Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Kirsty Maccoll- A Tribute

When it comes to music, I'm not half as well-travelled as I'd like to be. I've got a passing acquaintance with most of the major bands and have a vague idea of what's popular these days, but that's mostly based on heavy viewing of VH1 back when they showed BEHIND THE MUSIC 12 hours a day. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, I know what I like. And I like Kirsty Maccoll. Some credit goes to an online friend who recommended her to me after I'd picked up Tracey Ullman's first album (which is a matter for another post); I picked up Maccoll's "Best of" CD and was slowly hooked. This was in the summer of '01, already after her untimely death, and there was a certain bittersweetness (if that's a word) to discovering her less than a year after she'd passed on, made worse by the consensus that she was apparently a really cool, nice woman. But I'm no biographer, and this post is about her work, or rather the fraction of it I've experienced. Though Kirsty was never a big star, her career spanned twenty-some years, and as a "musician's musician" she did a lot of backing and collaborative work with people like Morrissey, the Pogues, and Evan Dando. The best word to describe her would be eclectic- she never really settled on one style.

The thing that really stands out about Kirsty Maccoll's work is that it's both very smart and very pretty, two qualities which don't seem to go together very often in music. I can't even begin to name all the indie or cult bands and artists who seem to offer great lyrics but sandpaper vocals, or can't resist the urge to be just plain depressing (not to impugn all artists with scratchy voices or bleak world views, but you get the idea.) Kirsty was a great songwriter, with vibrant, poetic lyrics, but also a good sense of humor and an ear for good instrumentation. Her voice was also unique, rich and soft but also hard and steady, a brick wrapped in velvet. You don't hear that kind of texture very often, and I prefer it to the American Idol/bel canto/diva approach that's become increasingly popular. But I don't want to turn this into a rant against how everything sucks now. Let's just say that Kirsty's talent was overlooked, and that artists could do worse than to learn some lessons from her, and move on to some album recommendations.

Galore: The Best of Kirsty Maccoll (1995)- A good starting point (it worked for me.) Shows off the breadth of her work, from girl-group tribute to country pastiche to Latin to pub rock to protest music. Also features her famous duet with Shane MacGowan on "Fairytale of New York", and another Pogues project with "Miss Otis Regrets."

Electric Landlady (1991)- Her first dollop with Latin music, which would become a major interest. Sort of a light album, not so much in terms of subject matter but in the airy, smooth arrangements and delicately pensive tone.

Titanic Days (1993)- Apparently hard to find nowadays, but worth hunting down- there are a lot of really great songs here, with a generally darker tone. The title track is a short epic about a thrilling but obviously doomed relationship, driving forward with reckless abandon (at least that's my interpretation, I'm frequently wrong about such things.) Very ambitious, possibly my favorite.

Tropical Brainstorm (2000) Kirsty's last album, reflecting the culmination of her Latin influence. Extremely lush and gorgeous sounding, with some clever blending of tracks and very unusual sampling (see if you can pick out the "Galaga" sound effects.) Hunt down the American release of this album (it has Kirsty's face on the cover)- it includes a few bonus tracks and a music video.

More information and a complete discography (plus lyrics, chords, etc.) can be found on, the foremost fan site for the artist. Get to listening.

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