Way back when, I wrote the music column for my friend Christine Renaud’s express and upfront magazines, dedicated to “art, entertainment & life” in Prince Edward County. This review is very typical of my style at the time (or lack thereof!). I really can’t be arsed to edit it.
Remember Robert Plant’s “Tall Cool One” video, with its Robert Palmer-esque disinterested, robotic models lip-synching for Plant’s studly big eighties hair? Me neither. Even Zeppelin fans ignore it. “Tall Cool One” does have one saving grace (for me, at least) – a backing vocal by Kirsty MacColl, who sings the relentless chorus line, “Lighten up, baby, I’m in love with you.”
Kirsty was the daughter of songwriter Ewan MacColl (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Dirty Old Town”) and backing vocalist for Tracey Ullman, Morrissey, The Pogues and Talking Heads, among others. She wrote songs for ABBA chanteuse Frida and picked the running order for U2′s The Joshua Tree, produced by her then-husband Steve Lillywhite. (She said later that the tracks are ranked in order of her preference. Clever woman – the first three have become rock classics.)
Kirsty is replaced in the “Tall Cool One” video by vacant-looking models. Of course she is. Kirsty had too much character, was too real to be commercial, despite her five near-perfect pop albums. She was beautiful but chubby. She was brilliant live, but shy and suffered from stage fright; she never went on tour. Her covers of songs by The Kinks (“Days”) and socialist folkie Billy Bragg (“A New England”) gave her bigger hits in the UK than her own compositions, though Ullman took Kirsty’s girl-group soundalike “They Don’t Know” to the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic. She was beloved by musicians but largely unknown to the listening public, especially in North America. where fans mostly know her perennial Christmas duet with The Pogues, “Fairytale of New York.”
Before her untimely death, Kirsty released Tropical Brainstorm, her first studio album in seven years. While the previous Titanic Days was her “sad divorce album,” Brainstorm is exuberant: uptempo and optimistic music paired with Kirsty’s witty and wise lyrics. The sound is a fusion of Britpop and the Latin sounds of mambo and samba. Since 1991′s “My Affair,” Kirsty had worked with Latin musicians and Cuban charities, and sadly she was killed in a boating accident off the coast of Mexico, one of the locales that inspired her music, so full of life.
The good humour and warmth of Tropical Brainstorm starts with the lead track, an ode to the relaxed Cuban character, Mambo de la Luna, continuing with the hilarious “In These Shoes?” (covered by Bette Midler and featured in an episode of Sex and the City), “Treachery,” a tables-turned song about stalking an unsuspecting fan, and “Here Comes That Man Again,” a risqué, comic tale of online shenanigans with a Dutch pornographer. Other highlights include the soccer saga “England 2 Columbia 0″ (when it comes to love, Kirsty knows “how those Columbians feel”) and the playful “Us Amazonians,” about a back-to-nature South American matriarchal society. Brainstorm closes with “Head,” a jazzy, sax-y piece as smoky as Kirsty’s late-night, husky voice.
In my store, “Tropical Brainstorm” has become a secret weapon: we play it both to raise our spirits and, I admit, because every week we manage to make a few converts. Good for business, but besides, Kirsty’s fans are known for their dedication to foisting her under-appreciated talent on all. Brainstorm is a rare thing, an end-to-end good listen that puts a smile on everyone’s face. It is, to quote “Alegria,” purely, simply, an album of “happiness and joy.”
First published winter 2003.