If today’s pop-music business is, as it was in the ’60s, driven largely by songwriters and producers who choose singers to put across their latest concoctions hoping for a hit, why does so much current pop feel so utterly charmless? There are exceptions: Kylie Minogue’s expert dance pop, Gwen Stefani’s global vintage-store chic, and the mall-girl seductions of UK singer Rachel Stevens (whose 2005 CD Come and Get It is available as an overpriced import). But it has to be something other than just nostalgia that would make it impossible for some of us to pick Kelly Clarkson’s voice out of a line-up.
DARING DIVA: Hitmaking and personal expression weren’t mutually exclusive.
It seems that the more attention has been focused on the “artist,” the more anonymous the artists themselves have become. Partly this is the fallacy of applying the ethos of the singer-songwriter era to the sort of business it was meant to supplant. The singer-songwriters were, in their early-’70s heyday, sold as an advance in personality and relevance over the products of the pop-song factories, though one of the finest records to emerge from that era, Carole King’s Tapestry (more roughhewn than it’s often remembered as being), was the product of someone who had made her professional bones in just those factories.
Now, performers doing songs as formulaic as anything from the past are sold as if that formula were a distinct vision or voice. We no longer have cover versions of recent songs or artists competing to be the one who charts with a new song. And so the songs themselves don’t have to be anything special.
Two recent reissues from the UK label RPM, Jackie De Shannon’s 1966 Are You Ready for This? and her 1968 Laurel Canyon, catch pop music on the cusp between the sort of songwriting professionalism of which she’d been a part and the advent of the singer-songwriter school. The albums (whose extra tracks include her two big hits, “What the World Needs Now” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”) mix De Shannon originals with the cover versions all pop artists did at the time. Some of her covers are odd (Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” taken at a very nervous clip); some are smoothly professional (“Call Me,” done slightly up-tempo and thus losing the supper-club languor of Petula Clark’s version); some are inspired (her wonderful version of the Band’s “The Weight”). And there’s a choice so odd that it could stand for the weirdness and the glory covers are capable of: “Sunshine of Your Love,” which if it can’t match the solid hammering blows of Cream’s original still features, in De Shannon’s rough vocal, more sexual eagerness and desperation than you’ll find in the stony bluesman stoicism of Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce.
The variety of those covers may suggest one reason Jackie De Shannon never became a major recording star: she wouldn’t let herself be pinned down. I don’t mean that she consciously blurred genres but that, as a pop professional, she tried a variety of styles in an effort to make the charts. And listening to her, I wouldn’t be surprised if, already making a good living as a songwriter, she found that as a performer she liked too many styles to confine herself to just one.
Are You Ready for This? is par for the mid-’60s pop albums that tried to capitalize on the performer’s recent hit. On the opener, “I Can Make It with You,” producer Calvin Carter adopts Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound style, allowing De Shannon — right off the bat — to make us feel that something is at stake, as her vocals fight against being swallowed up by the bottomless echoes and the orchestration. Not everything that follows has that urgency. But the deftness of the execution is impressive. Her vocal on the title track is easily the equal of the erotic coyness Diana Ross brought off with the Supremes, and she’s very comfortable with the sophistication required by the Burt Bacharach/Hal David numbers.
Much of that sheen is gone on 1968’s Laurel Canyon, a wonderful and very imperfect record that shows what was about to be lost in the singer-songwriter era, and some of what could be gained. The values of the music are the back-to-basics feel that grew up in reaction to both commercial pop and the intricate productions of psychedelia. But if the lyrics occasionally mistake “relevance” as being more profound than traditional pop songcraft (as on the awful “Holly Would” or the bonus track “Children & Flowers” — aren’t those titles enough to warn you?), the music still showcases the virtues of professionalism. She does have Mac Rebbenack (Dr. John) on piano, Russ Titleman on acoustic guitar, and Barry White on backing vocals. Yet the sound is rougher, looser, more expansive, more given over to stray bits of country, R&B, and, most unexpectedly, gospel. And De Shannon, a Kentucky girl who had been in Los Angeles since the early ’60s, is, after Dusty Springfield, as comfortable with those genres as any white soul singer of the era. (The four bonus tracks produced by Bobby Womack give additional testimony.) She lets the rasp into her sweet-brandy voice, and the result makes the slight awkwardness of her phrasing more endearing than ever.