The essence of the late Kirsty MacColl’s career, which flashes brilliantly on the Galore retrospective, is difficult to glean from simply going through her albums. One of the most alluring and technically proficient harmony pop singers England ever produced, Kirsty MacColl (daughter of the late folksinger Ewan MacColl) started out professionally in 1979 with “They Don’t Know” b/w “Turn My Motor On,” a delightful new wave 45 on Stiff. That fine slice of plastic went nowhere, but she scored on the UK charts two years later with the twangy “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis” (included in two versions on Desperate Character). For MacColl’s first album, ace sidemen Billy Bremner, Lew Lewis and Gavin Povey helped her whip up a lively rock-country-pop stew that could be a female-led Rockpile. Nary a bad track in the bunch.
A second LP (recorded around ’82 with bassist Pino Palladino) was completed but rejected by her label and went unreleased. In 1984, MacColl married producer Steve Lillywhite (they met making Simple Minds’ Sparkle in the Rain) and collaborated with him on a single of Billy Bragg’s “A New England,” drastically overhauling the spare tune into a hitbound pop extravaganza. MacColl spent the ’80s writing hits for Tracey Ullman, raising a family and racking up session credits singing on records by everyone from Talking Heads to the Smiths to the Rolling Stones.
In 1987, MacColl duetted with Shane MacGowan on the Pogues’ rambunctious and profane “Fairytale of New York” and had her biggest chart success ever. Then she made Kite, co-writing and recording with guitarists Johnny Marr (ex-Smiths) and Pete Glenister (ex-Hitmen). This sturdy, provocative collection mixes full-bodied pop styles (“Free World”) with some country (“Don’t Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!”), adding a film noir story sung in French, a pair of wonderful covers (the Kinks’ “Days” and the Smiths’ “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby”) and pointed lyrical assaults on both Margaret Thatcher and shallow pop stars. Alluring layers of marvelous vocals and MacColl’s colorful no-nonsense personality make Kite a most encouraging second start for MacColl.
In the UK, where “Complainte Pour Ste. Catherine” and “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby” were CD-only bonus tracks, those songs also surfaced on the four-song CD-3s of, respectively, Don’t Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! and Free World. The Days EP contains three non-LP tracks, including a handsome rendition of the old country standard “Please Help Me I’m Falling.”
Musically inspired by some time spent in New York City, MacColl brought an international rhythmic thrust to Electric Landlady, resulting in the uneasy hip-hop bed of “Walking Down Madison,” the U2-ish snap of “Lying Down,” the salsa-inflected “My Affair” and the mariachi horn accents of “My Way Home.” While Lillywhite’s production is consistently tasteful enough to downplay the sense that MacColl is dabbling, the album keeps veering off on distracting tangents that undercut her jaundiced romantic writing. Not a bad record, but hard to fully embrace. (Galore, however, gives the album short shrift by omitting the pure pop delight of “All I Ever Wanted.”)
Following a split with her husband/producer, MacColl got another crew in to work on the solemn, sorrowful Titanic Days, which Lillywhite mixed after all. Touring band member Mark E. Nevin (ex-Fairground Attraction) co-wrote seven of the clearly personal songs and played guitar on the entire album; Glenister, bassist Gary Tibbs (ex-Vibrators/Roxy Music) and keyboardist Steve Nieve (Attractions) are also on hand. Sounding confident but too disheartened for full-scale inspiration, MacColl mixes stylistic metaphors on this disjointed, distant outing. The evanescent “Angel” has a bustling club beat and pizzicato violin plucks; the title track is lushly dramatic; “Last Day of Summer” is breezy folk-pop; “Can’t Stop Killing You,” co-written by Marr, sounds like an Anglofied Carly Simon classic. Though easy to admire and enjoy from time to time, Titanic Days is not an album to cherish with the fervor of Kite.
Besides most of the essential tracks from the four Charisma/Virgin releases, Galore includes MacColl’s two Pogues collaborations (the other, a Cole Porter cover, was done for a compilation) and a pair of new recordings: a robust original (the romantic triangle of “Caroline”) and a ponderous duet on Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” with Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. The compilation What Do Pretty Girls Do? recapitulates much of the same ground, to lesser effect, than the superlative Galore.
MacColl died on December 18th, 2000, when she was struck in the water by a boat off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico. Tropical Brainstorm, a posthumous release in the United States, demonstrates how deeply MacColl had absorbed Latin and Caribbean musical influences. Singing (quite fluently) in Spanish on many tracks, MacColl collaborates with a host of Brazilian, Cuban and other Latin musicians. Some of the songs fare poorly on lyrical grounds (“Here Comes That Man Again” is an online dating reminiscence), but “Mambo de la Luna” and “Autumngirlsoup” are typically witty, bouncily sophisticated pop. The album’s delight is “England 2 Colombia 0,” a soccer-sex opus that Billy Bragg might have gladly claimed: “You lied about your status, you lied about your life / You forgot you had three children, you forgot you had a wife / Now it’s England two, Colombia nil / And I know just how those Colombians feel.” The one-two punch of “Alegria” and “Amazonian Girls” owe something to, respectively, flamenco and Bahian drumming. MacColl wrote or co-wrote every song on the album, forsaking the covers at which she’s always excelled. While her fans would have wished for more, MacColl’s customary wit, good taste and exquisite singing with a Latin accent make Tropical Brainstorm a worthy farewell.
The three-disc From Croydon to Cuba is a loving compilation of album tracks, singles, remixes, covers and collaborations (many previously unreleased) from throughout MacColl’s career, 1979 to 2000.