Singer/guitarist/songwriter Joan Armatrading—born in the West Indies and raised in Birmingham, England—makes records of warm, emotionally resonant music that has earned her a devoted following on at least two continents. Having never managed to move beyond a dedicated mid-sized following in the US, Armatrading had to watch as the singer/songwriter resurgence of the late ’80s sent likeminded artists (including nominal soundalike Tracy Chapman) catapulting past her hard-earned level of success with music that was not substantially different from hers. The subsequent slowing of her album output can certainly be presumed to have something to do with the more densely populated field into which it is now being released.
Whatever’s for Us, produced between Elton John albums by Gus Dudgeon, was a collaborative effort with lyricist Pam Nestor; on her own, with Dada/Vinegar Joe member Pete Gage at the helm, Back to the Night proved equally uncommercial. Armatrading then teamed up with Glyn Johns, who brought in ex-members of Fairport Convention as backing musicians for Joan Armatrading, an extraordinarily thoughtful and moving album that contains “Down to Zero” and “Love and Affection,” two of her most enduring and powerful compositions.
The intimate, upbeat Show Some Emotion is lovely, a casual-sounding album of songs that, if not among her best, are more than presentable and occasionally captivating. Johns also produced the harder-rocking To the Limit, a slightly dated-sounding collection of strong songs (which includes the notable “Bottom to the Top,” set to a gentle reggae beat) played by a small electric band that, at its most exuberant, resembles a modest Mad Dogs and Englishmen. He also produced Steppin’ Out, a live document of American performances: backed by a five-piece band, Armatrading delivers nine songs, including “Love and Affection” and “Cool Blue Stole My Heart.” How Cruel is a four- song 12-inch containing some non-LP material.
Me Myself I was produced by Richard Gottehrer and performed by a stellar cast of Anglo-American rock musicians (including Chris Spedding, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici and three members of David Letterman’s band). Even in this all-electric setting, Armatrading and her songs hold up nicely. “Me Myself I” is brilliant, a chillingly beautiful declaration of independence with a memorable pop melody; the rest of the record explores the vagaries of love and percolates with energy, grace and sensitivity.
Steve Lillywhite took over the production reins for Walk Under Ladders, which fields a fascinating selection of players—XTC’s Andy Partridge, King Crimsonites Tony Levin and Mel Collins, Sly and Robbie, Thomas Dolby. Although the stylized results shortchange Joan’s personality a bit, successful numbers like “I Wanna Hold You” and “At the Hop” affirm her courageous desire to explore uncharted areas.
The Key is a slick package that employs many of the same players as Walk Under Ladders to recapture the potent melodic pop elements of Me Myself I. “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names” is a should-have-been-hit with spectacular multi-tracked harmonies and a hair-raising Adrian Belew guitar solo. “The Game of Love” has an Edge- like echoed guitar sound and a memorable chorus. Motels starmaker Val Garay produced the bristling “Drop the Pilot” (Lillywhite did all but one other track) with loud power chords and a stomping backbeat; although spoiled by ill- advised synths, “I Love My Baby” ends the record with a tender lullaby.
Track Record compiles Armatrading’s most popular songs from six of her prior albums, but also includes a pair of otherwise non-LP items (“Frustration” and “Heaven”) and a track from How Cruel.
Secret Secrets lays open a world of pain and suffering. In “Persona Grata” Armatrading announces, “I’m your whipping boy,” adding “I’m in love with you” in a resigned, grim tone. “Love by You” and “Friends Not Lovers” mourn the end of a relationship with tragic depth. In “Strange,” she realizes “I am not missing you”; other songs (“Moves,” “One Night”) allow more hope to shine through the tears. Pino Palladino’s inimitable fretless bass provides the most notable instrumental character; other than on “Moves,” the sophisticated modern backing is rather faceless.
Armatrading produced Sleight of Hand, using just a drummer, bassist and keyboardist (with a few minor guest contributions) and staying out of any easily identifiable musical niche. She acquits herself well, both on guitar and behind the board, offering songs that suggest more personal happiness and stability than those on Secret Secrets.
Served up on a sensuous plate dominated by horns, Palladino’s bass and flashy guitar work by Phil Palmer and Mark Knopfler, The Shouting Stage—another self- production, this time in a smooth and jazzy adult contemporary vein—explores romance from both ends of the emotional spectrum. The rapture of “Did I Make You Up” and “Watch Your Step” gives way to “Words” and culminates in “The Shouting Stage.” Although decent and tasteful, this anxious-sounding effort is not among Armatrading’s most musically compelling.
The Compact Hits EP features a non-representative quartet of tracks (“Love and Affection,” “Willow,” etc.), none of which were actually big hits.
Armatrading selected another one of England’s most expressive bassists, Mick Karn, to play on Hearts and Flowers, a handsomely slick and modern realization of her traditional artistic values. After announcing that there’s “More Than One Kind of Love” and overtly expressing her spiritual awakening in “Promise Land,” Armatrading uses intentionally ambiguous lyrics to convey deep adoration that could just as easily be for a person as for a deity.
Square the Circle has no overriding flavor, just ten clearly expressed and resonant songs of devotion (“True Love”), uncertainty (“Wrapped Around Her”), remorse (“Can’t Get Over (How I Broke Your Heart)”) and idyllic feminism (“If Women Ruled the World”). The arrangements are tasteful but pointed—more Laura Nyro than Carole King, although “Weak Woman” and “Can I Get Next to You” put a little Aretha gusto into the mix—and Armatrading even flashes a rare bit of humor by quoting herself in “Crazy.”
Ending a two-decade stint on A&M, Armatrading redoubled her creative ambitions for What’s Inside, an elegant, rich and intricate album with strings (by a London orchestra and the Kronos Quartet), horns, male backup singers and a superb band featuring drummer Manu Katche, Benmont Tench and Tony Levin. Based as much on piano as guitar (although she plays a surprising amount of lead, and one track employs pedal steel for a novel country effect), the album relies on simply effective material performed with imaginative skill—stylistically, instrumentally and vocally. “Shapes and Sizes” makes striking use of the Kronos Quartet and little else; “Lost the Love” slides from a jazzy standards swing into a sizzling blues, while “Can’t Stop Loving You” (punched up by the Memphis Horns) is one of the most uplifting and engaging pop songs in Armatrading’s repertoire.