David McAlmont‘s startling voice has, down the years, found its owner involved with a variety of collaborators. He’s worked with latter day Bond music maker David Arnold – they recorded a version of Diamonds Are Forever – and made an album with Oscar-winning composer Michael Nyman, as well as releasing solo material. But it’s as half of McAlmont & Butler, whose last album Bring It Back was released back in 2002, that he’s perhaps still best known.
The duo have formed, hiatused, ebbed and flowed, as both McAlmont and Butler have involved themselves involved with other projects. The former Suede guitarist is these days, of course, a sought-after producer, while McAlmont for his part formed Fingersnap with Guy Davies. Earlier this year they reunited to play two charity gigs at London’s Union Chapel, as part of the 20th anniversary of their debut collaboration, The Sound Of McAlmont & Butler. The album’s recordings have been remastered by Butler from the original tapes, and packaged with a 15 track bonus CD including singles, demos, instrumentals, radio sessions and a new mix of What’s The Excuse This Time? A DVD collects together assorted videos and live performances, including the Top 10 single Yes.
With a short UK tour in the diary for November too, we caught up with McAlmont to chat about the albums that have influenced him most for his This Music Made Me…
Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb – Guilty
“Out in a world of tears we were hanging on; we come together we find the sun.”
Guilty is rhapsodic. Guilty is odyssean. Its songs are triumphs. Lyrically, they combine metaphysics, poetry and romance. The chordal structures honour the lyrical thought. The arrangements are adventurous. The musicianship is excellent.
The set glides around the soulful, the orchestral, the transcendent and the sublime. It is a musical wonderland, a labyrinth of emotion. Scene one is sultry summer. The grand finale is an almighty storm. Along the way its star is discovered, romanced, cherished and abandoned.
Barbra Streisand is cast in the leading role. At times she is as giddy in love as the mysterious female from The Songs Of Solomon. At others she is as distraught in love as Joan Fontaine in Rebecca. Her voice is lovingly captured. Her performances are confident, liquid and stratospheric. The singing actress is serviced with vivid texts and wondrous locations in which she can luxuriate. From that luxuriance she seduces.
And then there is Barry Gibb. At first glance he appears to be Barbra’s supporting player. He appears on the album’s cover. He belongs there. In fact, he is the leading man, director who fashions scene by stunning scene. He is the maestro who masterminds each symphonic poem. He is the metaphysical poet who posits emotions in the realms of planetary activity, infinity and earthly paradise.
His leading lady gives voice to his philosophical imagination. She sings to him. He sings with her. He appears and disappears like The Magus in the Tarot. Together they vaunt an epic love and remonstrate over its demise, until Barbra alone wails like a forgotten banshee.
It is a fulfilling musical journey and a thrilling sing.
Dusty Springfield – Dusty In Memphis
“The talking’s much too loud and the walls are much too thin.”
When Bernard Butler and I first discussed working together he said the magic words to me, “I’ve been listening to a lot of Dusty Springfield.” The Dusty period he was referencing was the phase that preceded this set by a few years (1963-66).
He was listening to the pop Dusty. By the time she got to Dusty in Memphis (1968) she was ready to dispense with the beehived popstrel to fully unleash the high regard she held for soul singers like Baby Washington and Aretha Franklin. The tag “the White Negress” has dated badly, but this is the album that best illustrated the crass concept.
That Dusty In Memphis was a commercial failure at the time is not a mystery. The pop aesthetic she adhered to before didn’t retain an interest in frank emotion. The audience was not having psychological demands made of it. She was fun and more or less asexual. With Dusty In Memphis you might say she got her kit off.
The title is evocative, placing her in a southern United States city and she makes like a resident. In many respects it feels like the tale of a bored housewife. It conjures the spirit of Tennessee Williams in places. Dusty gives voice to an illicit affair; she has sex first thing in the morning; she lives in a slum and is tortured incessantly by her neighbours loud gossip through thin walls, as her man deserts her and screws his way around the delta; she gets up to know good and discovers her sexual self at the behest of a preacher’s son. Her earlier 1960s fans jumped ship in droves.
It is unfortunate that so many felt unable to continue with her, because her performance here is accomplished and virtuosic. There is little emotion that she is unable to reach. Her singing negotiates romantic highs and lows with ease. She sings with a chuckle in her voice when necessary and espouses misery with devastating conviction. Arguably, the soul enthusiast and impersonator – of the early years – is supplanted by Aretha and Baby’s equal.
