As unlikely as it may seem, the new albums from Joan Armatrading and Marianne Faithfull should appeal to the same, relatively narrow audience.
Until recently, the only musical quality the two shared was a preference for writing songs in the first person: Armatrading being the wry, witty lyricist, forever juggling folk, rock, jazz and reggae elements, brightening her songs with the cheerful flavor of her native West Indies, and pursuing the broad success that has unjustly eluded her; Faithfull being the original Mick's (Jagger) bad girl in the mid-'60s, the source for the Stones' "Sister Morphine" years later, and the lyricist who surprised everyone with a strong, sharply abrasive album called "Broken English" two years ago.
With Armatrading adopting a more rigid New Wave stance, and Faithfull sanding down the rough edges of her music, the two are more compatible than ever. Trouble is, they both seem headed in the wrong direction.
Armatrading's album "Walk Under Ladders" (A&M SP 4876) is by far the most enjoyable, even if it falls short of her best work. Too often Steve Lillywhite's essentially flat and colorless production seems at odds with the vitality of Armatrading's songwriting.
The almost funereal synthesizer that drones throughout the opening track "I'm Lucky" is typical. It's a bright, buoyant lyric sung in a clipped cadence, but the backing seems peculiarly leaden.
At other times the band isn't out of sync with Armatrading so much as they simply fail to provide her with the rhythmic freedom she needs. Exceptions include "Romancers," which features a slightly bitter, fatalistic lyric set against shifting rhythms, and "Eating the Bear," a clever, open-ended parable to which Thomas Dolby adds a whimsical touch on synthesizer.
Saxophonist Mel Collins (who also plays behind Faithfull) and guitarist Gary Sanford add a few unexpected flourishes as well. Collins punctuates Armatrading's nervous putdown "When I Get It Right" while Sanford unfurls Chuck Berry guitar lines in slow motion during an otherwise frenetic "At the Hop."
Occasionally, the lean instrumentation does suit Armatrading's purposes: The icy tranquility imposed on the love song "Only One" is just right. But in the end, with her acoustic guitar all but silenced, the familiar Caribbean beat oddly muted (despite the help of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare) and her vocal range severely restricted, only Armatrading's lyrics will hold the attention of longtime fans.
Those lyrics are still as cogent and as clever as ever. Typically, "I Can't Lie to Myself" dissects a relationship and poses a problem with remarkable economy:
Why so tall/So young
So handsome/You get the best of me
In your eyes/I see a reflection
You the beauty/I'm the beast
"No Love" has a similar twist:
Well everybody dreams of one/And now I want you
And not just/For fun
But if you've got no love? To give
Baby don't give it here
As long as Armatrading is writing her own material, she seems incapable of making a bad album. Despite its shortcomings, it would be nice to see "Walk Under Ladders" bring the singer some of the recognition due her.
There's no telling how long it took Marianne Fathfull to write the songs for her last album, "Broken English." She came out of nowhere to record that album and obviously had prepared for it for some time. Unfortunately, the same preparation (and inspiration) is missing from "Dangerous Acquaintances" (Island ILPS 9648).
Faithfull is known for writing scathing confessional ballads, her words sometimes swimming in vitriol. A caustic "Why D'Ya Do It" from "Broken English" is perhaps the best known diatribe she's written in that vein. But nothing on her new album even approaches the intensity of that song, and most of it seems inordinately tame.
One of the problems involves the polite and palatable sound produced by Mark Miller Mundy. Mundy has apparently tried to compensate for Faithfull's thin, reedy voice by surrounding her with commercially appealing arrangements. The resulting bland, largely anonymous accompaniment undermines Faithfull's lyrics instead of underscoring them.
This proves a fatal mistake for most of side one. Faithfull's voice is so frail that even the merest modulation in tone seems a precarious maneuver. Left to her own devices, she can't elevate much of the album beyond listless mediocrity.
Another problem concerns the songs themselves. Lyricists who specialize in confessional ballads can go to the well just so often before it runs dry. Wistful musings such as "Sweetheart" and "Easy in the City" suggest Faithfull has made the trip too often recently.
There are, however, four songs included on the album, one co-written by Stevie Winwood, which prove "Broken English" to be no mere fluke. "Eye Communication" cuts almost as deep:
I know you're out there having a good time/
Spaced out chicks, love potions and good wine/
Don't make me laugh you're not in there alone/
There's no other people's voices in the room.
And "Truth Bitter Truth" reveals the other side of the coin, reflection and vulnerability replacing arrogance and suspicion:
Where did it go to my youth/
Where did it slip away to/
Who was told the truth -- the bitter truth/
The truth we didn't want to know.