Kirsty MacColl, “Galore”

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(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #47 – released March 6, 1995)

Track listing: They Don’t Know / A New England / There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis / He’s On The Beach / Fairytale of New York / Miss Otis Regrets / Free World / Innocence / You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby / Days / Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim! / Walking Down Madison / My Affair / Angel / Titanic Days / Can’t Stop Killing You / Caroline / Perfect Day

At least two of the several testimonials (from the likes of Bono, David Byrne and Morrissey!) included within Galore’s liner notes describe Kirsty MacColl as having “the voice of an angel.” It’s also tempting to say she was simply too good for this world, given her relative obscurity outside the UK and her early, tragic accidental death five years after this compilation’s release. Still, I’d rather remember her as one of the most approachable pop stars of her time—qualities that always shine through in her music. Equally gifted as a songwriter and as an interpreter of other people’s songs, she always came off as immensely likable, no matter the temperament she inhabited via a song’s character. She was the classic girl-next-door, but with a saucy sense of humor and a spiky wit. And, of course, an impossibly lovely, clarion, dexterous voice—at times, she was almost the Ella Fitzgerald of 80s/90s pop.

Although currently out of print and superseded by other numerous single disc comps, Galore was my own introduction to MacColl and it remains a terrific overview spanning nearly all of her career (only one LP followed, 2000’s Cuban-influenced Tropical Brainstorm). Sequenced mostly chronologically, it tracks her evolution from barely-out-of-her-teens New Waver on Stiff Records to her later lauded genre experiments. Her biggest UK hits were often cover versions ranging from faithful (a pleasant reading of The Kinks’ “Days”) to revisionist (a distaff, juiced-up take on Billy Bragg’s originally stripped-down “A New England”). She all but proves she’s the female Morrissey on a sublime, 12-string guitar-kissed version of The Smith’s “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”, and adds both muscle and poise to Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” (originally recorded for the great AIDS charity LP/Porter tribute Red Hot + Blue) with the backing support of martial drums, banjo and accordion from trad Irish rockers The Pogues.

However, she first hit big with one of her own compositions (and one of my all-time favorite debut singles). On “They Don’t Know”, she pens a rousing manifesto to forbidden love. The lyrics are clear enough for the subject matter to register, but they also allow for multiple readings—it could be about a boy and girl from different classes or age groups or races (squint a little and you could even apply it to a same-sex couple). She enhances the warm, wall-of-sound production with girl group-isms like “do-do-do” backing vocals and that wonderful, descending “Ba-ay-be-ee!” she lets out at the end of the bridge after everything else drops out. While the song received considerable radio airplay in the UK, it never charted due to a record production strike that kept the single off the shelves; four years later, Tracey Ullman would have a top ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic with her near-identical cover (complete with MacColl’s backing vocals and her original “Ba-ay-be-ee!” inserted within); it’s a fine version, but Ullman, while a gifted mimic, can’t quite replicate the authenticity MacColl lends to the original.

Two years later, MacColl would score an actual top 20 UK hit with the memorably titled “There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swear’s He’s Elvis”, a nu-rockabilly romp nearly as charming as “They Don’t Know”, only at a breakneck pace. Swapping out the earlier song’s prideful naivety for a droll, conversational tone, MacColl runs through an anecdote that could’ve been sprouted off by one of Mike Leigh’s more garrulous characters with reckless abandon while also fully remaining in control of the rhythm. The cheeky, backing, Elvis-esque “uh-huh-huh’s” near the end are almost as much fun as the wild scream she lets out before the guitar solo.

Although the song’s parent album Desperate Character flopped, that cover of “A New England” would crack the top ten three years later. Musically a departure from her previous genre pastiches, it solidified what would become her signature style: energetic contemporary pop brimming with chiming guitars, subtle synths, big drums and MacColl’s blissful, multi-tracked vocals. “He’s On The Beach” followed the next year. One of the decade’s great lost singles, it wraps up tender longing and regret over a lover who has left for greener pastures in an irresistibly summery, breathtaking package. Puzzlingly, it failed to chart anywhere—perhaps people didn’t want such a lyrically melancholy anthem, no matter how misleadingly upbeat it sounded—but it remains a timeless gem awaiting rediscovery.

MacColl’s 1980s recordings made little impact in America, with the exception of her other song with The Pogues, “Fairytale of New York”. A 1987 number two hit in the UK, it refuses to die, regularly re-entering the charts there every holiday season nearly three decades on; it has become a seasonal standard here as well, although the interplay between her pretty and tart sounding vocals and those of Pogues leader Shane McGowan (whose slurring makes Tom Waits sound like Neil Diamond) ensures it won’t likely ever appear on those 24-hour holiday radio stations that pop up annually. Still, the song’s success revived her career, resulting in a trio of well-regarded albums from which over half of Galore is gleaned.

