Arts & Culture Music

A Crop of Divas

  • September 25, 2022
  • 5 min read
A Crop of Divas

I’m not sure if female artists are a legitimate category but last month’s search for a 21st century Dark Side of the Moon offered few female lead vocalists. Just one, Nina Persson (of the Cardigans), on one track of Dark Side of the Soul (2010). I seek absolution for some positive discrimination.

Wherever it stands in the pantheon, it’s not controversial to proclaim a great album with a female lead is Plastic Letters (Blondie 1977). Plastic Heart (Miley Cyrus 2020) has a similar crafted Pop meets Rock feel, and Miley’s nod to Deborah is signalled by a raunchy album cover and an even raunchier cover of Heart of Glass. What could have been a Paul Young Love Will Tear Us Apart moment is a triumph. However, it’s just a nod. Plastic Letters is the paradigm of Pop purified by Punk prophesying New Wave, whereas Plastic Hearts owes, perhaps unsurprisingly more to a lusher, bass heavy West Coast. 

Miley Cyrus is a special case. Plastic Heart’s closer is a live cover of The Cranberries’ Zombie. Cyrus’ rasping delivery expresses her identification with the prodigiously talented Dolores O ‘Riordan. Both were born with spectacular voices. O’Riordan lived with the pressures of early superstardom (Dreams went to No 1 a few days after her 21st birthday). Miley Cyrus, daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus, goddaughter of Dolly Parton, was the childhood superstar Hannah Montana. Cyrus has carried the  weight of expectation lightly and with considerable charm. Her Happy Hippy Presents duets and collaborations acknowledge the power of her Rock royalty status (appearing with Joan Jett and Melanie and as she often has with Dolly Parton) but Miley Cyrus never seems to overdo her silver spoon. This article highlights Plastic Hearts. I doubt I’m alone in sensing greatness and hope that Plastic Hearts is when Miley Cyrus kicks on.

Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure is technically and critically an excellent album. It is exquisitely presented, and those things don’t automatically run together. I’m of a generation that either liked the Bee Gees or not and there wasn’t a lot of Disco that transcended genre. Donna Summer maybe and Diana Ross? What’s Your Pleasure has a musically purity and a homogenous rhythm coupled with exceptional melodies that makes it a candidate for best album in this strong field. Robyn’s Honey has been listed as an influence, although I hear a stronger Synth Pop influence in the earlier (excellent) album. Jessie Ware has entered that Nirvana, of not only critical and commercial acclaim, but in establishing a bridge between genres that has its own firm stamp. What’s Your Pleasure will be a challenge to follow but one senses that Jesse Ware will manage that just fine. If Miley Cyrus’ very public journey has at times sought direction, Jesse Ware’s re-interpretation of Disco is clear. Talent and integrity is something I suspect they do share, as is a bright future.

Equally sophisticated, Solange’s When I Get Home references multiple genres. Its Jazz and Psychedelic Soul foundations give her latest album a Progressive Rock feel. Its experimental nature, and copious use of intense and clever shorter tracks, demand close attention. This is hopeless background music as its subtle hooks will draw you in. When I Get Home stands up as an excellent album, while reworking R&B in diverse accents. You might hear anything from The Divine Comedy to Linton Kwesi Johnson. 

The final two albums in this somewhat random selection in a search for all that is great about current music are London Grammar’s Californian Soil and Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice. These are outstanding albums by anyone’s standards, such that I had to go back to their roots, which seem to me to be the Bristol Sound and Portishead’s Dummy. Californian Soil and Blue Weekend are comparable, but the problem for today’s bands compared to even thirty years ago, never mind Marianne Faithful or Ronnie Spector sixty years ago, is the impact of the new. 

If one has walked the planet albeit briefly with Buddy Holly, hearing references whether intentional or not, isn’t too difficult, but the innovative Wolf Alice makes it harder than most. Blue Weekend has like most Neo-Prog, which in the main this is if you’re anxious to categorise, elements of a variety of styles including R&B, but dominated by lush Wall of Sound guitar arrangements, masking accessible melodies. 

On their own terms, Wolf Alice and London Grammar are the worthy successors of Portishead, and Jessie Ware is redefining what Disco could be. To go back to the beginning, Mylie is a special case. Real pressure is being born with all the talents then realising them. Solange is slickly well-referenced, homogenous and rooted, something for everyone without compromise. Ranking the albums would be like asking which orange is the better apple.

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Douglas Shanks

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