Sunday, September 22, 2013

Kat's Korner: Cher's Closer To Perfection

Kat: Track two is "Take It Like A Man" and I'd object to the sexism were it not for the fact that the track is clearly intended for the gay clubs.  The real problem with the song is not the 'take it like a man,' it's the nonsense distortion of the vocals.  And if every track was like this, I'd tell you to avoid Closer To The Truth the way David Gregory avoids the reality of the illegal spying on Americans.

Fortunately, the distortions are the greatest in "Take It Like A Man" (which is supposed to be a duet with Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters -- lots of luck finding his voice in that mess).  See Cher -- that's right, we're talking about the one and only Cher -- has been all over promoting the album and talking about how this is her best singing.


When I heard that, I thought, "Yeah, right."

And I'm a Cher fan.  A huge one.

But turns out the biker chic, disco queen, folk-rocker, power balladeer wasn't blowing smoke. 

She's spoken of how she's not really keen to listen to early stuff because she doesn't care for the vocals. 

So it's worth noting that part of it is Cher growing more comfortable with her vocal range and it's also getting further away from Sonny Bono.  Sonny was a showperson and an entertainer and a clown and those are all roles worthy of applause in the world of show business.  He could get a song across with sincerity which he had an abundance of as a singer.  That's a good thing because he lacked a range and he mixed  his three or so true notes with sharps and flats in an attempt to mask his inability to hit required notes.  He was also very nasal -- probably the most nasal male singer to hit the top ten in the sixties outside of Bob Dylan.  Cher picked up a lot of bad singing habits from Sonny that she carried over to her solo recordings of the sixties.

But those bad habits paired with an actual vocal range were what made Cher.

I love her recording of the theme of Alfie, for example.  But I also understand why it flopped.  Cher recorded the track first, for the film, Dionne Warwick would have a hit with it later.   It's a light, little piffle.  A song unworthy of even quoting the lyrics.  And Dionne's light vocal invests it with so much more than it has -- a big reason the song's one of the few 60s hits that isn't repeatedly covered and recorded.

Cher couldn't put the song across.  She lacked the smile pretty, sway back and forth lightness that the women around her tended to have.  "I Got You Babe," remember, hit number one in 1965.  As the year ended, the Mamas and the Papas would release the recording of  John and Michelle Phillips' "California Dreamin'" but the song wouldn't go top five until March of 1966.  So you can argue that Cher was the only non-traditional female pop artist of 1965.  She didn't look like or sound like a girl group singer (not even one of The Shangri-Las or one of the Ronettes and she didn't look like Leslie Gore or little Peggy March). 

From all accounts, Cher was a one-of-a-kind type even before the world knew her name.  So she probably would have resisted efforts to turn her into the typical girl singer.  What's interesting is that Sonny didn't really try to.  And that's probably because some of her style was copied from him.  But, again, when paired with a real singing voice, this style worked.  It made Cher's recordings come off, to use the sexist term applied back in the day, "ballsy."

It's why she was a natural to cover Dylan (as she did -- with the hit "All I Really Want To Do" as well as many other tracks including "Masters of War").  It's why she deserves real credit for the expanding of how the country saw women.  Again, in 1965, or prior, there was no female on the pop charts sounding like her.  Plenty of men took the lead in songs but the women tended to remain "Wishin' and Hopin' and Dreamin'" passive.  Mamas Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot knocked down doors in 1966 and Grace Slick, Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin continued the trend in 1967.  But you really have to go with Cher as the first, full bodied woman with all the interests and concerns of any other human.

"Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" remains a sixties classic but even more so "You Better Sit Down Kids."  That's the song that only Cher could have delivered, she's singing the voice of a father explaining to the kids that he and Mommy are breaking up ("Well I have to go now/ So kiss me goodbye/ My eyes are just red, kids/ I'm too big to cry").  She took that song into the top ten in 1967.   Only Cher.

So when she talks about that early style and she puts it down, she should be aware it can grate.  The same way I just don't give a s**t about Darlene Love right now.  She's the subject of a documentary and I'm not even going to name it. 

Do I loathe Love?

