Text and photo © Robert Barry Francos
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Anyone who has read my columns or blog knows that I often rail against mainstream music and labels, and almost always write about independent music, or those who have not been promoted well and fallen under the radar.
For this column, I would like to discuss some artists that were on the majors; some have been in the top leagues, some well regarded, and then there is the cult musician who didn’t really get the recognition she deserves. Again, these are in no particular order.
Jennifer Warnes – Jennifer Warnes
Jennifer Warnes – Famous Blue Raincoat
When Jennifer Warnes was a regular on The Smothers Brothers Show, known only as “Jennifer,” honestly, she never raised a blip to me, and I didn’t remember her. Hey, I was a kid. She entered my radar, however, when she performed on a Smothers Brothers reunion show in the early ‘70s. Soon as I heard her voice, my jaw dropped. Simply beautiful. When I mentioned her to Bernie Kugel, he showed me two Mason Williams albums on which she had done either some background or co-singing, and it took about 5 years for me to give them back (after I had replaced them in my collection; I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Mason in a future blog). During the mid-‘70s, I bought her first few albums in thrift and used shops, including I Can Remember Everything, See Me Feel Me Touch Me Heal Me, and Jennifer (produced by John Cale). To promote her then-latest song, “Right Time of the Night” (from her self-titled album), she played the Bottom Line in New York (4/8/77, with Jonathan Edwards opening), which is the only time I saw her live (I took some really dark instamatic slides, as it was about a month before I had a real camera). Jennifer Warnes stayed on my turntable for a long time, especially the killer version of “Love Hurts,” “Mama,” “Don’t Lead Me On,” and especially “I’m Dreaming.” In fact, there really isn’t a filler track on the entire collection. The same can be true for arguably her most popular collection, Famous Blue Raincoat, which is her interpretation of Leonard Cohen songs; she had been backing him for years on some of his best albums (e.g., Various Positions). Jennifer is, of course, also known for her film song collaborations, including, “Up Where We Belong” (Officer & a Gentleman) and “Time Of My Life” (Dirty Dancing).
Lisa Loeb – Firecracker
Truly, I don’t remember who gave me the CD, and it was a while before I started playing the thing. But the more I heard it, the more I wanted to play it. I’d take notice of her first song, “Stay,” and thought it was okay, but this release was different. With few exceptions, nearly every song on Firecracker is filled with break-ups and bitterness, but at the same time there was a strength to the protagonist of the song, where you just knew no matter what, she was going to come out of it. While every cut is a gem, and I mean that sincerely, the closest to a hit she had from the CD is “I Do,” which is a perfect example when she quietly purrs, “I’m starting to ignore you.” She follows this up with some great songs in this theme, including “Truthfully,” “How,” and “Furious Rose.” I also enjoy the sheer tenseness and angst of “Wishing Heart” (“I was restless… / I just want this to be good… / But you don’t understand / You don’t understand me / And I want to be understood”), and the lyrical play of “Dance With the Angels” (“But you want to fall fashionably in love with a woman / In love with a life you’ll adore”). The one happy, peppy song is “Truthfully,” which was written for a film but never used. After this CD, she released a few more, and made some bizarre reality television choices, but I mostly enjoyed her work on MadTV singing the theme of – and appearing in – a hilarious sketch, Pretty White Kids with Problems.
Maria McKee – Maria McKee
First coming to the public’s eye in the band Lone Justice (with whom she recorded the brilliant “I Found Love”), she broke out with this eponymous titled solo release. But what made me notice her was a performance of “Breathe” she did on a late night music show called Night Music. It was jaw droppingly beautiful, as she swayed with her arms hanging in the air and her eyes closed and fluttering. Shortly, I went out and bought the CD, and it was a good choice. Another one of those every song is great collections. This is a woman who is not afraid to look at the dark side of living, as evidenced by songs like “Panic Beach,” “This Property is Condemned,” and “Drinkin’ In My Sunday Dress” (the latter only available on the CD, not the cassette). She is great in a rave up, such as the latter song I just listed, and the gospel-inspired “More Than a Heart Can Hold,” but it is the aching ballad that grabs my heart, such as the opener “I’ve Forgotten What It Was In You (That Put the Need in Me),” “To Miss Someone,” “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way),” and one of my favorite cuts, the heartbreaking “Has He Got a Friend For Me.” The cover photo of the release, a plain sepia-textured photo of Maria, eyes filled with longing and a hint of hope, is just beautiful.
