Thursday, November 10, 2011

When Singers Are Famous for the Wrong Songs

Ah, the summer of '95!

To quote Bryan Adams, those, quite possibly, were the best days of my life. (And if my friend and then-No. 1 wingman Dave is reading this, he'll no doubt agree.) I was working at People magazine, living in New York City's East Village, and spending Friday nights at Sound Factory Bar and Saturday nights at the Roxy and Sound Factory, the legendary after-hours club in Chelsea.

That's where I'd dance the night (and morning) away, flirting with beautiful strangers under the strobelights to a soundtrack dominated by "Bedtime Story" by Madonna (the Junior Vasquez remix), "What Hope Have I" by the Sphinx featuring Sabrina Johnston (who Lisa Stansfield once told me was one of her favorite singers), and "Your Loving Arms" by Billie Ray Martin.

God, I hated that last one! I never understood what all the fuss was about. To me, it was cut from the same sparkly but ordinary disco cloth as the Todd Terry remix of "Missing," the track that gave Everything But the Girl its first and only U.S. hit in 1996, despite the duo's years of stellar musical service and far better material. (Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn would go on to reach their creative zeniths -- but score no big hits -- with 1996's Walking Wounded, "Low Tide of the Night," from 1999's Temperamental, to date the final EBTG album, and Thorn's second solo effort, Out of the Woods, in 2007.)

I didn't understand what all the fuss was about until Billie Ray Martin's publicist at Elektra Records sent me an advance of her solo debut album, Deadline for My Memories, the following winter, just as "Missing" was nearly ruining my weekend nights. After listening to it just once, I realized that "Your Loving Arms" may have given the German singer-songwriter her only mainstream hit (No. 46 in the U.S., No. 6 in the UK), but she was so much more than a dance diva. She was also a torch singer, a soul mama, a performance artist and the ultimate drama queen. She was a little bit Donna Summer, a little bit Marianne Faithfull, a little bit Amalia Rodrigues (the Portuguese legend whom I didn't actually discover until my 1997 trip to Lisbon), and a little bit Edith Piaf.

It helped that she was slightly out of her mind. Or so her contemporary Kristine W once suggested. Apparently, the two tried to collaborate at one point in the late '90s, but Kristine told me that Martin was such an unpredictable, temperamental diva that the project was aborted.

I got to see those diva ways first hand when she came to Buenos Aires in November of 2007 to work with my friend Andres on several live performances. I went with him to pick her up at the airport (where the members of Duran Duran were also arriving for several concerts in Argentina!) because he needed someone with experience dealing with temperamental divas (I've interviewed most of them, with the glaring exception of Madonna) and someone with a perfect command of English.

Though she didn't come across as being quite the nutcase that Kristine W made her out to be, I'll never forget her sitting in the back seat pleading with Andres, "Slow down! I don't want to die like Princess Diana."

Andres and I still laugh about our adventures with the backseat driver today. But it makes sense that Martin would be a little bit off. That explains why her music is so remarkable (creative geniuses are rarely without a little insanity coursing through their brains), from her early work with S Express and Electribe 101 (the band's 1990 album, Electribal Memories, is essential listening for any fan of electropop) to Deadline for My Memories to 18 Carat Garbage (2001) to her string of stand-alone singles and collaborations (including Mikael Delta and Martin's "Oprah's Book," below, which name checks both Winfrey and Whitney Houston -- stunning). I would have to create a blog dedicated solely to Martin to properly honor all of her musical contributions.

So I'll simply say this: If you never got over "Your Loving Arms," get over it. Now run, don't walk, to your favorite mp3 retailer and download Hollywood Under the Knife, the album that Martin released on October 17 with her latest project, the Opiates. It's like the sound of glamour fading, the soundtrack to a shooting star falling down to earth and going up in flames.

It's miles away from the dance music for which Martin is best known. I'd be tempted to file it under "ambient," but that suggests that it's merely background noise. This is tense, haunting, slowburn stuff that demands your undivided attention. When you're done, check out the Vince Clarke remix of "Sweet Suburban Disco," her more traditional dance single from earlier this year. It's as good as anything Clarke did with Alison Moyet (in Yaz), Andy Bell (in Erasure, whose new album, Tomorrow's World, came out in October completely under my radar) or Depeche Mode (on the band's 1981 debut, Speak and Spell).

Martin told me that she once ran into Siouxsie Sioux at a London bar, and not only, to Martin's extreme surprise, did Siouxsie knew who she was, but she gave her the highest compliment indeed. It was something along the lines of how "divas" are not really her thing, but she's still in love with Billie Ray Martin.

That Siouxsie. She's got excellent taste. If you're going pick only one diva, it might as well be Billie Ray Martin.

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