Joan Armatrading – [Album]

Thursday, 21 February 2013

CDs like Starlight by Joan Armatrading remind me of why I hate genre classification in music. Grace Notes labeled this "Country & Folk,” which is plainly absurd; seeing that label attached to Starlight has to be some holdover from her earlier career, which she might reasonably have been classified as "Folk" (certainly never "Country"), but only so much as "A woman with a guitar" = "Folk." That was then though, and this is now – and this album is certainly not "Folk," although exactly what it is is a bit harder to nail down. If I have to label it something, it would probably be "Jazz." But even that is a bit too narrow; Starlight really encompasses a variety of genres.

This is primarily an album of classy vocal work. The instrumentation is mostly spare, leaving plenty of room for Armatrading to demonstrate the breadth of her vocal talent, from crooning to scatting to belting out the blues.

Not that the instrumentation should be ignored. This is a pure solo album; Armatrading wrote all the songs and plays everything on it, including drums and horns. She proves herself to be quite an accomplished musician all around. Although she is known as a guitarist, the six-string does not dominate here. There is the occasional electric solo and some jazzy shuffles, but her piano playing is equally emphasized; subtle flourishes laying the foundation for her vocals.

The atmosphere is relaxed and intimate, as if we are in a tiny jazz club listening to her. The production brings us in close; so we can hear every nuance. You can almost see the smoke and taste the whiskey as you listen.

This fits well with the lyrical concerns of the album. Starlight is a series of meditations on love, and Armatrading explores the topic from many angles. The album flows from "Single Life" to first love and through the development of a relationship, until finally ending in suspicions of infidelity. There is a consistent subtext of the need for honesty within intimacy. Songs like "Tell Me" and "Back on Track" discuss the problems of establishing trust and maintaining the relationship. But there are songs about the pure joys of love, emotional ("Close to Me") and physical ("Busy with You") too, which mean that the album is less about a specific moment of love lost or won which spurred the album and more about love s a concept in general; love can move in many ways, just as Starlight does.

Which brings us back to genre. One of the joys of Starlight is how Armatrading matches style with substance. "Close to Me," about first love, is upbeat soul, while "The Way I Think of You," a less confident take on love, is slow and deliberate. "Tell Me" and "Back on Track" are both built on unsettling arrangements which emphasize their concerns, "Tell Me" with a jazzy piano accompaniment, and "Back on Track" punctuated by sharp guitar chords. In "Busy With You," Armatrading's energetic scat singing tells us just what she wants, and how much she wants it.

On Starlight, Joan Armatrading just writes and sings what she wants. In doing so, she demonstrates how, in ignoring genre (and other expectations), an artist can free herself to produce powerful work.



will be released on February 26, 2013 by 429 Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

Comments are closed.