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Joan Armatrading

Reviewed on this page:
Whatever's For Us - Back To The Night - Joan Armatrading - Show Some Emotion - To The Limit - How Cruel - Me Myself I - Walk Under Ladders - The Key - Secret Secrets - Sleight Of Hand - The Shouting Stage - Square The Circle - Lovers Speak - Into The Blues - This Charming Life - Live At The Royal Albert Hall - Starlight

Joan Armatrading has been making engaging, mostly low-key albums since the early 70s, and was a critics' darling for a few years thanks to a series of brilliant compositions and a no-nonsense delivery. Born in the West Indies, she mostly sticks to standard rock and roll or folk, despite occasional flirtations with blues and reggae. Her voice is flexible, genuine and gripping, and she's an occasionally arresting, always solid guitar player. She's never reached major commercial success but maintains enough of a core following to keep making records her way.

I saw Armatrading in concert in 2007, and reviewed the show here. There's no extensive fan site I'm aware of, but Harmony Ridge Music has put together a servicable page with a full discography and tidbits of other information. (DBW)

Whatever's For Us (1972)
Armatrading's debut was mostly overlooked, but it features the same bare-bones blues-folk approach, pointed lyrics and casual command of her heyday. The best songs (the caustic put-down "Child Star," the post-affair "It Could Have Been Better") are as striking and memorable as anything she's done since, but those gems are scattered in a set of confessional songs so understated they don't leave an impression ("Gave It A Try"; title track). Helmed by Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon, and the few full-band numbers sound something like Elton's early records ("City Girl," with strings arranged by Del Newman), though the horn-backed "Mean Old Man" sounds like a more rambunctious Joni Mitchell, lyrically and musically. Most of the tunes were written by Armatrading and fellow Caribbean-to-England transplant Pat Nestor, the last time Armatrading would use a co-writer to any significant extent. Many tracks feature only Armatrading on acoustic guitar; the small backing band is Elton associates Ray Cooper (percussion) and Davy Johnstone (guitar), plus Larry Steele (bass), and Gerry Conway or Henry Spinetti (drums). (DBW)

Back To The Night (1975)
Produced by Pete Gage, and it's in the same mold: laid-back, often acoustic renditions of precise, heartfelt love songs. On this release there's more folk (including standup bass from Ron Matheson) and less R&B influence than on the Johns-produced albums, and as of yet there's no reggae influence at all. The two side-openers feature her singing and guitar unaccompanied, which draws the listener into her personal vision ("No Love For Free," "Get In Touch With Jesus"). The single "Dry Land" is equally stripped down: Joan on piano with light touches of Moog synth from Gage. The melodies and lyrics are remarkably sharp, to the point: there are a bunch of tunes that became Armatrading standards, including "Cool Blue Stole My Heart," the title track and "Steppin' Out"; "Let's Go Dancing," another nearly unaccompanied track, is also outstanding. There's a long list of hired musicians, mostly obscure except for Phil Chen and Andy Summers. (DBW)

Joan Armatrading (1976)
As much as I hate to agree with the critical consensus, this is a terrific record that's almost certainly Armatrading's high point. She finds an alternative to both overproduced studio rock and abrasive punk, using spare arrangements and mostly acoustic guitars to bang out catchy, blues-based riffs, and then adding occasional string sections on top. The few touches of slide guitar, fusion bass and sax don't detract from the intimate atmosphere, they just make each track distinct. Her acoustic guitar technique is sometimes scarily good ("Like Fire") and her voice is in top form ("Tall In The Saddle"). But what really makes the disc stand out is the compositions: "Help Yourself," with its stop-start structure; "Love And Affection," which builds to an unforgettable refrain; "Down To Zero," still one of her best-known tunes. Even the lighter cuts ("Water With The Wine") are enjoyable and well worked out. Lyrically, she's dealing mostly with romance in remarkably plain, direct language that's incisive and doesn't slip into cliché. The band includes Kenney Jones and Dave Mattacks on drums, Dave Markee on bass, Jerry Donahue on guitar, and Peter Wood on keyboards. Produced by Glyn Johns. (DBW)