The music and the playing are as exquisite as Dusty’s performances. This is an album in which you take a long warm soak. It carries one of the least renowned, but best Bacharach and David songs, In The Land Of Make Believe. Her version of Windmills Of Your Mind is the best version in the English language.
The heat of the Mississippi, the prowess of its musicians and technicians, and the scope of the great lady’s skill are seductive. Its haters are misguided and need to take another look.
Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale
“People sinning just for fun; they will never see the sun for they can never show their faces.”
I wrote in a recent article for a magazine that Stevie “goes down” in this album in the manner that Jonah from the Old Testament “goes down to Tarshish and the Whale.” This is the album of Stevie’s recovery from a near tragic car accident and it shows. His intelligence is aflame and his conviction is deepened. The recovery of his life, consciousness and muse is audible and clear.
When he sings, “there are brighter days ahead’ on the opening title, Smile Please, I wonder if he is certain. On Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away he voices a loss of faith; he fights with all of his vigour to recover it. With Too Shy to Say he foreshadows the 1980s power ballad style of Whitney Houston.
The mood is on the verge of sinking into the subterranean, but it recovers momentarily with Boogie on Reggae Woman. It is a moment of emotional relief until Stevie is reduced to questioning the stealth of love with the song, Creeping. And then he gets angry at the Watergate Years with You Haven’t Done Nothing.
His emotions plummet further with It Ain’t No Use, in which Little Stevie Wonder reappears harrowed and embittered by love. Thereafter he leads us into the Wilderness of They Won’t Go When I Go like an anchorite beating his chest with a rock. Birds of Beauty appear to lift the mood but they barely mask Stevie’s counsel against drug use. The album concludes on a bizarre note with the irrepressible musical uplift of Please Don’t Go, which is in fact a devastated paean to romantic desperation.
The listener has to conclude that all is not well with the world. The resulting emotion is that joy has been gleaned from Stevie’s pain. This is why the album doesn’t get stale. Each revisit messes with the emotions, often disguising devastation with joy.
Into this plethora of conflicting emotions Stevie throws the talents of an eye-popping cavalcade of soul luminaries: The Jacksons, Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams and The Persuasions. People say that Innervisions is better because it has Living For the City, to which I reply, “Well it doesn’t have They Won’t Go When I Go.”
Ella Fitzgerald – Sings Rodgers And Hart
If you need to learn how to sing the jazz standard, Ella is the ultimate teacher. Her pitching is razor sharp. Her interpretations are unfussy. She doesn’t subscribe to showing off to distract the listener from an inability with nuanced melody. She doesn’t have to.
I prefer this album to all the other songbook albums by Ella. I don’t enjoy her singing the Cole Porter songbook as much. The album is conducted and arranged by Bunny Bregman and I think it may be his finest work as well. He opts to complement Ella’s performance with luscious string sounds and gorgeous French Horns. He also knows when to silence the orchestra to allow for the honeyed purity- that inspired Doris Day- to shine through.
The illusion is of a showgirl singing big numbers on big stages and slipping backstage to quiet dressing rooms to cry reflective tears over loves lost. If you have ever wished you could take your loved one away for a holiday, but been out of pocket, Manhattan is apt to make you weep. If you’ve ever been convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that you have met “the one” Have You met Sir Jones will chime.
If you have a dark sense of humour, the glee with which Ella performs the shocking and psychotic, serial killer standard, To Keep My Love Alive, will delight. If you’re comfortable or uncomfortable in your own skin The Lady Is A Tramp will inspire you. If you have ever known loneliness A Ship Without A Sail will comfort you. If you require a masterclass in singing complex melody look no further than Johnny One Note.
Ella never sounds challenged by the material and it is utterly challenging stuff. The speed with which she accomplished these recordings between international singing engagements is legendary. A supreme genius of the jazz standard.
Al Green – Gets Next To You
“I’m a ram. Yes I am and I’m as stubborn as I can be…”
To listen to Al Green it’s a good idea to go right back to the beginning. The albums that preceded this one show the master in gestation. They are created by a man capable of doing impressive Marvin Gaye, Claude Jeter, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Eddie Kendrick impersonations; a man who is yet to find his voice.
With Green is Blues- the second album- a collaboration began with Willie Mitchell. There is a sense of the two working with each other to find Al’s thing. Slowly Willie and Al would refine the Southern Soul sound into something highly conceptual and slick. It is with Al Green Gets Next to You that the smell of something really good began emanating from the stove.
It retains the vocal aplomb of the Southern Soul screamers like Wilson Pickett, Tina Turner and Otis Redding. Al was the shit by the time of his first recordings. At that stage, however, he hadn’t yet decided to enshrine his falsetto. He still preferred to get down and salty. Hence, the grooves thumped and Al sang the hell out of his larynx.
