Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tropical Brainstorm (2000)

The late Kirsty MacColl, who died in a boating accident the same year her fifth and final (and best, as far as I can tell) album was released, may be best remembered now either for singing on the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" or for being married to producer Steve Lillywhite. The only thing you might learn about her from either of those items is her pluck, of which there was plenty. Other things you should understand: she knows her way around a pop song, and she can be very funny when she has a mind, as she does here, and often. It's mostly tossed-off gesture and gags, which is no surprise because she also had some luck as a comic actor on British TV and knew how to do it. And she really did know how to do it, slyly embedding a good deal of it in the throwaways, plumbing layers of meaning and quickly moving on. For example, I don't think there's anyone alive or dead who could ever match her reading of the line, "I've got a powerful horse outside," which only becomes more funny the more times I hear it—and notice it—sitting there in the song "In These Shoes?" Sometimes, as on that self-same song, she does flirt dangerously close to shtick, but that comes with the territory of someone trying so hard, and with so much good creative energy, to provoke both laughs and tears. She shuttles back and forth between both ends of the spectrum even as she sticks close to what she's best at, working an everywoman's various takes on fashion, men, sex, fun, and sadness. She's fearless and never stops trying things. She draws heavily for many songs from Cuban, Brazilian, and other Latin musical sources, which indeed is the album's most distinguishing feature for many (e.g., Christgau), and certainly keeps the set crackling with energy. She entertains elements of sadomasochism and boo-hoos about tiny failed relationships in ways I had only heard before in conversation, not song. And she "goes there" in "Here Comes That Man Again," goofing on cybersex and the niceties, though the modem sound effects now serve to put it all in the vicinity of quaint. "Celestine" is the song that sold me on her once and for all, a meditation on alter egos that is effortlessly natural, closely observed, and resonant. This is a pretty big album too, nearly an hour long with 16 tracks—many rooms in the mansion. Worth spending time in nearly all of them.

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