Michael Dwyer tracks through 60 years of bona fide classics from the Female Vocal vinyl racks of Universal: Ella & Louis, Dusty In Memphis, Portishead’s Dummy, Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black and Pure Heroine by Lorde.
Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?” Sigh. A woman’s life sure was peachy back in Ella Fitzgerald‘s day. The blueness of the sky, the fogginess of London, the April-ness of Paris, the starriness of Alabama, the moonlight over Vermont, the “Nearness” of the fella who takes her out dancing, cheek to cheek… Heaven. She’s in heaven. Sampling the Female Vocal section of a well-stocked record store, a visitor from another planet might be persuaded that 1956 was a golden age for the female of the species.
This one with the gentle smile and slow, heart-melting throb in her voice must have been some kind of queen.
This Louis Armstrong bloke sounds like a right gent, forever deferring as a duet partner and brandishing that golden horn like a magnificent bouquet. And if there’s a more romantic posse of chaperones than Oscar Petersen, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich, well, you won’t find them outside the jazz section.
Another genre, another decade, another goddess in the Classics bin, but times seem tougher for Dusty Springfield circa ’69. Maybe it’s just that she wants more from her menfolk: just a little lovin’, early in the mornin’ – followed by breakfast in bed, no less. There’s a yearning in her voice, a dawning awareness that the script she’s been handed can sell her short (sons of preacher men notably excepted).
The liner notes tell us she’s made it here to Memphis alone, the rose of British pop trying on an R&B groove with lazy soul horns and a smokin’ harmony section called the Sweet Inspirations. It’s almost like this dame doesn’t know her place – or just doesn’t care to stay in it. It’s enough to give the ladies uppity ideas for generations to come. Flip forward a few decades and Ella’s sultry jazz and Dusty’s blue-eyed soul have morphed into something unspeakably bleak by ’94. Portishead‘s Beth Gibbons is wailing a modern world of anxiety from the soundstage of some dystopian arthouse movie, a woman in a cage of confused expectations. Who are these Mysterons that haunt her as the theremin raises the stuttering curtain? Sour Times? Strangers? Numb? Er, Biscuit? “Give me a reason to love you,” pleads, a last gasp of desperation in the crackling grooves of Glory Box. “Give me a reason to be… a woman.”
Grainy, glossy images inside the gatefold, like closed-circuit screenshots from a crime scene, complete a gorgeously cinematic package. To the alien forensic party, Dummy must read like a fabulous 3D freeze-frame from the point where everything started to go terribly wrong for these Earth women. Still, they were nothing if not resilient. Take this Amy Winehouse character. They tried to make her go to rehab, but she made it quite clear she was immovably opposed. The guy with the rolled-up sleeves on his skull t-shirt sounds like a nasty piece of work, but she flirts with that kinda danger in much the same way Dusty Springfield ate breakfast.
A dead-set R&B classic in 2007, Back To Black seems less an album out of time as an affirmation that life is forever a losing game to some. Tears dry on their own, folks wake up alone – and nothing rhymes quite so well with Addicted. There are no further records by Amy Winehouse in the racks. As if this one, from scalding lyric sheet to heartbreaking photo album, wasn’t already a keeper.
Time speeds up. Flip just six years ahead and there’s a heckuva lot of black on the cover of Pure Heroine: smooth gatefold panels and implacable grey words on page after page of deepest night sky. It’s like everything that’s come before has saturated the canvas. There’s just room for a stylised medallion representing the new pop goddess, a timeless emblem of every woman who wants it.
Lorde‘s music has the slow drag of soul in it, and the muted electro undertow of trip-hop, but she’s singularly unimpressed with the world as she’s found it and quietly cocksure about moulding it to her own image. “It’s a new artform, showing people how little we care,” she sniffs. She craves a different kind of buzz. She’ll get it, too. This is 2013.
In the middle of the 20 pages of blackness, there’s room for just two actual photographs of the new woman under wild torrents of hair, each framed in a sudden, shocking flash of white light. Wow. So young. So in control. So ‘What’s next?’. The visitor makes his way to the counter to order up Melodrama. It’s a lovely day to be caught in the rain.