It is only with the song, Tired of Being Alone, that there is a key indication of the sex seraphim to come; the Green who would fully inhabit Al’s albums prior to grits-gate. The album is laden with the sauce you would expect from the son of a sharecropper who got thrown out of his religious father’s home for listening to Jackie Wilson and would eventually shack up with a hooker.
I’m a Ram is cheeky and delicious; I Can’t Get Next To You restores down home southern rawness to Motown’s honed commercialism; Driving Wheel is a performance by a great rock vocalist; the version of Light My Fire proves that heavy duty soul seduction didn’t have to wait until Prince.
Hereafter, Al and Willie became purveyors of high concept, southern soul conceptualisation. Al green Gets Next To you is the final stop on the way.
Pet Shop Boys – Behaviour
“We’ve both given up smoking ‘cause its fatal, so whose matches are those?”
A tradition of British erudition underscored by waspish, rapier wit was the preserve of writers as varied as Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Its influence on – if not its presence in – British pop was inevitable. Morrissey was easily a part of that tradition, and Pet Shop Boys‘ Neil Tennant also.
Behaviour is rich with Neil’s peerless pop erudition. Chris Lowe crafts a sophisticated sonic palate that makes the preceding records sound comparatively low-fi. There is the fabulous presence of post-Smiths Johnny Marr, imparting technical bravura wherever he is invited to. The remarkable Alexander Balanescu’s quartet is on hand to create an unforgettable coda to an astounding musical celebration of socialist revolution.
With Being Boring Frank Sinatra’s A Very Good Year is re-imagined for the HIV generation. Neil’s nightmare of being unsuited to the unavoidable school rugby field is recalled with Chris’ dark electronic splendour on This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave. Neil’s heart shatters into irretrievable fragments on the fragile To Face the Truth; while the Bolshevik Revolution never sounded so funky, soulful and symphonic as it does with October Symphony.
The feeling is that this is an album of huge personal importance to the artists: difficult ghosts are laid to rest; therapy would be appreciated; love kicks like a mule when it hurts; and political comment is subtly inserted. Jealousy concludes the set with a harp-heavy orchestral climax, leaving little doubt as to how hurt Neil has been during his romantic career; it also makes you wonder if he has been spying on you. An absolute favourite from an emotional, musical and sonic point of view.
Bob Marley And The Wailers – Exodus
I love the reggae of the ’70s and the early ’80s. It was still melodic and romantic. It hadn’t yet discovered the aggression of the Ragga and Dancehall years. Bob Marley united romance, politics and spirituality into a classic set that ignites social consciousness. It also swoons, and possesses the hips.
It transcends its origins and is truly international. Whereas Jamaican reggae is usually contented to groove along this is a record that adhered to pop constructs: it is dynamic; it uses the guitar solo; the melodies are memorable; the words are wonderful.
There is evident band discussion in the arrangements. Waiting in Vain, for example, didn’t have to have the pauses and drum rolls during its middle eighth. Their inclusion makes the groove all the better when it returns.
Bob is more than a firebrand; he is a credible vocalist an inspired wordsmith and a thoughtful arranger. My favourite memory of this record is sitting on a windowsill on the Portobello road at the Notting Hill carnival where Gladdy Wax played a daylong reggae ska set.
When he dropped Natural Mystic a streaming crowd more akin to something on the Southbank on the weekend, or the Barcelona Ramblas, slowed down to become a grooving mass. It seemed for the length of the song that everybody transmitted smiles and the eyes of strangers met and fleeting friendships were formed. When Gladdy played the next tune the spell was broken. Cinematic stuff.
Paul Simon – Negotiations And Love Songs
For years I saw Art Garfunkel as the singer and Paul Simon as the musician and lyricist. I bought into his genius, but didn’t pay much attention to his vocal ability, as if the reason those Simon and Garfunkel harmonies worked was all down to Art.
This album is a greatest hits compilation from the late ’80s and I return to it every year. If I have to make a costume, assemble my tax receipts, just do something mind numbing or boring I reach for this album. It’s Negotiations And Love Songs time!
The title is taken from the song Train In The Distance. That song goes straight to my tear ducts without fail. It compares the promise of love to the sound of a train in the distance; everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. At least Paul seems to think so. But it describes the arc of a relationship between a man and a woman with knowing sensitivity. Its discovery is something I wish for everyone.