Show Some Emotion (1977)
Another solid outing: she skillfully combines aching blues ("Woncha Come On Home"), sly rock and roll (title track), and lovely melodic pop ("Willow," "Warm Love") - all recorded with stripped-down arrangements that avoid all the mid-70s pop pitfalls. But the arrangements aren't as varied as the previous disc, and the compositions aren't as memorable. The lyrics cover very familiar romantic territory ("Never Is Too Late"), and some of the hooks are obvious ("Mama Mercy," "Get In The Sun"), but if you have any tolerance for singer-songwriters at all, you should get a lot out of this. Produced by Johns; the backing musicians are mostly obscure except for Georgie Fame on keys. (DBW)

To The Limit (1978)
Armatrading stalled out here; she uses the same low-key, rough-hewn rock arrangements as on the previous two albums, but there's very little variation track to track, and the tunes lack the melodic, memorable quality she earlier made sound so easy. With subpar music, her disarmingly direct lyrics just sound conversational ("Your Letter," "Let It Last") - never clichéd or hard to listen to, but not the revelatory experience she's capable of. Not to speculate, but the whole record sounds hurried, as if it were written in fits and starts during a promotional tour. The only track that's up to her top standard is "You Rope You Tie Me." Johns produced again; musicians include Red Young, Henry Spinetti, Dave Markee, Dick Simms and Philip Palmer - no guests. Also in 1978, Armatrading wrote the theme to the movie Flight of The Wild Geese. (DBW)

How Cruel (1979)
We usually don't discuss EPs, but since (as far as I know) these tracks have never been issued in any other format, I'm making an exception. Produced by Armatrading with Henry Lewy, these four songs are much slicker than anything on the previous records I have, mostly in a pop-edged reggae vein ("Rosie"). None of the melodies are striking, but all the cuts work anyway, and she mostly avoids her previous preoccupation with romance: the title track is a rant against everybody who's being mean to her, "Rosie" is another story song about a male transvestite (why were 70s rockers so fixated on that theme?), "He Wants Her" is an amusing character sketch that's a string of animal images. Her forthright delivery makes even "I Really Must Be Going," in which the married protagonist resists temptation, sound like a fresh idea. Nothing to drive yourself crazy hunting down, but you'd think A&M could stick this on the same CD as another album from the period. (DBW)

Steppin' Out (1979)
A live album, with a fairly predictable track selection ("Love And Affection," "How Cruel," etc.). (DBW)

Me Myself I (1980)
The uptempo pop approach of the previous studio album continues here, but rather than sounding slick, it's just cheerful and buoyant (no Al Campanis reference intended). The title track, "Ma-Me-O-Beach" and "When You Kisses Me" are more light-hearted than anything else I've heard her do, and even the ballads have more energy ("Feeling In My Heart (For You)," which sounds very much like a certain 1988 Tracey Chapman tune). Produced by Richard Gottehrer of Blondie and Richard Hell fame, and the band is Paul Shaffer, Will Lee, and Anton Fig. In other words, the insidious Dave Letterman band, but they actually do a solid job of putting the tunes across without getting in Armatrading's way. Lyrically, she varies the romance theme occasionally (title track, "Friends") but mostly sticks to her usual ("I Need You"). Not as melodic or moving as her mid-70s work, but a pleasant surprise if you think Armatrading's incapable of having fun. Her first record to crack the US Top Forty. (DBW)

Walk Under Ladders (1981)
For some reason, Armatrading decided to turn into a brash, tacky New Waver. Working with ace producer Steve Lillywhite and keyboardist Thomas Dolby, she puts heavy-handed synth lines everywhere ("I'm Lucky," "When I Get It Right"), and there are no good melodies to be found ("Eating The Bear"). The lyrics are occasionally sharp ("Romancers") but it's not enough. Lillywhite wasted a top-flight supporting cast: Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, Tony Levin, Andy Partridge (almost inaudible on acoustic guitar), Ray Cooper, Mel Collins, Hugh Burns. A flop, at least in the US, and I've never seen it on CD. The singles were "I'm Lucky" and "No Love," yet another indirect "thanks but no thanks" look at romance. (DBW)

The Key (1983)
Lillywhite produced again, and the approach to New Wave is catchier and less aggressively irritating, but with a depressingly Corporate Rock feel. The single "(I Love It When You) Call Me Names" is a straightforward delivery of a bizarre pro-domestic violence lyric, and throughout the lyrics range from predictable and trite (the title track, which was a single; "The Game Of Love") to confusing ("Drop The Pilot," also a single; "What Do Boys Dream"). Though there's more uptempo stuff than usual, the only really energetic moment is Armatrading's in-your-face guitar solo on the brief "Tell Tale." Never boring exactly, but never invigorating or eye-opening either. Musicians include Levin, Collins, Adrian Belew and Stewart Copeland. This did venture into the lower reaches of the Top Forty. (DBW)