Kimm Rogers – Soundtrack of My Life
Probably the least known of the batch here, Kimm Rogers is a singer-songwriter whom I know so little about her. Hell, I am not even sure how I came across the CD, but it wasn’t long before I fell in love with her unique voice. The title of this is totally accurate as she tells stories of her life, starting with “My Dear Mama,” feeling “Desperate” (“Nobody loves you / When you’re desperate”), “On the Street,” the wonderful “Just Like a Seed” (actually, again, I like all the cuts on the collection), and the catchiest, and closest she’s had to a hit that I know of, “Right By You” (“I wanna be right by you / I wanna be left in your mind”). Kimm has a very sharp way with words that say exactly what she means, and yet does not lose any of its poetic leanings. Sometimes, her songs sound like diary entries, such as “A Lot on My Mind,” the title cut, and the looking ahead “2-0-19.” As far as I know, this San Diego-based singer has two full releases (yes, I own them both), and I would love to hear more.
Note that Universal will not let the video be copied so you’ll have to go here:
The Murmurs – The Murmurs
Some time in the very early ‘90s, I was walking with Alan Abramowitz around Chinatown, near Wooster Street, when we heard this beautiful live singing being blasted through a PA. We followed the sound, and came across a blocked off street, and saw two women with guitars on a high platform with a large crowd around them. Asking around, we found out they were the Murmurs, consisting of Heather Grody and Leisha Hailey. We stood there enamored of them. After seeing them another time, Alan arranged for them to be interviewed on his cable access show, Videowave, and I was lucky enough to be the cameraperson for it (actually, thanks to the MTA I was late, and you can hear me entering during the first part of the shoot). The last time I saw them, again with Alan, was at the CBGB art gallery, next door (upstairs). They had just signed with their major label then. The Murmurs had great unique voices and a special harmony; plus, being a couple at the time, sometimes they would gently bicker onstage, such as what to sing next. Also, they had a great relationship with their audience, and their performances would come off almost as an intimate gathering. After a while, the Murmurs became a foursome, and then changed their name to Gush, though for me, their best work was as a duo. Eventually, they broke up when Leisha and Heather separated. Since then Leisha has gone on to other fame as a star of the ensemble show The L Word, and co-star of all those “It’s so good that…” yogurt commercials.
The Bangles – Greatest Hits
During 1981, I received a 45 in the mail called “Getting Out of Hand,” and there was a handwritten note inside asking me to review it for FFanzeen, signed by the singer, Susanna Hoffs. The trio was called the Bangs, and would (for legal reasons) soon change their name to the Bangles. Most likely there is no more to the story I need to go into about the band itself, considering its huge string of hits. The Saw Doctors have a song called, “I’d Love to Kiss the Bangles,” he which the singer chants, “I’d love to have it off / With Susanna Hoffs,” interrupting himself to say, “Err, my favorite’s Vicky, actually.” Well, I’ve always had a soft spot for bassists, and Michael Steele is no exception (yeah, I know…). This is proven in her ballad, “Following,” my favorite song here, and arguably the least known from this collection.
Judy Collins – Fires of Eden
I have to say, during the height of her career, Judy Collins never really got to me, except possibly a duet with Theodore Bikel of “Greenland Whale Fisheries” from the Newport Folk Festival (released by Vanguard). Yes, that includes “Both Sides Now,” Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and “Amazing Grace.” When I heard this release, however, I liked it right off, especially for two songs. First one is the title cut, which has a catchy chorus (“Those fires of Eden / Still burn in this heart of mine”), is upbeat, and shows off her voice. The other one, especially, is “The Blizzard,” a long piece about being stuck in said Colorado blizzard leading to self-redemption after the end of a harsh relationship. Though lengthy, this song tends to fly by for me. The whole album is worthwhile, though it is these two that will remain in the forefront, and that I can listen to numerous times without getting bored.