Forgotten Albums: Tanita Tikaram, Ancient Heart

Well, it’s taking a little while for the 1989 project to get to music actually released that year. Pretty soon we’ll pivot toward that, but—quelle surprise—at the beginning of the year I was listening to a lot of stuff I’d bought toward the end of 88.

One of the more rewarding disks I was playing frequently in early 89 was the debut album from a 19-year old of Fijian and Malaysian parents, born in Münster and who moved to London about the time she became a teenager. Ancient Heart is an apt title for the album; Tanita Tikaram displays via both songwriting and singing a wisdom that she couldn’t possibly have gained through experience. Her voice—I see the words “husky” and “smoky” used to describe it in the reviews I’ve looked up in recent days—sounded like nothing else going on at the time. The lyrics are often oblique but never alienating. The album was co-produced by Rod Argent (Zombies and, of course, Argent) and Peter Van Hooke (Mike and the Mechanics). You get a tiny bit of late-80s synth vibe from it, but on the whole they managed to avoid doing things in the production that would make it sound dated.

For some reason, it’s been years since I broke Ancient Heart out for a listen. That changed last week.  I’d forgotten just how good it is, and I suspect it’ll go into occasional rotation again now.  Let’s take a listen to five of my favorite tracks.

The lead-off song (and first single) is “Good Tradition.”  It was Tikaram’s only top 10 hit in the UK (it also went top 10 in Ireland and Sweden). The video shows her with a verve and a perkiness we don’t see anywhere else:

 

The other upbeat track on offer today is “World Outside Your Window,” the fourth and final single.  This charted only in the UK, making #58, but it feels plenty radio-friendly to me.

 

If you’ve heard anything from Tikaram, it’s this one—it’s certainly how I came to know of her.  I saw the vid for “Twist in My Sobriety” (which was filmed in Bolivia) on VH-1 quite a bit in the fall of 88. It was by far her biggest hit worldwide, going top 10 in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland. An absolutely arresting track with a killer oboe part.

 

One of my least favorite songs from my college years is Lionel Richie’s “Say You Say Me.” I guess I found it too saccharine, and I was utterly baffled by the insertion of an up-tempo section before things swell to the final chorus. “He Likes the Sun” pulls a similar stunt in terms of tempo, yet here I totally dig on it. I have no idea what “I’m tired of chip inside and playing bronze for cool” means, but Tikaram manages to make it sound almost profound.

 

My last selection is, without rival, the prettiest and most melancholy piece on the album. Just piano and strings and written in 3/4 time, “Valentine Heart” might be the cut I suggest you should listen to today if you’re only going to pick one of these to play (maybe my current somber mood is behind that recommendation, though).

 

Tikaram released three more albums before I left grad school in 92; I picked them all up at the time but none made an impression anything akin to that of Ancient Heart (I’ve kept only the sophomore effort, The Sweet Keeper). You’d think that a 19-year capable of stuff like this wouldn’t be peaking then, but here we are. She’s continued to record sporadically through the years, even to this day, and had low-charting singles in the UK through the 90s. Tikaram is still a Londoner (perhaps even rich with complaint), and will be turning 50 on August 12.

 

 

Forgotten Albums: Loey Nelson, Venus Kissed the Moon

John and I subscribed to Rolling Stone during the years we roomed together at Illinois, and I think I maintained the subscription for most of the rest of the time I lived in Urbana. The articles I was always most interested in were the album reviews (a carryover from my Stereo Review-reading days), but I also took time to look at various short notes they had about performers, which were usually more toward the front of the magazine. I suspect it was this blurb, under “New Faces” in a June 90 issue, that first brought Loey Nelson to my attention. (As an aside, I bet I also took note of that snippet on the same page about the Sundays.) This was smack dab in the middle of the period where the majority of my purchases featured female vocalists/singer-songwriters.  I was generally on the lookout for hopeful artists-on-the-rise, as well, so it’s no surprise that I soon sought out Venus Kissed the Moon. It became one of my most-listened-to disks the year I lived by myself, after John and Ann got married.

The album has a great pedigree: top-notch studio musicians such as Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel abound, and it’s co-produced by David Kershenbaum (it definitely sounds great). Nelson wrote all its songs but two, a cover of “To Sir With Love” and the Doc Pomus/Dr. John-penned “Only the Shadows Know.” There’s enough going on stylistically not only to keep one’s interest but also to prevent an obvious pigeon-holing.  The title track is a cool, jazzy thing, and there are the country-rock inflections of the sort I was enjoying then on several tracks, including personal favorites “East of the Sun,” “All or Nothing,” and “Railroad Track” (I put the last of these on Way Cool Stuff, one of my all-time favorite mix tapes, in 91).  A couple of contemporaneous reviews I’ve found online make a comparison to Edie Brickell; I’m not sure I hear it, but maybe I’m focusing more on the sound rather than words? Overall, I really enjoy about three-fourths of the songs. It’s nothing particularly earth-shaking in the end, but I’m having a lot of fun listening to it again right now.

I was plenty good at digging on music that didn’t get much traction back then, but Nelson was a bit of an outlier even in this regard, basically disappearing from view after Venus (she did show up as leader of the band Carnival Strippers a few years later, but their one album was barely noticed). A quick internet search seems to indicate she’s back in her native Milwaukee; she has a Facebook page and has recorded a few songs in recent years.

You can find the whole album on YouTube if you’re so inclined (there are a couple of places selling new copies online, too). I’ll put two songs here. One is the aforementioned “Railroad Track” (which includes homages to Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” and Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby”).

 

The other is the final track, a beautiful ballad called “Night Sky.”  It was the first song I looked up last night when this album crossed my mind. It’s a good thing when they get the sequencing right, especially with the last song. It almost feels like a benediction.

 

Always grateful for the albums that comprise the soundtrack of my grad school years, maybe the obscure ones the most.