AAAAAH, JOAN, Shall I compare thee to a summer rose? Not just now, but how about ‘The Summertime Blues’? At least Eddie Cochran is something new in the critic’s implacable pursuit of resemblances between our lady and Join Mitchell, Van Morrison etc.
It’s not the late maestro’s vocal tones I’m referring to but his distinctive acoustic guitar style. When you have purchased a copy of Show Some Emotion (‘if’ is a non-starter provided you have four pound notes to rub together), lend an ear to ‘Mama Mercy’ and see what I mean. Of course she hasn’t ripped off the ‘Summertime’ riff – she has recaptured and rekindled every sparky, spunky ounce of flair and attack that Cochran used to beat out of his acoustic.
The signs were there on her last British tour when she took a solo spot with all the bravura confidence of a heavy metal hero. In the studio she’s taken the exploration of her talent as total musician a lot further. That guitar is the dominant undertone of ‘Show Some Emotion’ – trilling sweetly through ‘Woncha Come On Home’, whacking out the rhythm in ‘Mama Mercy’, jazzing counterpoint duets with herself in ‘Opportunity’, hitting a percussive line as dry as the Sahara in ‘Kissin’ And A Huggin”.
It’s a new freedom for her, that strong rhythm hand. Joan Armatrading and Back To The Night were generally vocals plus backing, the songs flowing with the grace, beauty and emotion of her voice but rarely taking their impetus from the instruments. Now she has opened up a whole new range of rocking funky reggae for herself. I can just see that Klieg-light smile spreading.
But there again I voted each of her previous two offerings my number one albums of the year. With all my love for the lady, I am straining at the leash to tell you this is better than bliss, sorta supersuper superlative. As to the half star, a gesture of great restraint I assure you. Because I have to admit that after rolling it round my mind many times I feel it’s only wonderful, I suppose the reason my spine doesn’t tingle to quite the same extent as before is that whereas many other people; have played around the rhythmic territory of Show Some Emotion with similar skill and spirit nobody else could ever write or sing the slow soul ballads of Joan Armatrading with the same intimacy and intensity.
OK. That’s the degree of loss. It’s marginal. What you gain is her singing more slightly than ever before, charming and croaky on ‘Woncha Come On Home’, high and smooth as an American soulster on ‘Warm Love’, near raunchy and flashily tongue twisting on ‘Mama Mercy’ and simply totally loving on ‘Willow’. All this jumping and crackling across that new hard-driving relationship with her guitar and leading her sessioners into eye popping feats of high pressure precision.
Joan and her producer Glyn Johns must have been so commanding they made it all sound like one band – drummers David Kemper, Henry Spinetti and Kenney Jones all play so tight and dynamic, like gunshots in a dustbin, that they are indistinguishably excellent. Georgie Fame on electric piano and Rabbit on organ fuse jazzy lightness and Band style rough and readiness in the meat of the mix. It’s a full and satisfying sound still retaining the crystal clarity that all Joan’s producers have emphasised. And Jerry Donahue, who was too overbearing both live and on the JA album, seems to have found the secret of matching his electric power to Joan’s acoustic – his curvy, talkative lines are full of his character and sympathy this time.
Also you get her songs which are probably the finest around. She has simplicity and divine inventiveness combined in moments that put the reviewer on the spot. Edge-of-the-precipice-and-a-mountain-lion-at-your-heel. The next move is bound to be wrong. Like when I tried to express the first seconds of ‘Never Is Too Late’. She sings one word unaccompanied: “alone”. She sings it expressively. You remember your own times of aloneness, imagine hers. That simple stroke of communication draws you inside the song feeling for yourself and someone else as one.
Her lyrics have never been plainer – and so effective it makes you wonder why poets have bothered to baffle us down the centuries in the name of profundity The words are mundane and just right: ‘Every light is on/But all the rooms/Are empty/Except one/Oh babe don’t stay too long’; ‘Asking for help from somone/Is not too easy’; ‘Let me/Be your night potion’; ‘We sat down under a bus shelter/And talked of other things/But bit by bit by bit by bit/It came round again/How much in love we are’. In ‘Willow’, the beautiful love song of the album, she sings ‘I said I’m strong/Straight/Willing/To be a/Shelter/In a storm’ – dead slow and with all the weight and commitment the oblique strokes suggest. It’s more personal but just as moving as Bill Withers’ ‘Lean On Me’. Yeah, it’s an illusion in a way but Joan Armatrading makes music you can lean on.
The difference this time is she’ll only let you rest up against her love and affection for a little while. Then you’ve got to kick ass and fight back, get as strong and straight as her songs ‘cos from now on she’s gonna raise a fuss and she’s gonna raise a holler.
© Phil Sutcliffe, Sounds, 17 September 1977