Dancing in the floodlights
Signpost albums--you come across them at particularly significant periods in your life, and forever afterwards they invoke, they stand for, those times. For those who were (post-)adolescent in 1976 when Joan Armatrading released her self-titled debut, the album will always be the soundtrack to youthfully earnest nighttime discussions and sincere make-out sessions.
It's not a one-sided relationship, though: The work that sticks with you is usually exceptional in some way. In Armatrading's case, it was her husky, shaded West Indian voice--a welcome change from the crystalline whiteness of contemporary queen Joni Mitchell--and the way in which she completely took for granted the singer-songwriter's authority to address the crowd; she sounded regal and assured even when singing about doubt and heartbreak. Armatrading took all the usual influences and created something completely new that was both strangely stimulating and unfamiliarly attractive.
After that you can pretty much roll the stock footage marked "mid-career anonymity," but she never stopped working, evolving through jazz and pop personas and releasing some fine albums, including the brand-new and brilliant What's Inside. Like the sun low on the horizon, her voice has grown and colored, and her songwriting has been tempered by experience but not resignation. The different identities in her career have blended into a whole much greater than the sum of the parts; she's become a "singer," without the prefix. In this swelling age of vegetarian-riot-faux-alterna-pop singer-songwriters like Jewel and even Joan Osborne, it's good to remember and even better to see one of the artists who made it possible.
Joan Armatrading performs June 16 at Deep Ellum Live.
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