Saturday, 12 January 2013

Cher - Dark Lady (1974)

He hit the gass

US #69, CAN #20

The last of Cher's three solo albums that housed her 70s US #1s, and the least successful. Finally divorcing Sonny, and going public after two years of separation, this would be the start of Cher's constant press about ill-advised lovers, mysterious illnesses, divorce and custody battles. Cher remained a top draw, winning a Golden Globe that year for The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (which would now finish). Another mixture of theatrical pop and standards, the execution is certainly slicker than ever. If the formula is predictable, Cher herself explained:

I could do a whole album with Snuffy [Garrett] in three days. I'd sing each song through two or three times and, if you got it, it was on to the next one ... We were on the road, I was recording, and we were doing the Sonny &; Cher Show, all at the same time! I was fried! I did the best that I could [fitting] each obligation into what little time was allotted.

With a voice that hits you like one, gutsy opener Train of Thought is the singer at full pelt. It's almost a straight-forward rocker, but as ever comes off its hinges somewhat as another deranged theatrical joyride. Perhaps the raspy aggression lacked the 'gypsy fatale' slant and threw too much caution to the wind for record buyers, but many Cher fans consider this a 'first class ticket' and one of her most underrated singles. The more languid I Saw A Man And He Danced With His Wife isn't quite so in your face, and was a moderate domestic hit. It will draw you in, but doesn't draw too much attention to itself, much like the jealousy of watching from the sidelines with the deflation of defeat. Make The Man Love Me is standard fare for Cher in this decade, but does the job very well. The longing Cher conveys is slightly tempestuous compared to the soul-grit of Dusty Springfield's version (recorded for a shelved 1972 album). Yet another pop love ballad Just What I've Been Looking For is certainly no grand prize, but sits well as a slightly country-tinged album track. Dixie Girl has a lush acoustic setting, the narrative is a table-waiting woman "passing herself around", but (much like 99% of her fan-base) it's far too passive for its own good.

Despite the set-up of Gypsies (1971), Half-Breed (1973) and Dark Lady being similar, the latter refined the penchant for crass dramatic flourishes on the lead single. It's lurid tale builds to a gory climax that serves as a role-reversal of sorts, where Cher herself becomes the dark lady in question after shooting the fortune teller warning and scorning her to leave town. Cher herself was embarrassed by this song, possibly because it sounded nothing like the singer-songwriter rock music she longed to sing, and perhaps because she was now keen to shed an old image tied to her connection with what's his face. It would be nearly 25 years before Cher would perform her vintage solo number ones again on tour.

The scene of a dark and morbid environment lit by candles and inhabited by women driven insane by lust and revenge is high class trash personified. The stabbing orchestra simulates the overwhelming urges of Cher's sordid tale, as if it were mere ritual, and the wanton abandon of her graphic, sharp, shuddering and bullet-proof vocal is almost too Cher to function. The image of a pair of legs wrapped in fish-nets emerging from a limousine in this ostentatious place she identifies as New Orleans always excited me as a young boy - I think it was my own version of Dolly Parton's story about admiring the glamour of her local town's prostitute as a young girl. Cher's cackling recital sounds like she's frothing at the mouth. The fade out increases the sense of doom with an open-ended finale even after the punchline. Cher has said the song is "ridiculous" and yes, yes it is!

Rescue Me. Yes, that one. Sounding like she recorded it in 15 minutes maximum, the styling has all the trappings of what you'd expect Cher to open her and Sonny's television show with, and drag queens could pick a worse song to practice their imitations with. Released as a promotional single only. Of all Cher's less than original songs chosen to cover, there is something rather special about What'll I Do. For one, the production brings into focus the same elements arranged so wonderfully on her hit The Way of Love. The voice is soft and sounds absolutely miserable. I unashamedly love this.

Bitchy tribute to Bette Midler, Miss Subway of 1952 is the most affected Cher has ever been on record, sounding like an extension of her own infamous Laverne persona. "To my idol, the Divine, let's hope it never happens to us" sounds sincere enough, but with the way their relations have plaid out over the years I'm rather fond of assuming the passive-aggression is all aimed at the Hocus Pocus star even if it clearly wasn't. The story between Cher and Bette is an interesting one. Very much peers, they were friends of sorts and Midler appeared on Cher's solo TV show to boot. 

Sticking the actual boot in, at a 1998 American awards show whilst Believe was taking its time to properly take off in America, Bette took to the stage and remarked that at least she wasn't someone who used to be be famous trying to be famous again. Cher's 1980 Take Me Home tour even featured drag queens impersonating both Bette and Diana Ross. Nevertheless, on this song Cher's voice plays to the era it pursues, and also playfully subtly mimics Midler. "She's gotten just a little saggy and her skin's a trifle baggy" is the kind of dialogue exchanged between female Hollywood rivals I love (and why Death Becomes Her is one of my top 5 films).

Bob Stone (Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves) wrote the crisp closer Apples Don't Fall Far From The Tree, and it shows. I'd have threw it off as a single. This is no sequel to the song he is known for, but the chorus is one of those blue-sky pop moments. If it's too straight-laced for some, there is the husky "hey-honey" refrain and an opening line about Cher learning to paint her face from her mother, which takes on a new resonance after the Burlesque scene Cher wrote herself that she based on her real-life mother showing her the basics in slap (with Christina Aguilera of all people playing the student).

Despite the slight disappointment of Dark Lady's eventual sales, Cher was a free woman and her next musical endeavors are arguably the finest of her entire career.

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