma and makes it her own.

Within two seconds of Den ende’s unmistakable intro, I had gasped "OH MY GOD". This really is something. Lena is alert and bellowing like a pro, the bass is throbbing and trumpets blow their load in expert fashion. Resign yourself to how amazing she is.

Cheerio wouldn’t have been my choice for a single, and singing "cherry o" sounds more like a new brand of yoghurts, but the delivery is pure theatre. Maudlin for some, by the time the guitar spikes itself in the middle it's somewhat dramatic. Pushing her pipes in heroic fashion.

Sommartid has a bracing, dramatic energy. 

Wistful midtempo Ah vad jag längtar is also fairly good.

Kom du av dej has a mostly delicate vocal propelled by gorgeous 80s electronic noises. It really is impressive. Lena bides her time before wailing whenever it sounds best to. During the chorus I keep singing Sandi Toksvig though.

Om jag fick is incredibly pretty. The shimmery keyboards soon build like a blocked toilet and the schlock gets overflowing with foreign matter (of the heart).

Säg det nu is a thick mix of footloose dance rhythms. A familiar-sounding arrangement, one of the only times there is a mere hint to aping other people’s sounds.

The harder discotheque edges of Det går väl an inhabit yet more dazzling dance dimensions

Jubilant lamentations of the disco-driven ballad Kärleken är evig lay all her love on the discothèque. Stylishly emphasizing melancholia on a triumphant sounding throb, to throw such a highlight this far into an album illustrates the epic scale we are dealing with here. 

Jag känner is more straight-up and anthem, sounding hysterical without forgetting to be catchy. Her wonderfully theatrical flair is utilized to full effect: a wounded wail, a soothing coo, a gasp. On this chorus I sing the name Kris Jenner.

Yet more invention thrown into her dance-pop cocktail formula, Jag sänder på min radio is hauntingly jaunty and uplifting. Shaken, stirred and drugged up to the 9s.

My mind was truly boggling as to how she was going finish herself off. Surprisingly, not on her own. Roping in someone male, who can sing and I couldn't google the name of, on Löpa linan ut, I was hoping for a dance-pop synth-driven monster: instead the mood is more pensive and mid-tempo, but she still manages to end the album on a high note. Its percussion sections sound like the fizzy hook to the Pointer Sisters' Automatic.

Truly brilliant album: sometimes dance-pop, sometimes drunk on ballads with a kick to them, but always rich and exquisitely executed. Invigorating.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Cher: The Casablanca Years (Part 1)

Album #15 from Cher drove her to the disco and jived her back into the charts. Take Me Home was released in early 1979 at the height of disco and peaked at #25 in the USA and was far too decadent to do anything else in any other venue. Newly signed to Cassablanca, the label home of Donna Summer (who refused to let Cher have her song Bad Girls when she wasn't keen on releasing it straight away), the album finds the singer in strong form in doing her best to ignite some pretty poor material in among the odd gem.

Cher and disco were a more natural fit than Chaz in size 22 dungarees. After all, what is more inviting than a husky deadpan tranny in sequins asking you to go home with them on? Take Me Home has been an enduring hit for Cher over the years in America, and the song was finally brought to the attention of the UK when Sophie Ellis-Bextor had the audacity to cover it and rile up nana Cher with a few disgusting additional lyrics ("it's gonna happen anyway" was Cher's biggest upset since Chastity revealed how much she loved gammon slices, and that she was a lesbian as well).


Wasn't It good sips from the same cup, but doesn't quite have the same heat. Elevated by a truly compelling spoken word section: "Whoo! Was it, was it really good? Oooh you loved it didn't you love it? Ho-ho god I'm so, grrrrrr, shoot I got it good! Ooh did you love it, did you dig it?"


Say The Word doesn't have much to say, and is a bunch of cliches given the generic disco treatment. 


Happy Was The Day We Met melts into the same arrangements as any other faceless and forgettable disco track, but at least she bellows a little on the chorus with a few cheery stop-starts to the rhythm.


Blow-job queen anthem Git Down (Guitar Groupie) spits Cher's trademark rock venom and swallows a whole bunch of pseudo rock-raunch sounds. Cher cackling "shady lady from the ghetto" and "what a fuckin' reputation is gonna follow me around all over town?" is her best oral in years. Such a hardcore performance might have had something to do with then-lover Gene Simmons' involvement.


Love & Pain gets one of those qualities down to a tee. Cher gets into it with real gusto and thunderous steel. She's positively quaking and foaming at the heavily lip-glossed lips (with bits of her real hair stuck to them) as she hollers the chorus with no clear indication where the passion is coming from.


Let This Be A Lesson To You is more mid-tempo disco jollies. It sounds more like a line-dancing class than Studio 54.


It's Too Late To Love Me Now is a gentle country-tinged ballad. Cher's the club singer at the ranch called Bar Nothing. The disco has faded, and Donna Summer wouldn't have lost any sleep over this one.


My Song (Too Far Gone) clears the disco floor completely. Maudlin and a real skid-mark on the album.