Saturday, August 11, 2007

Eva Cassidy and Amy Winehouse

Forward: many thanks for the comments on the last blog. I'm not going to respond to them, because it seems to me that this blogging business can devolve into a lovefest or a bickering match instantly. So, as Steven Colbert might say, "Movin' on!"
Hence, the article below, apropos of nothing...

on the two greatest female vocalists of the last 40 years :

When an English friend of mine raved about American singer Eva Cassidy sometime in the late '90's, his exhortations were intense enough to quell my usual reticence to buying albums without hearing a single performance on the radio (call me old fashioned, but that's still how I judge whether music is worth spending money on), and so I searched the racks in the local mall until I finally found a copy of her album "Songbird," buried, rather unsettlingly, in the jazz section.

I stuck the CD on as I drove away from Barnes & Nobles, and there she was on track one, playing live, with the audience applause removed, just her and an acoustic guitar with another guitarist adding a few touches, singing a version of Sting's "Fields Of Gold" with such effortless, searing conviction, such consummate technique and unselfconscious soul, that I found it difficult to concentrate of the road ahead. I choked up, felt dizzy, and put the track on again as soon as it had finished, playing it about four times until I finally moved on to the next song.
The way she feathered those notes and coaxed them into heavenly dimensions, and then suddenly switched gears to attain full-voiced awesome power was stunning, and I knew right then that my English friend had not steered me wrong.

Now, "Fields Of Gold" was already a great song and a great production by the man who wrote it, but Eva's stark version transcends the original to heights almost beyond belief, as I'm sure the songs' composer would readily agree.
As I listened to the rest of the albums' contents — not all of which I was thrilled with as far as choice of material was concerned — I found myself in the presence of an interpreter who could turn the most moribund fodder into manna, who could evince in the listener, in the space of a few notes, that rare and glistening emotional enlightenment that quite simply gives your goose bumps goose bumps (Yessss! I've always wanted to put those words into repeat mode and have them make sense!).

But what is the lineage of Cassidy's awesome prowess? Follow this: Vera Lynn, Judy Garland, Doris Day...long gap here...Sandy Denny...'nother long gap...Eva Cassidy. (Gulp. They're all white!)
OK, you might want to stick Dusty in there, too, but I think I'm concentrating on a vocal purity here, a purity that has minimal soul grittiness, but is still immensely soulful, and at the same time does not fall into the Joan Baez "I'm giving you an elocution lesson, children, so pay attention!" school of ham.

Unfortunately, the musicianship behind her, although adequate enough — seeing as her voice is what counts — sounds like it was produced by a bunch of second-string jazzers, as their weak version of "People Get Ready" will attest, ignoring as it does the tunes' obligatory funk.
And her choice of songs shows no attempt to make a cohesive album, which is admirable in a way, because apparently she had no truck with record company execs who wanted her to chose a style and stick with it, but nevertheless makes for a spotty final product.
If I'd been aware of her when she was still with us, I would have camped outside her door with a guitar singing "First Day Of Spring" until she'd be forced to cover it, just to get rid of me (and now, "All Being Well" would be my choice, the thought of which makes my knees turn to jelly).
And although normally I have no interest in producing other artists' records, I think if I'd known about her when she was alive I would have made a lot of effort to get her into the studio with a more compelling band and with a bunch of tunes that could work together to make something modern and at the same time, timeless.

She had a classic in her, in other words, but it's too late now. Eva Cassidy died of melanoma in 1996 at the age of 33.

But why am I writing about a singer who passed away 11 years ago? Because I just bought "Back To Black" by Amy Winehouse.
Eva Cassidy notwithstanding (soulful in an un-black way), I presumed that female soul vocalists had been poisoned by the Mariah Carey brand of tangled underwear melismatic histrionics, but just to show that there's always gonna be someone who comes along every now and again to break the stranglehold, Amy Winehouse arrives in the most surprising fashion, just when you've given up hope.

I've been hearing tantalizing snippets of her hit tune "Rehab" for a while now, but never the whole thing or the name of the singer. Finally, on some "alternative" radio station, sandwiched between what might have been a Rancid song and perhaps one of Creed's absurdities, I heard "Rehab" in its entirety and finally got the artists' name. Off to the mall I go again and purchase a copy.

My reaction to "Back To Black" was similar to the astonishment I felt at hearing Eva for the first time, only here we have not only a remarkable vocalist with a style very hard to pigeonhole, but a marvelous songwriter, too, one who mixes genres like an alchemist, and seemingly with little effort and zero affectation.

