27 December 2008

Dusty Springfield (Part Four)

Dusty In Nashville
In The Winter
Dusty Springfield's Lesser Albums
by Don Charles Hampton

Dusty In Hollywood

United Artists UA-LA936-H
released January 1979

Dusty chose the relatively inexperienced David Wolfert to helm her second and final United Artists LP. The two reportedly did battle in the studio, and judging from the non-starter of an album they made together, she surely must've regretted the decision. Despite its sophisticated and sleek production style (you can practically see the wine and cheese table set up in the studio lounge), Living Without Your Love is her hands-down worst album of the 1970s. It spends too much time chasing an upscale mood and too little exploiting the abilities of its unique artist. Dusty simply doesn't get enough raw material to work with. Listening to this LP will remind you of a dinner at an expensive restaurant that you leave still feeling hungry. Most of the songs appear to have been written by committee, with three to five writers credited.

The tune that drew the most attention was the David Foster/Eric Mercury collaboration "Closet Man". The title references camouflaged sexual orientation, and so does the lyric, but not too explicitly. Recording "Beautiful Soul" may have freaked Dusty out, but she seems to enjoy playing with the coy Gay themes of this jazzy number. Gary Coleman's vibes nicely underscore the whimsy in her vocal interpretation. Definitely one of the album's better selections, the track goes down smooth like brandy and calls to mind the future work of R & B icon Luther Vandross. Dusty would come to idolize Vandross, who was himself a "closet man", but it's unlikely that Foster and Mercury had him in mind when writing the song.

Melissa Manchester was one of the authors of "Be Somebody", a ballad that starts out promisingly enough. However, it's got an albatross around the neck: a repetitive chorus that quickly becomes annoying. Thankfully, the song doesn't last very long, but it runs out of steam long before the (merciful) fade. Carole Bayer-Sager and Franne Gold collaborated on "Dream On", a soulful Adult Contemporary number with a nice little groove. There's a touch of Country music mixed in with the Soul elements, and you suspect it would've made an altogether decent Country song. Dusty sings it like it were a tasty piece of toffee on her tongue. From a lyrical standpoint, though, it's nothing special.

"I Just Fall In Love Again", another selection from the Steve Dorff songbook, is one of several songs here that weren't fully realized. An excellent composition, late '70s production values don't do it justice. It needs the massive, Wally Stott orchestra treatment heard on Dusty classics from the '60s like "All I See Is You". A bigger sound would surely have drawn a more forceful performance from her. Given her reputation for Motown covers, Smokey Robinson's "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" was a natural choice for Dusty to record, but David Wolfert's subdued sound mix treats her voice like just another instrument in the band. Jai Winding's gospelly piano work ends up being the main attraction of Tom Saviono's slow rolling, New Orleans-flavored arrangement. A good record, but it could've been great.

A similarly timid mix can't obscure the appeal of Ben Weisman and Evie Sands' "You Can Do It", though. It's the hands-down best song and best performance on the album. Another jazz-tinged track like "Closet Man", it's got a funky, streetwise attitude that prompts a deliciously sullen vocal reading from Dusty. Like "Checkmate", this is a warm-up for the gutsy work she'd deliver on her next LP, White Heat. However, there's nothing gutsy about "Get Yourself To Love". Doug McCormick's Gospel-flavored ballad needed an altogether more Rock 'n' Roll treatment, but of course, that would have killed the cocktail hour mood David Wolfert was cultivating. Better to have left it off the album than do it so terribly wrong; Dusty could've really pulled out the stops on this number if she'd been given a chance, but the middle-of-the-road arrangement didn't give her one.

Barry Gibb's "Save Me, Save Me" is yet another performance that got away. Dusty sings it with just enough enthusiasm to put it across, but with more driving accompaniment, she undoubtedly would've put more fire into her vocal. Then her second foray into Disco territory might've followed her first into the charts, but Frankie Valli's version got the airplay instead. "Save Me", Save Me" wasn't even released as a single in the United States. You can't help but think Dusty would've done better hiring Barry Gibb to produce the song himself (not to mention the entire LP).

