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KIRSTY MacCOLL

Electric Landlady
Rating: 9
   Why is it I love this music so much? It's not just the fabulous voice (in multi-tracked glory throughout), the brilliant arrangements, or the sharp production (although these are all wonderful) — it's knowing that Kirsty MacColl respects her listener. With so many records, there's a half-thought-out approach, a bit of "that'll do", but Kirsty's full of intelligence, precision and honesty. (Speaking of half-thought-out, do you get the impression our "president" doesn't understand science? I expect him to say there's no evidence of global warming, willing thrall of the oil companies that he is (sure, Antarctic ice shelves collapse all the time!), but when he says any benefits of stem cell research are "speculative", you have to scratch your head. I mean, that's what science is: informed speculation. Hasn't he heard of a hypothesis?)
   Back to Electric Landlady, second in a string of brilliant albums that makes you want to throttle the people running the record industry for keeping her out of the studio for years at a time. MacColl was sharp as a tack, both musically and lyrically, and every moment here is a triumph. There's a subtle movement throughout the album musically that reinforces her theme that artifice is the great threat to emotional health, as the electronics (even electric guitars) gradually disappear from the songs as the album progresses, leaving us at the end with a string of acoustic arrangements that ends with the Pogues.
   What makes this music stand out is that it's sophisticated. I don't mean it's complicated, just that there's nothing glaringly obvious about it. Other songwriters want to take their hooks and rub them in your face, or drag their deep" lyrics before your disbelieving gaze for inspection, MacColl is content to let the little things lead the listener: a gentle guitar line in "Halloween", a fetching turn of phrase ("feeling my way home"), a perky rhythmic bed. And what they lead to is some of the best songs you'll ever want to hear.
   Although Kirsty MacColl was only an average melodist, she did well with her resources. She's especially good at smoothing the joints: you'll never catch her repeating the same phrase twice in a verse when she can change a few notes the second time around, and her ways of linking between verses and chorus with a pivot on a shared word is pretty impressive. And her tunes are certainly catchy enough. Her voice is a great asset as well. It's got a certain penetrating power without being strident, and the harmonies she creates in double-, triple-, and quadruple-tracking herself give the tunes a lot of oomph.
   And what she's singing is not only tuneful, it's powerful; every song has a concision of expression that remarkably compresses reams of emotion into a couple lines, and there's lots of ironic wit to leaven the proceedings. MacColl knows you don't need to hear about teenage lust or the latest dance, but you could benefit from some insight into a modern woman's struggles. Over an endless variety of arrangements, from bubbling folk ("All I Ever Wanted") to hip-hop ("Walking Down Madison", with an ill-advised guest rap), to samba ("My Affair") to a pulsing bed of guitars ("Lying Down"), she sings with passion and clarity of deep memories, sadder-but-wiser reflections, and determination to stand up in the face of it all.
Kirsty MacColl knows her listeners expect something more than a big hook, and she delivers song after song filled with clever licks, unexpected melodies, and real insight. Brilliant throughout, and you'll feel better for having listened.

READER COMMENTS

  • From Adrian Denning: You give a nine to a Kirsty MacColl record? Granted, 'Walking Down Madison' is a fine song, but a nine???? Ah well. She did do a fine cover of a fine Billy Bragg song after all - so deserves respect for that alone.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Dahaaha." Steve says: "Although I don't think I conveyed it well in this review (not my finest work), for my money Kirsty MacColl was one of the top songwriters working in the 80's and 90's. I'd give all her records 8 or 9 ratings. Thanks for writing!"

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