Secret Secrets (1985)
Well, the mid-80s were hard times for a lot of people. Mike Hewlett produced this mainstream exercise that has an anonymous proto-Adult Contemporary sound: it sounds as if they were trying so hard to get away from the abrasiveness of the Lillywhite period that they setted for being dull instead. "Temptation" uses horns for a pseudo-R&B that makes Simply Red sound authentic by comparison; drummer Mel Gaynor is occasionally loud in a Phil Collins way, but never threatening. Joe Jackson adds similarly risk-averse piano (he's the only instrumentalist on "Love By You"). The lyrics are unusually scattershot, often on the verge of cliché, and the melodies aren't memorable either on the slow tunes ("Friends Not Lovers") or the rockers (title track). The band includes Pino Palladino (bass), Nick Plytas and Adrian Lee (keys) and David Rhodes (guitar). "Thinking Man" and "Temptation" were singles. (DBW)

Sleight Of Hand (1986)
From this point on, Armatrading took over her own production, but brought Lillywhite back to engineer, and the sound recalls his loud early 80s productions. Working with a small band (Steve Greetham on bass, Geoff Dugmore on drums, Alex White on keys), Armatrading played all the guitars herself: "Russian Roulette" shows off the wide range of her technique. Unfortunately, the songwriting's not up to scratch, with hardly a memorable melody anywhere, and too many tunes built on a simple riff layered with keyboards and endlessly repeated ("Kind Words (And A Real Good Heart)," "Angel Man"). The lyrics are relentlessly somber, though on the bright side her despairing vocals are sometimes quite affecting ("One More Chance"). Fans will enjoy her guitar playing and find solace in straightforward lyrics like "Reach Out" (a single, as were "Kind Words" and "Jesse"), but casual users should keep their distance. (DBW)

The Shouting Stage (1988)
Armatrading produced this solid effort, with luminous fretless bass from Palladino, gentle arpeggiation from guitarist Mark Knopfler, and pared-down, precise songwriting. It ends up sounding very close to Joni Mitchell's contemporaneous sound (especially when Manu Katché is drumming), which may or may not be a coincidence. "Straight Talk" (with sax from Wesley Magoogan), "Words" and the closing "Dark Truths" (just strings and bass) are all moving, and the singles (title track, "Living For You" and "Stronger Love") are also worth hearing. Though it's lower key and nowhere near as much fun as her prime 70s work, this is probably the best effort of the 80s. (DBW)

Hearts And Flowers (1990)
Palladino and Katché are back, but they're generally overshadowed by Don Freeman's generic keyboards, in the service of tunes which are often equally bland (title track; the single "More Than One Kind Of Love"). Most of the material is contemplative and mild, which isn't a problem except that they're not particularly insightful or striking (the closing "The Power Of Dreams" excepted). So the winners are the relatively bouncy tunes, which not coincidentally feature more guitar and less synth - the acoustic-driven "Free," and the rousing if rudimentary "Good Times" - but even those don't stand up against Armatrading's best work. (DBW)

Square The Circle (1992)
This has a quiet small band sound, with Mick Karn on bass, Richie Stevens on drums, Simon Clark and Richard Cottle alternating on atmospheric synth, and Armatrading handling the guitars. Mostly it comes across as New Agey and lifeless (title track, "Cradled In Your Love") though a couple of tracks rock with something like her 70s energy (the single "Wrapped Around Her"). Lyrically there are no surprises except bad ones: "If Women Ruled The World" is the sort of women-are-all-nurturers stuff that twenty years prior at least possessed the one virtue of novelty; "True Love" (another single) veers between banality and incoherence. "Crazy" is perhaps the best lyric, a desperate and poignant look at Men Who Love Too Many Women and the Women Who Write Songs About Them. Carefully recorded and performed, with numerous small pleasures for devotees, but depressingly insubstantial. (DBW)