By fan consensus, "I"m Coming Home Again" was the album's standout ballad. Dusty navigates Carole Bayer-Sager's lyrics like the pro she always was, investing them with either pathos or elation at exactly the right moment. Like "I Just Fall In Love Again", this song belongs in the '60s, powered by a full-throttle Johnny Franz/Dusty Springfield orchestra treatment. Only the quality of the song and the performance can explain the esteem fans hold it in; there's nothing distinguished about the string-laden production at all. The most undistinguished track of all is probably "Living Without Your Love". Worse, the song itself is mediocre, a waste of Dusty's time and talent; the only thing that makes it listenable is the tight Disco rhythm section. Yet David Wolfert must've thought a lot of it, since he made it the title track. Could that have had something to do with the fact that he co-wrote the tune?

Very Fine Love

Columbia CK 67053
released June 1995

Fade out from 1979 and fade back into the year 1994, dateline: Nashville, Tennessee. Four years earlier, Dusty realized her second career comeback, this time under the auspices of her new friends, The Pet Shop Boys. Reputation, a collection anchored by their dance-oriented songs and productions, was her most successful studio album since Dusty . . . Definitely back in 1967. Disco diva status beckoned, but La Springfield balked at being pigeonholed. She declined to cut a follow-up dance record, leaving her career to languish again for a few years. "I wasn't raised on (that) kind of music," she protested to interviewer Laura Lee Davies. "I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Maybe (I should sing) Country, they really appreciate someone with a few sad songs to sing and a story to tell." Her words proved prophetic. In the summer of 1993, Sony Music approached her with the idea of recording a Country Pop album in Nashville; surprisingly, Dusty agreed. The Springfields had recorded there in 1962, and she hadn't liked it much then. However, the passage of three decades had seen the town evolve beyond its rural music roots into a major hub of songwriting and session talent. Dusty was aware of the changes in Nashville, and felt she could benefit from them. Ultimately, she didn't benefit much, but unexpected health problems were as much to blame for that as anything else.

The breast cancer that would eventually claim Dusty's life was diagnosed during sessions for A Very Fine Love. Producers Tom Shapiro and Brian Tankersley worked hard to camouflage the wasting effect it had on her singing voice; you can barely hear much difference in her performances. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain, because they didn't pay enough attention to song selection. They supervised the tracking of some of the blandest material Dusty ever had the bad luck to sing. After the triumph of Reputation in 1990, who would've guessed that she might release another set as unsatisfactory as Living Without Your Love? To be fair, A Very Fine Love wasn't quite as bad as that, but it came much too close for comfort.

Jim Photoglo and Bobby DiPiero's "Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love" is the first of three wannabe Country Funk tracks that pass for uptempo selections on this album. Its strong hooks and punchy rhythm makes it easily the best of the trio, but prominent synthesizers give it a rather cheesy sound. A full brass section would've framed the vocals better. Budget limitations, maybe? Then the downhill slide starts with Craig Wiseman's "All I Have To Offer You Is Love". This song is painfully contrived, bogged down by cliché lyrics and a bass heavy arrangement that tends toward funk but never quite gets there. At least the solo guitar work by Dan Huff is worth hearing.

"I Can't Help The Way I Don't Feel" is no improvement. Probably the closest thing to a bonafide Country tune on the album, it's awkwardly titled, wordy, and not compelling in the least musically. Rather frothy production values don't help. Inexplicably, this weak track was chosen for inclusion on UK Mercury's definitive Dusty Springfield collection in the year 2000. A tight habanera rhythm picks up the pace on Graham Lyle and Terry Britten's "Old Habits Die Hard". It could've stood both an edgier arrangement and a more strident lead vocal, but given Dusty's health problems at the time of recording, she no doubt sung it as forcefully as she was able. Lyrically, the song is a trifle, but the catchy music does get your toes tapping.

"Lovin' Proof", previously a Celine Dion album track, is another unsuccessful stab at funky honky tonk music. While the melody is solid, and the embellishment by Dusty and Audrey Wheeler's backing vocal unit is, too, the song lacks sufficient hooks, and the lyrics aren't memorable. Not exactly one of Diane Warren's better writing efforts here. Warren didn't cornered the market on great contemporary tunes, though. "Roll Away" is the kind of song a performer prays to find; this one track is worth the price of the entire album. Will Jennings and Martee Lebow's atmospheric Country/Blues ballad sounds as if it had been tailormade for Dusty, but that isn't the case; it was written for no one in particular, and she learned it from the songwriters' demo. She was, however, first to record this gem, and no one will ever surpass her reading. The way she sings it's only time and the river calls to mind images of Huck Finn and Jim rafting down the Mississippi. The last single to chart during Dusty's lifetime needed to be classic right out of the box, and "Roll Away" definitely was.

