October 12, 2009

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Sach O would have totally hit that back in the 60’s.

When it comes to pop music idolatry and indie cred name-dropping, composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and singer Dionne Warwick are simultaneously too conservative and too radical to get theirs. They didn’t rock the pop world like The Beatles, waste-away in an acid fueled nightmare like Brian Wilson or produce the Ramones at gunpoint like Phil Spector; so for second-generation flower children and fist-shaking punks, the trio weren’t the first choice in the stylistic-revival lottery. Taken on their own terms however, the Bacharach/David/Warwick alliance was remarkably prescient: their producer-singer format would go on to become the de-facto standard in black pop and their chamber music orchestration would find a home with everyone from twee kids to psychedelic soul artists. Or put another way: how many groups do YOU know that can claim influence on Timbaland and Aaliyah, Belle & Sebastian, Isaac Hayes AND Stevie Wonder in equal measure? These days, Bacharach and David get occasional props, be it Austin Powers shout-outs or band nerds conspiring to bring back string sections but truthfully, they would just be a forgotten (if remarkably talented) 60’s songwriting team if it weren’t for their secret weapon: Dionne Warwick.

Paving the way for every black vocalist who’s tried her hand at the pop charts, a quick look at Warwick’s career reads like a how-to guide to contemporary success. She couldn’t belt them out like Aretha or play teenager like Dianna but Dionne’s take on swinging-sixties pop was equal parts seduction and heartbreak. Combined with her image as a sophisticated black woman, that seduction was something that couldn’t be discounted in an era where inter-racial relationships were still verboten. Before James Brown came out and said that he was black and proud, Warwick was making strides for racial equality by being the sultriest singer on the pop charts, race be damned. Whitney, Mariah and Beyonce all owe their stardom to the post Brill-building pop that Warwick recorded with her producers.

But enough about influence and image, the music speaks for itself. For the following Bluffer’s Guide, I’ll be skipping Warwick’s biggest hits (“Do You know the Way to San Jose,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head”) and most of Bacharach and David’s most iconic material in favor of personal favorites and songs featuring slightly edgier lyrics and more adventurous arrangements. Warwick cut over a dozen albums while under Bacharach’s musical wing so this is a rather limited sampler but I hope it’ll give people the chance to rediscover one of the underrated links between early orchestral pop and rhythm and blues.

Are you there with Another Girl?
A thematic blueprint for contemporary R&B, Dionne’s ode to betrayal wasn’t the first nor the last song chastising unfaithful lovers but her restraint and melodic range make it ear-pleasing. Alternating between twinkling piano keys, light rhythm-and-blues and sweeping orchestral drama, the song winds itself up like its confused protagonist before finally exploding in the final crescendo: Love requires faith, I got a lot of faith BUT…

I say Little Prayer for you
Romantic fluff? Not quite. A subtle anti-war song released as the U.S. presence in Vietnam escalated during the mid-60’s, this is sung from the perspective of a soldier’s girl waiting on news of her man from the front. Aretha’s version packs gospel-powered punch and a better chorus, but Dionne brings subtlety and sweetness to hers and wins the verses.

I Smiled Yesterday
French horn! Background vocals! String sections! Warwick could handle Spector-meets-Motown girl group material just as easily as Broadway numbers, film music, chamber pop or deep soul. The repetition on the break down (I want you…want you…want you…) hits you like a broken record and stands as a neat little production trick.

Hasbrook Heights
I don’t care for gender wars and the pointless debates that surround them. Sure, Hasbrook Heights is pure male fantasy and I should know better, bla-bla-bla… but frankly, I’ll take this over Peaches rapping about her snatch any day of the week. Opening with an understated acoustic guitar riff that interlocks with a swinging piano part, Dionne promises the listener a good view, a relaxing evening and the promise of much more. Maybe I’m getting old, but that actually sounds a lot cooler than Lil Kim stuffing a sprite can down her throat.

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