Brassy belter Carmel McCourt and her two-man band (drummer Gerry Darby and stand-up bassist Jim Paris), plus various organists, singers, drummers and hornmen, make the Mike Thorne-produced The Drum Is Everything a joyous and raucous outing that has a bit in common with nouveau jazz-pop crooners like Sade, but is far more adventurous and ambitious in scope. “More, More, More” and “Willow Weep for Me” are inspiring, near-gospel outbursts of enthusiasm; “Tracks of My Tears” (no, not that one) and “Stormy Weather” (yes, that one) show a bluesier, more reserved side that isn’t as appealing in this setting. Carmel doesn’t modulate all that well — for her, singing is a full-blooded pastime with no room for pussyfooting — and tends to overpower the more subtly played songs.
Using four different producers (including Brian Eno and Hugh Jones), The Falling runs a similar gamut, from the sinuous blues of “I’m Not Afraid of You” to the boisterous chorus-and-horns ebullience of “Let Me Know” to “Mercy,” a nothing song electrified by a bravura vocal performance. While Carmel’s improved control is a plus, even the sparing use of electronic percussion seems like a serious breach of stylistic integrity. And the syncopated deconstruction of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” is just too weird.
Carmel reunited with Thorne for the trio’s glossed-up third album, which gives synthesizers a firm toehold in the arrangements. Taking a disappointing (and tense-sounding) detour towards urbane pop, McCourt allows guest keyboardist Ugo Delmirani to share in the songwriting, resulting in blander material with obvious commercial aspirations. If not quite a fatal artistic concession (the schmaltzy “Nothing Good,” which she can’t even sing, comes darn close to it), the misbegotten Everybody’s Got a Little…Soul lacks most of what made its robust predecessors so rewarding.
Further removed from the early records’ unaffected simplicity, the uneven Set Me Free lifts any remaining barriers to modern technology and slathers on the drum programs, MIDI processors and synthetic strings. With Delmirani thankfully out of the picture, McCourt and a variety of collaborators deliver a reasonably good set of songs, individually produced by Eno, Thorne, Pete Wingfield and Jim Parris (new spelling). Singing over a busy rush of danceable jazz-pop-rock, a seemingly reinvigorated McCourt comfortably throws her voice into high gear, cutting through the arrangements with ease. But putting on the melodramatic chanteuse act for songs like the grim “God Put Your Hand on Me” still doesn’t suit her at all. The new Carmel may not be as wonderful as the old Carmel, but Set Me Free provides reason enough to keep listening.
The Collected compilation — a fair album summary that leans a bit too heavily towards Set Me Free material — has the added attraction of one alternate version and a duet Carmel sang with Johnny Hallyday on his 1987 LP.