Some songs require their emotional impact to be conveyed by the singer alone. Too much instrumentation spoils them, and even a little is too much. The aforementioned "Other Side Of Life" from Cameo is such a composition. Matraca Berg and Ron Samoset's "You Are The Storm" is another. With bare bones musical accompaniment, it might've worked well for Dusty. Unfortunately, Messieurs Shapiro and Tankersley couldn't resist the temptation to swaddle it in guitars and keyboards. The nuances of her delivery can't save it from boiling over into artificial-sounding melodrama. She has better luck with John Jarvis and Randy Goodrum's "Go Easy On Me". Her gossamer voice is pregnant with soulful feeling as she delicately extracts believability from the shopworn lyric. In the hands of a lesser artiste, this song's overwrought nature would be much more obvious. Sensitive production and vocals has lifted many a throwaway song from mediocrity to greatness; here's an example.

If there's one tune that demonstrates why Diane Warren is Queen of the Rock Ballad songwriters, it's "Wherever Would I Be?" This is the kind of rousing, barn-burner anthem arena bands like Foreigner build a following on. Dusty doesn't sing it like Foreigner's Lou Gramm (she didn't have the strength to even attempt that), but she still belts the Hell out of it, and her performance bristles with authority. At this advanced point in her career, Dusty can convey quiet dignity even while wailing her heart out. Fronting a sea of overdubbed backing voices, she comes across like the senior soloist in a Gospel choir; she's justified, ancient, experienced, and proud of it! The duet version with Daryl Hall that appears on this album may boast more star power, but the original solo recording (which, oddly enough, has yet to appear on a stateside CD) is the keeper.

The last diamond to be unearthed in this final Dusty Springfield collection is arguably the rarest and most brilliant. KT Oslin and Jim Gillespie's "Where Is A Woman To Go?" finds La Springfield in sackcloth garments, standing at the Wailing Wall and crying the broken-heart blues of every abandoned woman since time immemorial. Her rasping interpretation sounds timeless; it could just as easily have been recorded in 1924 as 1994. Repetition, underscored by the righteous harmonies of co-writer Oslin and Country/Folk diva Mary Chapin Carpenter, is this song's secret weapon. The chorus, equal parts Blues and Gospel, brands itself into your brain and rocks you so profoundly, you can't be blamed for wiping away tears. Regardless of whether you're male, female or transgender, it's a mix of pleasure and pain that you just don't want to end. Not only does "Where Is A Woman To Go" have the honor of being the last selection on the last Dusty Springfield album, it's also the last song Dusty ever performed on TV. On 10 June 1995, she featured it on the BBC's Jools Holland show, with Alison Moyet and Sinéad O'Connor subbing for Mesdames Oslin and Carpenter.

Notable albums like Dusty In Memphis, Reputation and the still-unreleased Jeff Barry production Dusty Sings The Blues prove that other producers could bring out important facets of Dusty's talent. However, the preponderance of recorded evidence suggests that Miss Beehive gambled and, more often than not, lost whenever she allowed other people to produce her albums. Like Prince, Madonna and George Michael, she was the kind of artist who got the best results when she assumed complete control over her work. Too many times, the woman born Mary Catherine O'Brien failed to challenge herself, cutting lackluster songs that others pushed on her, or songs that she personally liked but neglected to evaluate with a critical ear. As the 1960s morphed into the '70s, she lost the ability to choose consistently excellent material. Yet her diminished artistic instincts still occasionally steered her in the right direction, and as a result, we have splendid waxings like "Sandra", "Tupelo Honey" "Roll Away", "Where Is A Woman To Go?", "Beautiful Soul" and "In The Winter" to treasure. Fans never knew when Dusty was going to come up with another classic, but we always knew she would if we waited long enough. That's why, despite many wasted feet of recording tape, there's no such thing as a Dusty Springfield album that isn't worth listening to.

Special thanks to Frances from the UK for suggesting this essay.