Arts & Entertainment
Female artists from the ’80s and ’90s
Published Thursday, 20-Oct-2005 in issue 930
With ’80s nostalgia in full swing, ’90s nostalgia can’t be far behind. A number of female artists who first emerged during those decades gone by have recently released discs that contain some of their best work.
Eliza Gilkyson’s stunning 1987 debut disc, Pilgrims, got lost in the shuffle of the new-age craze of that time. Her “Calling All Angels” became an anthem for those with concrete angels on their lawns, ceramic angels on their shelves, brass angel pins in their lapels and glass angels suspended from their rearview mirrors. The fact remains that Pilgrims was much more than that. Nearly 20 years later, Gilkyson’s latest disc, Paradise Hotel (Red House), ranks as one of the best albums of 2005. As if the sheer variety of the music, including contemporary bluegrass, cancione, folk pop, modern country and visceral 21st century blues wasn’t enough, Gilkyson outshines Lucinda Williams as both a singer and songwriter visiting similar themes. The title track is a glorious tune that includes a piece of Bach (via Procul Harum) sewn into the fabric of the song. “Jedidiah 1777” is a first-rate persona piece, “Bellarosa” is a bella number sung in Spanish and “Requiem” is, fittingly, a religious experience. However, the album’s fiercest track is “Man of God,” a searing indictment of George W. Bush, his twisted cronies and the deep corruption of his family and his faith. With a “cracker choir” consisting of openly queer singer/songwriter Ana Egge, as well as Shawn Colvin, Marcia Ball, Slaid Cleaves and others, this is one of the bravest and most powerful political statements I’ve heard in years.
I’ve had a lot of respect for controversial singer/songwriter Sinead O’Connor since I first heard her sing on the Captive soundtrack in 1987. She followed that with her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, and was an unstoppable force into the early ’90s. In spite of more than her share of public mishaps, O’Connor has remained steadfast, and even came out, briefly, as a queer woman at the dawn of the 21st century. Most recently, she spoke out against the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church’s gay witch hunt. O’Connor is no stranger to the political music of reggae, and on Throw Down Your Arms (That’s Why There’s Chocolate and Vanilla), she teams up with legendary producers Sly & Robbie (also known for their work with Grace Jones) for an album of interpretations of classic tunes. Remaining “true to the originals,” O’Connor merely made “key changes to suit a woman’s voice,” and performs reverent covers of “Marcus Garvey,” “Curly Locks,” “Prophet Has Arise,” “Downpressor Man,” “Untold Stories” and “War,” to name a few.
Sinead O’Connor wasn’t the only female artist making politically minded music at the time of her late-’80s debut. Tracy Chapman’s self-titled 1988 debut, with songs such as “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution,” were on a similar wavelength. Unfortunately, subsequent albums failed to build on that momentum, and aside from a fluke hit single 10 years ago (the bluesy “Give Me One Reason”), Chapman’s star was on a steady, but surprising, decline. That is until now. The components that made her self-titled debut so compelling have been enhanced on Where You Live (Elektra), some of which might have to do with co-producer Tchad Blake. He gives Chapman’s trademark sound a tweak here and there (“3,000 Miles,” “Talk To You,” “Going Back” and “Before Easter”). But he also lets her do her thing on “Change,” “Never Yours,” “America” and “Be and Be Not Afraid”), making this the best album of this chapter of her career.
Now to Bonnie Raitt. Wait a minute, you say, Bonnie Raitt has been recording albums since the early 1970s. That is true. However, Raitt’s career experienced a rebirth in 1989 with the release of her Grammy Award-winning Nick of Time disc, which led to the career highpoint Luck of the Draw. So even though I, and many others, have been listening to her for more than 30 years, she qualifies as an important artist from the 1980s. Her new album, Souls Alike (Capitol) has more in common with her post-Luck of the Draw albums in which she once again returned to the bluesier work of her past. Personally, that’s a disappointment for me. Nevertheless, I know there is a sizable portion of her following who prefer that aspect of Raitt’s considerable gifts, and they should find much to their liking here.
Michelle Shocked burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s, and with her 1988 Short Sharp Shocked album, established herself as one of the indispensable talents of the era. Controversial like O’Connor and political like Chapman, it wasn’t long before Shocked was at war with her major-label record company and she parted ways with them. In 2003, with the masters in her possession, Shocked re-released her first four albums in expanded editions. This year, Shocked also released a trio of albums – Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Mexican Standoff, two discs of original compositions, and Got No Strings (all on Mighty Sound), a disc of cover tunes geared toward an all-ages audience. The bottom line is that while three albums might be a bit overwhelming, it’s great to hear new material from this underrated artist who deserves a wider audience.
Beth Nielsen Chapman made a name for herself writing songs for other people. Her debut album was released in 1980, but went somewhat unnoticed. Ten years later, she would release the first of a trio of discs, which came out throughout the ’90s, which helped to establish her as a magnetic performer in her own right. Look (Compass) follows in the tradition of her earlier albums, even bumping the quality up a few notches. After all, how could a collaboration with openly gay jazz legend Andy Bey on the unforgettable title track, a potential future standard in the American songbook, not have some extra-special value? In fact, Chapman’s collaborators throughout the disc, including Eric Kaz (“Your Love Stays”), Harlan Howard (“Time Won’t Tell”), David Baerwald (“Will & Liz”) and David Wilcox (“The Reason”), make Look worth a listen.
“Mother Mother,” the hit single from Tracy Bonham’s 1996 debut album, The Burdens of Being Upright, was nearly inescapable for a while there. Nearly 10 years later, the singer/songwriter who also plays a mean fiddle has just released her third album, Blink The Brightest (Zöe). The dozen tracks find Bonham continuing to develop as both a songwriter of interest and a confident performer. Standout tracks include “Something Beautiful,” “Take Your Love Out On Me,” “Whether You Fall,” “All Thumbs,” “Wilting Flower” and “Did I Sleep Through It All?,” which reminded me of Liz Phair.
Speaking of Liz Phair, the pride of Chicago and environs has just released Somebody’s Miracle (Capitol), her fifth full-length album. A dozen years after her universally acclaimed groundbreaking debut Exile In Guyville, Phair resumes her role as the goddess of domestic distress, albeit in a somewhat tamer fashion. Still, her trademark delivery, which helped to define her style, prevails, and songs such as “Got My Own Thing,” “Everything To Me,” “Can’t Get Out of What I’m Into,” “Table For One,” “Why I Lie,” “Everything (Between Us)” and “Giving It All To You” have the ability to appeal to fans old and new.
Almost the antithesis of Phair, Dar Williams emerged from the East Coast folk scene in the early 1990s. Her ’93 debut album, The Honesty Room, contained Williams originals such as “The Babysitter’s Here” and “When I Was A Boy,” two songs that hinted at what was to come. Over the years, irresistible numbers such as “Christians and Pagans,” “As Cool As I Am,” “Are You Out There,” “Party Generation,” “What Do You Love More Than Love,” “I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono” and “Mercy Of The Fallen,” became her signature. The songs on My Better Self (Razor & Tie) are no exception to this rule, as is evident from “Teen For God,” “Empire,” “Beautiful Enemy” and “The Hudson.” As she’s done a few times in the past, Williams also performs covers on this disc, including Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (with vocal assistance from Marshall Crenshaw) and a duet with Ani DiFranco on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”