Cleo Laine's broad vocal range, jazzy idiosyncrasies and dramatic pop interpretations have brought her worldwide acclaim. A stubbornly individualistic stylist, Laine plumbs the depths of her music with an emotional intensity that stops just short of soul-baring confession.
On her latest album, "One More Day" (DRG SL5198), Laine has taken steps to close the gap between the lyrical and the personal, and though she falls short of this, the work is a fascinating departure from her usual song collections. A concept album in the fullest sense, "One More Day" begins by limning an otherwise unremarkable incident that triggers a deep nostalgia, then proceeds through a series of flashbacks (the songs themselves) to recount the life of a woman--the wonder of childhood, the bruises of adolescence, friendships, courtship, married life.
What's amazing about this song cycle, aside from Laine's ability to breathe life into the scenes and quick sketches, is that it is confessional songwriting once removed: All the lyrics were written by Kerry Crabbe, and do not necessarily reflect Laine's experiences. Laine, who will perform at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, calls it "fiction with a little bit of truth thrown in," but in its way it seems more of a script to be acted out by her versatile singing voice.
The album is exceptionally well paced, with the music (by Daryl Runswick) stylistically sensitive to each stage of the life it portrays. Laine deftly changes mood and vocal personae as the story develops. For the opening reverie, she employs her most wistful, throaty soprano. In a vignette called "All the Skinny Schoolgirls," the voice is girlish, guileless and, like the character it evokes, a little gawky. "Tomboy" is raucous and rocking, with Laine eschewing her delicate vibrato for a husky, straightforward humor. In all, the album is like a finely directed one-woman show, acted out with great attention to detail.
Despite it all, there's a hollow feeling haunting "One More Day." It's difficult to say whether Laine's approach to the confessional style ultimately fails because it comes too close to her true experiences or, having been penned at a safe remove, not quite close enough. Perhaps it is simply that this is not the best mode for Laine's expression, that she can endow her music with deeper commitment and emotion when it is in no way self-referential.
Joan Armatrading, who performs at Constitution Hall tonight, shares a similar problem with Laine, but in her case, emotional distance has only recently become a factor in her music. Vocally, the two styles are amazingly comparable in clarity of tone and phrasing. Both women have an impressive ability to leap octaves in a single dynamic bound, although Armatrading spends more time in the chestier ranges than her fellow Englishwoman.
Armatrading's new album, "The Key" (A&M SP-4912), is the latest in a series of attempts to bring her commercial appeal up to the level of her critical acclaim. Unfortunately, despite some fine moments and a vocal style more agile than ever, she has failed to accomplish that task.
Much of the blame must go to producer Steve Lillywhite, whose modernist and rather obtrusive musical personality clashes with Armatrading's highly stylized vocal interpretations and often quirky rhythmic arrangements, and who seems much more comfortable in the company of rawer, less musically ambitious groups like U-2 and the Psychedelic Furs. Except on the title cut, a teasing, snappy number that seems always on the brink of changing rhythm patterns, and on "Drop the Pilot" and "What Do Boys Dream?" (both produced by Val Garay), the listener can almost feel the pull of Lillywhite's restraint. The 11 songs are fleshed out with such formidable talents as bassist Tony Levin and guitarist Adrian Belew, from King Crimson, with a guest appearance on "Tell Tale" by Police drummer Stewart Copeland; yet the music they play is so uncharacteristically tame and unadventurous that one wonders whether they were hired for name value alone.
Be that as it may, Armatrading is at fault for allowing a certain coyness to creep into her work. Once one of the more startlingly candid and emotionally generous singer/songwriters in the pop music pantheon, she appears to have reacted to her lack of commercial success by donning successive layers of arty reserve and self-mocking humor. The protagonist in the opening track, "Call Me Names," though catchy in a poppish, funky way, bears scant resemblance to the heart-baring soul who once challenged her audience to "Show Some Emotion."
All of which is not to say that "The Key" is a complete failure. Armatrading's distinctive voice has all the punch and poignancy displayed in her pre-Lillywhite work, and there are some moments on the album that transcend the limitations. Overall, however, the intimacy and warmth of her vocal style cannot compensate for the cool lyrical distance to which she has apparently retreated.