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Ocean songs 

Kirsty MacColl exits with a very good album

She was witty and wise, feisty and opinionated, with a sharp tongue, a kind heart, a finely honed pen and the voice of an angel. A red-haired English girl, she adopted Latin music with great gusto, grafting it onto her own unique sound with surgical precision. She traveled to Cuba, where she made a series of programs for the BBC on the music she found there. Tragically, she was killed a week before this past Christmas, at the age of 41, in a freak accident. Her name was Kirsty MacColl.

U2's Bono dubbed her "the Noel Coward of her generation." At once droll and ironic, cheeky and charming, her uncanny ability to summon images and tell stories with unerring economy bears comparison to both Richard Thompson and the Kinks' Ray Davies. She could take vitriol and pain and suffering and turn them into something quite delicious, and her perfect-pitch voice graces releases by the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, Van Morrison, Talking Heads and the Smiths, not to mention joint work she did with Billy Bragg and the Pogues.

After a five year absence from the scene, MacColl recently returned to recording and touring in great style with Tropical Brainstorm (V2) and some very well-received shows in the U.K., with a U.S. tour planned for this year. She performed at last year's memorial show for Ian Dury, another artist whose career started on Stiff records.

Many of the songs on the new album are drenched in gorgeous Cuban horns, violins and percussion, while others recall both her simpler '80s, and funkier (occasionally trip-hoppy) '90s incarnations. The subject matter includes usual fare such as rejection and treachery -- but with a twist only Kirsty would think of ("I'm stalking a fan, he's gone to the record store to buy a CD by some other girl not me"). Some of the best songs are about sexual communication skills, both written ("Here comes that man again ... it's always 'round midnight, that Amsterdam creeps into my PC, after a long hard day selling pornography he likes to come home and talk to me") and oral ("Grate my thighs with your chinny chin chin, and I will let you in").

It was in 1991, recording a song called "My Affair" in New York City with some top Cuban and Puerto Rican session players and having the most fun she's ever had in a studio, that Kirsty got seriously hooked on Latin music. There had been earlier flirtations with mariachi and calypso, going right back to her first album 10 years earlier, but she decided to learn Spanish and visit Cuba herself, where she fell head over heels in love with the people and the music. She went back several times, especially in the last two years, but saw no point in trying to be another Celia Cruz, or even a David Byrne or Ry Cooder directing a Buena Vista Social Club type of project. Instead, she found a way to add additional class to her own already exemplary music without sounding like an inferior imitation, just as Stevie Wonder had done in the mid-'70s with Brazilian sounds. MacColl, in fact, also learned Portuguese recently, and had her sights set on the music of Brazil, having already made one exploratory visit there.

The daughter of artistic legends -- choreographer Jean Newlove and Scottish folk revivalist Ewan MacColl -- Kirsty grew up with her mother after her father's switch of romantic allegiance to singer Peggy Seeger. She always downplayed any paternal role in her life -- afterall, he was a diehard purist, disgusted at his daughter's punk dalliances in the late '70s and outraged when the Pogues's had a hit with his song "Dirty Old Town" a few years later -- but as time went by it became clear she shared a lot more than left-wing politics with her famous father. The spirited "My Affair," recorded two years after Ewan's death, was in part a much-belated declaration of independence from parental control, but his influence lingered, going far beyond the mariachi music album he gave her as a child.

It all started back in the summer of 1979 with the overlooked single "They Don't Know (About Us)" on Stiff Records, a one-woman girl group anthem suggesting future chart toppers by the Go-Go's or the Bangles. Comedienne Tracey Ullman got her start in showbiz in 1983 with a hit cover version of this song, which Kirsty arranged and sang backing vocals on. By then, Kirsty had issued her own debut album, Desperate Characters, on Polydor. It has never seen the light of day on CD, but the hilarious "There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis" single from it, driven by Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner, can be found on several anthologies.

MacColl gave Ullman another great song that she never released herself -- "You Broke My Heart in 17 Places (One of Them Was Sheppard's Bush)" -- before getting a taste of the bright lights herself in 1984 with a bona fide hit cover of Billy Bragg's "New England." While this saw her reunited with her old flame Stiff Records, production duties were handled by her new hubby, the unmistakable-sounding Steve Lillywhite, best known for his production work on early U2 albums. The next few years saw the birth of their two sons, but despite a string of clever singles, no album from this period was ever forthcoming. The musical highpoint was certainly 1987's Christmas single "Fairytale of New York," a stirring collaboration with the Pogues that soon attained the status of a holiday standard in much of Europe.

Kirsty really came into her own with the flawless Kite on Virgin in 1989, produced by Lillywhite, who had finally figured out how to give her a punchy U2-free sound. Despite the fiery and brilliant "Free World" single, it was two covers on the album which garnered her the most attention: Ray Davies' "Days" and the Smiths' "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby." MacColl teamed up with Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr for several songs here, and again on 1991's Electric Landlady, most notably the rap-infused "Walking Down Madison."

All was not well on the domestic front, however, and in 1993, MacColl and Lillywhite split up. Titanic Days was Kirsty's self-proclaimed divorce album, with a new producer on board (though her estranged husband did get to mix it!). "Do you ever get that sinking feeling?" asks Kirsty without a trace of self-pity on the title track. The mid-'90s saw the release of Galore, which surveyed her whole career and added another great cover song: Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" sung with Evan Dando. MacColl was finally doing some serious touring, after years of suffering from stage fright, and she charmed audiences here at the Variety Playhouse and, later, the Point, with full band in tow. Then came the years of silence recently broken by Tropical Brainstorm.

Kirsty loved water, judging by how often imagery of beaches and swimming turn up in her writing. Ocean Songs was the name of her publishing company. "I know an island where the people are kind, and the rest of the world seems far away/Maybe it's only at the back of my mind, but I know when I go that's where I'll stay" are the first words heard on Kirsty MacColl's final album, whose cover shows the tranquil waters of a tropical paradise. It was probably Cuba she was speaking of, but it was in Cozumel on Dec. 18 that a speedboat reportedly entered a swimming-only area and struck her as she swam with her two teenaged sons while on a diving holiday. The boys were unhurt, but Kirsty was killed.

Upon Tropical Brainstorm's release, she remarked, "Whenever I go into a studio, I operate on the principle that I might get hit by a bus tomorrow. And I'd hate the obituaries to have to read: 'And her last album was her not-very-good album.'" No danger of that Kirsty. Rest peacefully. u

For further world beat information and archives, visit John C. Falstaff's website at www.pd.org/~jcf.

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