Five tracks are off Kite (1989), arguably her best long-player. In addition to the previously mentioned covers of The Smiths and The Kinks, three originals showcase MacColl at her shimmering, Alternate Universe Pop Goddess peak. “Free World” whizzes on by in just a little over two-and-a-half minutes, somehow containing a complex but hummable melody that she effortlessly pulls off: when she hits that final high note at the end, you can barely believe the song’s already over, yet you still feel satiated. “Innocence” is sly, slightly quirky jangle pop up there with XTC, overflowing with quotable couplets such as, “Your pornographic priestess left you for another guy / you frighten little children and you always wonder why,” all of it sung knowingly but with good humor. “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim!” at first seems a retreat to pastiche (this time Country & Western), but turns out more like a folk waltz with such novel enhancements as mariachi horns and Irish tin whistles. As ever, MacColl sounds so perfect, so confident yet so genuine that at this point, you start to believe she can sing anything.

The two selections from Electric Landlady (1991) vindicate such ambition. “Walking Down Madison”, her first song to grace Billboard’s Modern Rock singles chart finds her collaborating with Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, although it seems worlds removed from anything either artist had done before. Fully embracing hip-hop, of all things, it mixes electrobeats, orchestral stabs and record scratches with Marr’s treated guitar eruptions while MacColl muses on the titular Manhattan thoroughfare. She makes observations on class (“From the sharks in the penthouse / to the rats in the basement / it’s not that far,” goes the chorus) and relays all the sights and sounds, taking everything in, turning it all into undeniably catchy, subtly protest pop, complete with a rap interlude from Aniff Cousins.

The album’s other single, “My Affair” dives headfirst into Latin music, where MacColl pulls no punches: she instantly sounds at ease with the lively, sweeping arrangement, an enticing, lithe samba flowing with strings, pianos and sumptuous horns. As always, her winning persona pushes everything to the next level. The song itself is steeped in empowerment and self-worth, but affably so—not just anyone could render an audacious lyric like “It’s no concern of yours if I sleep with the president” with such good-natured aplomb (even if its implications have shifted post Monica Lewinsky). That she’s equally credible switching between Spanish and English near the end clinches it: this is the sort of record you wish Gloria Estefan had been interested in making around this time rather than soppy power ballads.

Speaking of which, MacColl herself moved towards a more adult (if not altogether adult-contemporary) sound with Titanic Days (1993), arriving right after her breakup with husband/producer Steve Lillywhite. Of its three cuts on Galore, “Can’t Stop Killing You”, another co-write with Marr (who contributes a Smiths-worthy guitar hook) adheres most closely to her previous work: it’s agreeable, mid-tempo pop, but relatively boring compared to what came before. “Angel” is more noteworthy for its placid, sparkling trip-hop beat and ethereal melody; it successfully cultivates an older, wiser persona for MacColl—the wiseacre turned sage. She convincingly inhabits this role further on the album’s title track, a full-blown epic about the doomed title ship complete with dramatic strings, ringing guitars and naturally, MacColl’s heavenly overdubbed harmony vocals. I happened to first hear Galore during the Titanic mania of 1998 and immediately preferred this as an anthem to Celine Dion’s then-ubiquitous “My Heart Will Go On”.

As with most greatest hits albums, Galore winds down with two songs recorded specifically for it. MacColl’s predictably fine on a faithful cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, but her disinterested, mismatched duet partner Evan Dando (of The Lemonheads) casts an unfortunate pall over the whole thing. Happily, spry original “Caroline” easily earns its place on the compilation: a perfect, upbeat pop song sung as a warning to a new lover’s ex, it makes a great bookend with “They Don’t Know”, documenting how far she’s developed as an artist since then without diluting any of those qualities that first endeared her to world.

It’s that rare combination of great talent and likability that made her senseless death at age 41 in December 2000 particularly hard to take (she was hit by a speedboat while diving in a boat-restricted area off of Cozumel, Mexico.) I’ve haven’t exactly found it tough to listen to MacColl since then; instead, it simply angers me to think what she could have done had she lived. Tropical Brainstorm, for instance, encouragingly expanded on what she tested out with “My Affair” and it has about a half-dozen Galore worthy tunes, most notably the classic, tantalizing, sassy “In These Shoes?”. Still, although MacColl could have given us so much more, in her relatively brief lifetime, she gave us a lot. At the very least, Galore serves as a compact, compelling testament.

Up next: Looking back and simultaneously ahead.

“He’s On The Beach”:

“My Affair”:

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