No.  And I think she's a good singer.  But she's also supposed to be Cher's friend.  That's news to the men promoting the documentary with various articles.  They like to get in digs about Cher and how poor Darlene didn't get the breaks and blah blah.

Reality for the idiot men who don't know a damn thing -- though that's never prevented them from writing for publication -- Cher, like Love, was a backup singer.  Cher is singing backup on the Ronettes, on everything.  Her last backing vocal gig was on The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."

Darlene did back up as well.  She stayed with Phil Spector.  He used her as lead on many songs, a few of which became hits.  But he didn't give her billing.  So The Crystals "He's A Rebel"?  That's not The Crystals, that's Darlene singing lead.

As the ball-less boys rush to Darlene's defense, they imply that Cher can't sing (she can), they imply that she got breaks because she was White (Cher was 'exotic' for the 60s, she didn't come off Anglo-White, not for nothing one of her number one hits would be "Half-Breed"), they imply that Darlene's backing vocals rescued Cher's recordings and turned them into hits.  They basically just spit on Cher.

As one article turned to two and then ten and then twenty, I stopped making excuses for Darlene Love.  I'm sure she's not spreading false rumors about Cher but I'm also sure she knows what's going on, and instead of speaking up, she stays silent.

Darlene Love's enemy is Phil Spector.  So when our ball-less boys have to promote a Darlene Love documentary . . . they refuse to call out the incarcerated murderer and instead look for a woman to go after.

Here's some reality: Darlene doesn't sing on Cher's early hits (sixties through seventies).  Sorry, didn't happen ball-less boys.  Now in 1987, Cher brings Darlene on board for backing vocals for "Perfection" (Bonnie Tyler also provides backing vocals on that Diane Warren and Desmond Child penned song). 

Darlene Love never became a star for a number of reasons.  She's got a great voice but it's not one that the world sits up for.  Berry Gordy (wisely) took Florence Ballard off lead vocals and gave them to Diana Ross instead because Diana had a distinct and unique sound and the result was The Supremes became superstars.  Like Ballard, Love could pack a vocal wallop.  But she had no distinguishing qualities.  That's why Phil Spector could put her on lead for "He's Sure The Boy I Love" and slap The Crystals' name on it and get a top ten hit with no one the wiser and then turn around and have her sing lead on "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts?" and slap "Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans" name on it and no one be the wiser and then release Darlene's "Today I Met The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" with Darlene's name on it and no one notices.  You try that with Aretha Franklin or Janis Joplin and people would catch on in an instant.

Darlene was used and misused by Phil Spector.  She's hardly the only artist who can make that claim.  In the recording studio, Spector threatened John Lennon at gunpoint, he terrorized then-wife Ronnie Spector.  He got rich while the artists didn't.  That's your villain.

Cher was in the Phil Spector orbit because of Sonny Bono who was one Phil's record promoters.  Sonny was basically excommunicated by Phil for the crime of  wanting to do more than record promotion (and, in 1965, for being successful just as Phil's chart run was ending).  By 1964, Sonny and Cher are off doing their own thing.  Darlene kept recording for Phil.  That was her problem.

She also lacked visual style.  Great for a backup singer, lousy for someone who wants to be out front.

There's a lot of blame to spread around for Darlene Love never becoming a star but none of it lands at Cher's door and for Darlene to do all this promotion for that documentary and to stay silent and let one interviewer after another build a myth that the only reason Cher had hits was because Darlene sang back up on them?  I have no respect right now for Darlene Love.  (There have also been a few digs at Nancy Sinatra.  Darlene may have a more impressive vocal range, but she lacks Nancy's ability to shade the notes and Nancy's charisma.  Darlene did sing back up on a number of Nancy's songs from the sixties.   Her backing vocals did not make Nancy's songs hits, Nancy made her songs hits.)

Who knows?  Maybe Darlene thinks this is her last shot at fame and is willing to play the game in the hopes that finally the world will know her name?

And who knows?  Maybe Cher's been following that press too?

Maybe that's why she's making a point to insist it's her finest singing?  (File it under "Rebuttal To Ms. Love.")

It is her finest singing.