What's Inside (1995)
Produced by Armatrading and David Tickle. The band is pseudo-Stone Darryl Jones, Levin, Katché, Alex Acuña and Benmont Tench, but what sets the record apart from Armatrading's usual is the presence of strings on most cuts (usually the London Metropolitan Orchestra; the Kronos Quartet on "Shapes And Sizes"). That, and a compelling batch of compositions which are accessible without pandering ("Would You Like To Dance," one of several tunes where she darts up into a high register recalling Michael Jackson's falsetto). The blues "Back On The Road" and "Lost The Love" - with Armatrading on all guitars - are a pleasing preview of 2007's Into The Blues. Other guests include Boz Burrell (penny whistle on "Shape Of A Pony") and the Memphis Horns ("Can't Stop Loving You"). (DBW)

Lovers Speak (2003)
Apart from drummer Miles Bould and a couple of horns ("Love Bug"), Armatrading played everything herself, but you'd never know it: for better or worse, the sound is as crisp, professional and unexceptional as any other record she's made. Much of the disc is piano-based ("In These Times"), while the more lively tracks recall her mid-70s work (the jaunty, mostly acoustic "Waiting"; "You Made Your Bed"). Lyrically, it's mostly thoughtful, plain-spoken looks at romance ("Less Happy More Often"). So it's a fairly typical Armatrading release, with a better batch of tunes than usual: "Ocean," a rare venture into soprano territory; the title track. It's possible I've underrated this, but if you're new to the artist I recommend you start with something more distinctive. Self-produced, as you'd imagine. (DBW)

Live: All The Way From America (2004)
A CD/DVD combo, recorded June 25, 2003. (DBW)

Into The Blues (2007)
Armatrading has been downplaying her blues influences for, oh, the past thirty years or so, and I'm glad they're back in the light of day. Though only a few songs are straight blues progressions (the dynamite, tempo-shifting "Liza"), the feeling is everywhere, from the saucy rebuke "Ain't A Girl Alive" to the mellow "Baby Blue Eyes" to the intense, album-closing "Something's Gotta Blow." (The plaintive "Secular Songs" is the only true departure.) She rains stinging guitar solos across the album (title track), but never seems to be showing off, using the form to support observations both nostalgic ("Mama Papa," about her Caribbean upbringing) and modern ("D.N.A."). It's all so dynamic, heartfelt and real, you're inclined to give her a pass on the few tunes with hermetic production, familiar melodies, or both ("A Woman In Love," with a main riff borrowed from Sting's "Set Them Free"). She even manages to put over a tune based on one chord and two words ("Deep Down") - how minimalist can you get? Self-produced as usual. (DBW)

This Charming Life (2010)
Armatrading serves up a sampler of the different delicacies she has to offer: stinging blues-rock ("Heading Back To New York City"), retro-New Wave with a touch of funk ("Love Love Love"), and lots of taut, economical pop rock (title track, garnished with a gaga guitar solo; "Two Tears"). Lyrics as well run the gamut from social comments ("Virtual Reality") to ambivalent love songs ("Diamond"), pure fun ("Best Dress On") to contemplation ("Goddess Of Change"). The common denominators are playful guitar lines ("Promises") and an unvarnished intensity. As with Lovers Speak, Armatrading played everything except the drums, and she's an adept bassist on top of everything else. (DBW)

Live At The Royal Albert Hall (2011)
A double-album with loads of material from the two previous records ("Something's Gotta Blow"; "Best Dress On") alongside the classic hits ("Willow"), and more than you'd expect from the 80s ("Call Me Names"). The band is a bit undereager, and I've heard Armatrading in better voice, but between her enthusiasm, her guitar leads ("Tall In The Saddle"; "Two Tears") and the set list ("Into The Blues"), you've got three powerful reasons to check this out. (DBW)

Starlight (2012)
This time Armatrading forsook a band entirely, cutting all the tracks herself, and raised the degree of difficulty by attempting a jazz feel ("Tell Me"). The results are, well, odd: Her drum programming is often comically inept ("Close To Me"; the otherwise affecting "Summer Kisses"), and the bass playing - while always proficient - is ramshackle in places (title track, a highlight anyway thanks to contrasting vocal melodies), which lends the album an endearingly offhand quality. In a way it's like Lindsey Buckingham's recent work: Armatrading knows exactly how to make a professional-sounding record, but for reasons of her own she's choosing not to. Then there's one cryogenically preserved midtempo 80s pop hit ("Back On Track"). The songs themselves are pretty good - "The Single Life," with a singalong melody and guitar sleight-of-hand; the blueish "Busy With You" - which makes this either a bungled opportunity or a satisfying detour, depending on your point of view. (DBW)

Help yourself.

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