I always use singers during my vocal coaching sessions to assist my students with certain concepts. I had a hilarious moment where I tried to get one of my favourites to listen to Paul. His response was less than obliging. I was shocked. How could you not like Paul Simon?
I think there are singers who have instruments that don’t float the boats of the masses. They have to use other means. Sometimes you can subscribe to that prejudice. “Madonna is not a musician: she’s an entrepreneur!” is one I get sick of hearing. I have been guilty with regards to Paul.
It was only recently after listening to this album for years – because I envy his lyrical ability – that I finally noticed. “Bloody hell! This guy is a great singer.” But he is a lyrical colossus. He doesn’t overuse his voice. It is as if he prioritises the lyric- and rightly so. He doesn’t allow for fancy vocal footwork, as it were, to cloud what he is saying.
Dear Paul. I have been so right and so wrong about you.
Tom Waits – Asylum Years
“And the cops are making jokes about some whore house in Seattle.”
The first time I heard Tom Waits it was a moment of horror. I was disturbed by the hideous sound that he was making. The NME raved about him. Their appreciation was a mystery. I didn’t understand until I met Patrick.
Patrick was one third of Kitchens Of Distinction. We became friends when our (Thieves) music was compared to his. He came to a gig. We became fast friends. We hung out, went out, and got hammered together. It was great fun. His friendship was crucial to my musical education.
Patrick introduced me to old Ella Fitzgerald records, John Barry compositions, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake etc. His musical knowledge is vast.
One inebriated night he played me something called Small Change. It was performed by Tom, a saxophonist and a Zippo. It was spoken word. It was the moment where I understood that Tom was not something vomited up by a demon from hell, but a highly evolved performance artist.
I took a look at the album and it was called Asylum Years. I bought it very soon afterwards. It took me on a journey through the back streets of small American towns populated with hoods, hookers and cutthroats. It was the America of David Lynch, and the noir of some of my favourite black and white movies.
Tom didn’t always play the gallows humorist. At moments he was tender and tragic. Songs like A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, Burma Shave and Martha had me crying the least expected tears. They were elegant counter points to the louche strut of Small Change and Diamonds On My Windshield.
Never Talk To Strangers – a duet with Bette Midler – begins comedically, but then packs a melancholy sucker punch. Asylum Years was the album that shot Tom all the way up in my estimation. I added other albums from the period that the anthology was compiled from. One of my enduring fantasies is a private American road trip with the great man.
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness On The Edge Of Town
I heard some men enthusing about this album in a theatre one night. I had fallen in love with Bruce Springsteen when he sang on We Are The World. Yes, I mean “fallen in love.” I wrote an appreciation of We Are The World once. It’s funny because it is supposed to be a loving, witty account of the project, but when I described Bruce’s contribution I got downright pornographic.
When I heard him singing Born in the USA for the first time I heard myself saying aloud in inappropriate company, “There’s my man,” much to the disgust of some people in earshot. For a long time I listened and admired from a distance. After I heard Tougher Than the Rest (1987) and Philadelphia (1993) he owned me. If you’ve never heard his version of Angel Eyes from the Frank Sinatra 80th birthday celebration, watch it now!
So when I heard that conversation in the theatre that night I decided that it was time to have a listen to the pre-Born in the USA material with which I was unfamiliar. This album did not disappoint. You might say that Tom prepared me for its onslaught. Bruce describes a world I have never seen and in which I wouldn’t fare well. Yet I appreciate Bruce for daring to bring it to sonic life.
A New Jersey where an Adam raises a Cain, where the factory annihilate a man’s soul and self-respect, where the only escape is illegal car racing that destroys the lives of the women who love the racers, and where the one that got away is confined somewhere in the darkness on the edge of town, unresponsive to the advances of a man too male to grasp his own sensitivity.
The music uses some reverb and overdrive, but for the most part, it is unspoiled and raw. The sense is that the electric instruments were plugged in, turned up, and untreated beyond that. Bruce hammers his voice and probably mangles his vocal circuitry in the process. The effect is that you don’t find yourself distracted by technology you just receive the intended message.
People still have completely the wrong impression about Bruce. They see him as some sort of redneck when he isn’t- not in the slightest! Would a redneck campaign for Obama and LGBT rights? Would a redneck say yes to singing the title track from an AIDS movie? I don’t think so!
If I were a woman I’d want to have his child.
The Sound Of McAlmont & Butler is out now through Edsel. McAlmont & Butler tour the UK in November, stopping at London’s Roundhouse on 7 November.
Further information and tour dates can be found at mcalmontandbutler.uk