Joan Armatrading

Joan Armatrading (A&M 76) Rating: A
I first heard about Joan Armatrading when Tracy Chapman first came around and a lot of people started comparing her to Joan. I can see why; they're both black, for one thing, and though Armatrading's sound is far more multi-layered and fleshed out, they both have strong, husky voices and highly personal relationship-based lyrics. Unfortunately, Armatrading hasn't had near the success in the U.S. that Chapman has had or that she deserves, though this album's best-known song, "Love And Affection," did hit the U.K. top 10 (she's always had more success in the U.K. than the U.S. where she's a cult artist at best). Simply put, Joan Armatrading, her third and best album, produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, is a masterpiece, with zero filler and several outstanding compositions and performances. The album starts with my personal favorite, the gorgeous and hauntingly affecting "Down To Zero," later notably covered by Bettye Lavette, but it pretty much rises from peak to peak throughout, though perhaps there are a couple of songs that are merely good. Far from standard singer-songwriting fare, a song such as "Help Yourself" is at times warmly inviting, but it also has its funky and edgy moments a la Kristen Hersh or Mary Margaret O'Hara (I bet that both are Armatrading fans, as is Fiona Apple no doubt). "Love And Affection" starts as a sparse ballad before transforming into an exotic Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush-worthy epic, with elaborate orchestrations and sultry sax, while "Tall In The Saddle" begins as a slow ballad highlighted by a soulful, searing guitar solo before settling into a fast-paced groover. Elsewhere, lyrical opposites "Save Me" and "Somebody Who Loves You" are equally intimate and lovely, while "Water With the Wine" and "People" are lightly danceable changes of pace. Joan's versatility is again showcased on "Join The Boys," which merges jazz and funk before culminating with a jam flavored ending, and the first-rate musicianship of her and her outstanding backing band (including former members of Fairport Convention and The Faces) is readily apparent on "Like Fire," a sultry, melodic, swinging light rocker featuring subtly intricate guitar work. All in all, this album is just rock solid all around, with excellent, varied music (she fuses together folk, r&b, jazz, rock, and pop), creative lyrics that can speak directly to you, and a rich, easily appealing overall sound.

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