|1. Good Tradition|
|2. Cathedral Song|
|3. Sighing Innocents|
|4. I Love You|
|5. World Outside Your Window|
|6. For All These Years|
|7. Twist In My Sobriety|
|8. Poor Cow|
|9. He Likes The Sun|
|10. Valentine Heart|
|11. Preyed Upon|
Words and music by Tanita Tikaram.
It's probably safe to assert that the late 1980s weren't the best of times for talented young female singers. Those who followed the pop charts in those frightening times might remember that the "powers that be" in the music industry were hedging their financial bets on such terrifying marketplace phenomena as Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and Whitney Houston. The chances of an intelligent and talented young female musician breaking into the market, accordingly, were limited. Tracy Chapman made it, as did Sinead O'Connor (though she didn't score well on the singles charts until her second album). But many more promising careers were undoubtedly destroyed by the conditions of the marketplace at the time.
I would hazard the opinion that this situation has improved over the last ten years, in that "female singer-songwriter-musicians" are now a common feature within the industry. This suggests that Tanita Tikaram emerged at exactly the wrong time.
Tikaram's debut album, Ancient Heart was released in 1988, when she was still in her teens. It reveals high levels of intelligence, maturity, and musical sensibility, far removed from the frivolous efforts of her more famous partners-in-demography. And it languished commercially.
The album is almost forgotten in 1998, which is a shame. Tikaram reveals herself as a substantial songwriter and vocalist in AH, providing sultry vocal accompaniment to intelligent, jazz-infected pop numbers. The album isn't quite a masterpiece, but is an extremely impressive "first step" within the musical industry. This isn't for all progressive fans, but those with an open mind to this genre may find much to appreciate here.
Progressive fans might also note the appearance of Rod Argent (of Argent) and Peter Van Hooke (of Mike + The Mechanics) on the album. This is not necessarily a good thing. While contributing memorable performances on certain tracks, Argent and Van Hooke (who produced the album) also provide an annoying commercial ethos of the "textures" of some tracks. Although the presence to two relatively established individuals within the industry may have been necessary to get Tikaram's career off the ground, one might suspect that two other individuals could have done the job better. Still, their presence is far from terrible, and they generally pull off their parts without too many hitches.
The album begins with "Good Tradition", a jazz-folk-pop number featuring a violin lead. Tikaram's voice sounds extremely mature despite her limited years, adding a strong level of vocal authority to the track. This type of music (featuring a narrative of a dysfunctional family's history) would become much more common in subsequent years; Tikaram may accordingly be regarded as somewhat of a trailblazer in this field. Although there is some over-arranging on Argent's part, the track is nonetheless an excellent opener.
"Cathedral Song" is a keyboard-driven track featuring acoustic guitar flourishes by Dalton. This is a more sedate number than the first, featuring Tikaram's recitation of a doomed relationship; the cathedral is the only constant throughout the various aspects of the story. Not quite as good as the first track, this is still a worthwhile piece.
"Sighing Innocents" brings the jazz-pop influences to the foreground, featuring romantic lyrics that actually work rather well (as well as revealing further maturity -- as regards both subject matter and presentation). Van Hooke's drum line is actually fairly interesting, with some notable high-hat inflections. (On the down side, this track -- like many others on the album -- is cut off immediately after the final verse, without any further instrumental performances.)
"I Love You" is much better than the title might imply. Featuring only Tikaram, McFarlane and Dalton, the track features an interesting mix of vocal jazz and acoustic folk stylings, entirely removed from the overproduction which hinders other aspects of the album. Attention should also be give to the extremely musical acoustic guitar passage in mid-song.
"World Outside Your Window" is another narrative number, with Tikaram's vocals guiding the song fairly well throughout its course. The keyboards and drums are rather prominent in the mix and, accordingly, the track is made somewhat more "poppish" than the artist may have originally intended. Still, the pop sensibilities are incorporated into the song fairly well, and do not merit too much blame.
"For All These Years" features an introductory solo from Mark Isham, which not surprisingly acts as the introduction to the most jazz-inspired song on the album. The track has a dark, sultry mood about it (much moreso than the rest of the album), once again featuring lyrics of a most intelligent variety. The jazz performances may seem a bit too "safe" on occasion, but the structure and performance of the work leave little else to be desired.
The best track on the album is "Twist In My Sobriety", which was also its first single. After a hauntingly repetitive acoustic part (in which Van Hooke provides an impressive accompanying section), Tikaram reveals a narrative which combines personal and general references in equal degrees (featuring also a perspective which combines resignation and strength in a seemless whole). This is a very mysterious work -- the title has never been explained to my satisfaction -- and a very effective one. The addition of an oboe during the chorus only adds to the high quality of this track.
"Poor Cow" (the second single) is a more sparse and rhythmic work, with fairly sophisticated pop stylings. The lyrics have a obvious vegetarian connotation, but a more careful reading of the track will indicate that other meanings exist as well. Not a highlight, this is still a fairly good track.
"He Likes The Sun" is another narrative number, featuring a return to folk influences and a vocal inflection oddly similar to that of John Cale. The track itself seems a bit staid until about halfway through, wherein Tikaram suddenly switches to a keyboard-heavy jazz-rock performance for slightly under a minute (before returning to the original motif). A partial success, but certainly worthwhile.
"Valentine Heart" is the second best track on the album, with a piano lead-in and an absolutely beautiful vocal performance (melodic and cutting at the same time). The appearance of a string quartet confirms that this is not a "pop" number so much as a "song" in the proper sense of the term. The arrangement doesn't really change after this, but the track is capable of sustaining audience interest with what it does have.
Finally, the album ends with "Preyed Upon", a mature number which nevertheless is "pop" despite the string quartet's return. Mo Foster's fretless bass is primarily notable for its textural role, rather than for Foster's performance per se. The track focuses on isolation, and seems an appropriate end to this underrated gem.
Ancient Heart isn't for everyone, but is recommended to those who are interested in intelligent jazz-pop. Those curious in finding quality music from the late 1980s may wish to search here as well.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 2 January 1998)