And if Cher didn't point it out, a lot of people wouldn't notice.

Can I go back to Darlene for just a second?

She's in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  She got inducted in 2011.  This woman with only two studio albums to her name, this woman with only three top ten hits (and the artist billed on them isn't "Darlene Love").  And if Darlene's in, The Crystals damn well should be because the songs they actually recorded and had hits with are more lasting: "Da Doo  Ron Ron," "Uptown," "Then He Kissed Me," etc.  Darlene only sang on "He's A Rebel," it's not even one of the best songs attributed to the girl group.

Meanwhile, not counting live albums or soundtracks or collections, Cher recorded seven albums just with Sonny and, as Sonny & Cher, had eleven top forty hit singles.  As a solo artist, she's got 22 more top 40 singles and, Wikipedia notes, "Cher is [the]  #5 female artist with the most Billboard Hot 100 charted singles, making her one of [the] few women in the rock era with that many chart entries."  When does Cher get into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?  The Hall is filled with many men who haven't had half Cher's success or acclaim. 

Oh well, Cher's musical career was always about the fans, not about pleasing a clique.

Closer To The Truth should please the fans.  "Favorite Scars" is my favorite track.

"On the album?"

No, my favorite Cher song ever.

It sounds like Peter Allen could have written it with Ann and Nancy Wilson.  (Wayne Hector, Tom Barnes, Peter Kelleher and Ben Kohn are the actual writers.)  Sample lyrics.

Best jump
Why do we feel we're going nowhere 'less we're falling
We're not ready to give up until we're crawling
Don't make it easy on ourselves
Risk it all, if you ain't living
You're surviving
Tell me why you dip your toes
When you could dive in?
Don't be scared to hurt yourself
Take your heart back off the shelf
Love covers you up in a landslide
Love pulls you under like a riptide
Love's when you crash trying to hand glide
Love's when your running and there's no light
Love is a song when you've got no defense
Love is the rock we throw ourselves against
Love is the healing of a broken heart
The story behind all of my favorite scars

"Heart of Stone," "My Song (Too Far Gone)," "You Better Sit Down Kids," "Main Man," "Save Up All Your Tears," and many more make my all time favorite Cher recordings.  But "Favorite Scars" tops them all.  I love the rhythm, I love the lyrics, I love the mix of confidence and knowing regret Cher invests into the vocal.

"I Hope You Find It" starts off strong but by the second verse it becomes vocal perfection.  It's a great power ballad.  Club music fans will enjoy "Dressed To Kill" and "Lovers Forever" (two of three songs Cher co-wrote) -- the first includes vocal gizmos.  "My Love" (not the Paul McCartney classic) starts off like a strong ballad but turns into a dance song.  Of the dance songs, it's my favorite, even more than the number 1 dance chart hit "Woman's World."  (I do love "Woman's World.")  "Red" is also a strong dance track.

Myself, I love "Sirens."  I love the whole damn album and, with Cher talking like this is her last studio album, I have to wonder why she didn't call it Follow This, You Bitches?

Seriously, how do any of her peers or those following in her wake top this?

I don't know.  I'm hopeful this isn't Cher's last studio album.  I'm hopeful she'll return to do a power ballad one.  As I've noted before, I think Steve Grand's amazing "All American Boy" is a song demanding Cher put her take on it.  But if, in the sixth decade of her amazing recording career, this is how Cher chooses to go out, she's going out a winner.

And that's obvious by the last track.  Pink co-wrote "I Walk Alone" and some have zoomed in on that song.  Solo, Pink wrote the album closer "Lie To Me" and I really think that's the better song and Cher provides an incredible vocal performance.  Best of all, the song continues the theme of life at a vantage point of wisdom and loss.  In 1987, Cher sang, "All my life I've been driven by perfection."   In 2013, she achieves it.   Closer To The Truth drops Tuesday.


If you're somehow new to Cher (where have you been!!!), I covered her solo music career with four pieces in 2010:

  • Cher's far from over

  • The 80s: Where Cher Proves Them All Wrong

  • Cher and the too far gone 70s

  • Cher's 60s recordings