And this girl gets the band right. Where Cassidy's backing acts as mere wallpaper, Winehouse's rocks in the most gleefully sloppy manner, teetering between masterful and really dodgy with intriguing artfulness. Again, I'm tempted to think a bunch of jazzers are playing, but unlike Cassidy's cohorts, maybe these guys have just recently been turned on to some really early soul B-sides and had their minds blown, never to play jazz again; or maybe they actually know what they're doing and this is natural for them. I've no idea. Whatever, they do an amazing job.
And it's hard to tell whether the producers (there seem to be a couple of them doing different tracks) were having a huge guffaw at the variety of styles they pillage or whether this is the way they always make records.

"Just Friends," for instance, starts off as a slow jazz, which had me worried for a minute, seeing as I need to hear jazz like I need a hole in the head. But then, after the opening few bars, the song bursts into a faux reggae which features burping horns and a drum technique that suggests that the drummer is playing reggae for the first time, what with the extraordinarily sloppy snare cracks that threaten to make the whole thing fall on it's ass. But it doesn't! It's perfect.

"You Know I'm No Good" and "Love Is A losing Game" are too brilliant for me to even describe. This girl expresses a lot of pain, and she's damn good at mining the veins of it.
"Tears Dry On Their Own," with its Motown groove and once again, teetering- on-the-edge yet totally authentic backing, is sublime.

And what about her voice? Where is a 22 year old British Jewish girl getting this from?
Well, thankfully, unlike so many soul inspired female singers before her, it ain't the usual suspects. There's no copping from Aretha going on here.
Instead, it sounds like she heard some obscure B-side by an obscure female soul singer from the '60's, someone who made about one record then disappeared, and Amy just latched onto this rarity and it burrowed into her soul. There is a jazzy element to her style, too, but — at least on this album (and I think it's only her second?) — she reigns it in and uses it in the best possible way.

There is another comparison to make between Cassidy and Winehouse: they both have hideous album covers, which in some ways is almost endearing and makes their deep and authentic performances shine even brighter.


Robert said...

I have nothing I can add to your insightful and heartfelt reviews of these fine singers. So let me point you toward Sharon Jones. The voice, the soul, the funk and the Absolute Ultimate version of (good god) "This Land Is Your Land."

[LawClerk] said...

I have fallen for Winehouse like everyone else. I will track down the Cassidy release also; thanks, Chairman.

Oh, and I understand Sharon Jones' band the Dap-Kings was Winehouse's band on tour.

I also heard Winehouse was hospitalized a few days ago for "exhaustion." That's one of my favorite euphemisms, ever.

martlet said...

Amoung the artist who give Eva Cassidy as an music influence are rising stars Erin Bode, Coles Whalen and Claire Sproule. There are many others. The best selling female artist in Europe, Katie Melua, recorded a duet with a video of Cassidy singing "Over The Rainbow" for the British show Duet Impossible. I corresponded directly with the show's producer who told me that he understood he had accomplished something of significant value when the audience responded in near total silence.

This duet is based on an original arrangement of the song written and recorded by Cassidy. The extrodinary talent which Cassidy had for original phrasing and dynamics is also apparent in a duet with Mary Ann Redmond where Eva is seen sight reading lyrics and providing harmonies on the spot.

More information on Eva Cassidy can be found at:

Lilburn, Georgia

bellboy said...

Inspiration is a tough thing to find. As you seem well inspired, when can we expect your next record?

BTW I think 2000 Funerals is your most serious song since...whenever. And it becomes more poignant as it becomes more obsolute. That is a trick few can accomplish and it comes from where I get much of my inspiration.

Anthony said...

You're right about responding to blog comments. Most of them just end up turning into flame wars.

Geff said...

Re; Eva Cassidy - you should have heard her brother Dan, on violin.

jjja45263 said...

Thank you very much for the Eva Cassidy tip. I had almost the identical response while driving and listening to her interpretation of Fields of Gold and Autumn Leaves as well. The Songbird production values are a mixed bag (A compilation record I understand). Ms. Cassidy clearly needed only the barest of accompaniment to bring a tune to blossom.

Again, thanks for sharing this treasure.


pinglis said...

GP, I don't know much about Eva Cassidy (other than the name) but since you are spot on, with bells on top, about Amy Winehouse I will definitely give Eva a fair go.

A pity about Amy Winehouse's wpes of late, but hopefully she gets her shit together soon. She's bound to have some good ideas for songs after all she's been through.

2ohgasi said...

these are very nice recommendations even now songs are timeless as is the performa who deliver the words to us, Ms Cassidy where does begin her collection, I'll leave that up to u.
as for Ms Winehouse I loved Rehab, the entire collection, one song lead to another emotion to flow freely, she captured soul collectively with the words and music, I hope she continues to do that beat well,
it reminded me of earlier years that had since passed.