Diana Darby: A New Album by an Underappreciated Singer-Songwriter

By Steven Rosen
 
Review:
DIANA DARBY
       
I V (intravenous)
(Delmore Recording Society)

 

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We’re so used to drama and forcefulness in contemporary music being expressed through loudness that we forget the capacity of a song – and a singer – to be quietly devastating. Too often, those who turn down the volume are just trying to soothe us by playing to our auditory comfort zone, or are taking a breather before the next rave-up.

 Diana Darby, however, is different. Her voice is often whispery or calmly recitative, although it is always tuneful. It at times is so soft it risks our inattention, which would be a mistake. It also sometimes can hit a lower, more ominous range, as on I V (intravenous)’s ”Buttercup” where she reaches a drone-y sense of gravitas like Nico.

 On this album, officially her fourthshe plays electric guitar but uses it more for subdued, sometimes-eerie accompaniment than as a soloing instrument. She produced the record with Mark Linn, and her playing interacts well with David Henry’s lovely cello playing and Dan Dugmore’s delicate pedal steel/banjo work. Together, they flesh out the often-minor-key melodies.

 The temptation is to classify Darby as a folk-oriented singer-songwriter, but she’s really more like Eleni Mandell – not in how she sounds so much but in how both use that time-honored style to present very personal, sophisticated and carefully honed lyrics.

 The writing is I V (intravenous)’s strongest suit. It’s deceptively simple and direct, but imagistic like haiku. She can be exceptionally spare, as on  “Snow Cover Me” or “Spinning,” yet incorporate intense feeling into her well-chosen words.

According to press notes sent with this record, Darby was in a serious auto accident just before embarking on a tour to promote her last record, 2005′s The Magdalene Laundries, and she has subsequently spent time recovering. That may be what the album’s title refers to – there is a kind of restless-sleep in-the-ether quality to the songs.

On “Talking to God,” the subject reproaches her mother for being born: “I was talking to  God/And running on the moon/I was counting all the stars/Before I came to you.”

And the song “Heaven” – with the morose open-tuned guitar serving as counterpoint to  her almost-childlike voice, is haunting in its telling of an religious mother warning her “unsaved” family of what awaits them in death. (It’s not heaven.) It’s like a Flannery O’Connor story.

One is unsure why Darby, who has been making records since 2000, has yet to find the larger devoted audience she deserves, although her health issues probably set her back. But she’s back now, and her songs demand utmost attention. They’re not instant grabbers, but they mesmerize. 

 

DOWNLOAD: ”Buttercup,” “Heaven”  

(This originally ran in http://www.blurt-online.com on 1-15-13)

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THAT TIME OF YURO

A new release looks at the career of Timi Yuro, who worked with Phil Spector, Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran, and who has been covered by Morrissey.

By Steven Rosen

http://www.stevenrosenwriter.wordpress.com

THAT TIME OF YURO Timi Yuro

 

 

Any list of proto-feminist Top 40 hits of the 1960s would have to include Timi Yuro’s 1962 “What’s A Matter Baby” along with Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over.”

 With a voice that roars with the strength, defiance and unforgiving ferocity of that tiger in The Life of Pi, she scoffs at the ex-lover who now is being treated poorly by his new girlfriend. The sturm und drang Wall of Sound production is by Phil Spector, and Yuro’s voice sometimes seems too powerful, too scary, for him to handle. At moments there’s a little wobble in the sound as if he’s shaking. Her voice tears through the girl-group-style backing vocals as if they were sexist. It is a great record, a platter that matters, and so much a shape of things to come that it’s surprising Mad Men didn’t feature it in an episode.

 

 

 

It’s also surprising why Yuro, who died at age 63 in 2004 long after a 1985 tracheotomy for throat cancer ended her singing career (which itself had long before lost its momentum), wasn’t a much, much bigger star. She had a tremendous voice, mixing forcefulness with pinpoint clarity, equally adept at rockers, torchy ballads and subtle jazz inflections. But as revealed on The Complete Liberty Singles, a two-disc collection from Real Gone Music (a first-rate reissue label started by a founder of Collector’s Choice Music), there is a reason.

 Her label, Liberty Records, early on saddled her with too much overly orchestrated schmaltz, perhaps thinking the Italian-American Yuro could be another Connie Francis or Bobby Darin. It weighed her down. She idolized Dinah Washington, and was crying out for sophisticated jazz-pop material. And, although demure in stature, she could also shout like Big Maybelle or Etta James and could do the kind of blues/hard-edged R&B to make a listener shiver and quiver. But Liberty didn’t see her that way, after she scored her first big hit with a cover of Roy Hamilton’s sensuous ballad “Hurt” in 1961. (She didn’t write much.)

 The songs of the first disc, nicely presented in their original mono mixes, reveal the problem all too clearly – unbelievably expressive voice trapped in uninspired material and arrangements, save a few exceptions. The arrangements also trapped her into moments of corny, melodramatic oversinging, though they were few.

 For instance, there’s an aging Johnny Ray as her duet partner for the super-square “I Believe” and “A Mother’s Love.” So powerful and insinuatingly smoldering is her voice that she breathes some fire into “Smile,” a standard based on a melody Charlie Chaplin wrote for his 1936 film Modern Times, but it still seems like a stale choice for her. And a Bacharach/David composition from 1963, “The Love of a Boy,” has some of the effectively romantic major-minor chord changes of their work with Warwick at that time, but the icky theme is retrograde after “What’s a Matter Baby” (which was written by Clyde Otis and Joy Byers).

Of the good songs on the first disc, besides “What’s A Matter Baby,” there are the rockin’ “Count Everything” with its “uptown soul” groove of Ben E. King/the Drifters’ “I Count the Tears,” and the tart “Insult to Injury.”

 However the second disc, in which all but two tracks are in original mono (the exception having been originally released in stereo), offers something different. Yuro had become friends with Liberty labelmate Willie Nelson, and through him Hank Cochran, and began interpreting their mature country-and-western ballads about love’s heartaches.

 She did so with measured doses of wistfulness, wisdom and melancholy, but she could also get excited and start to break through her arrangements’ constraints. She obviously was influenced by Ray Charles’ 1962 Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and was the right person to be influenced by it. Liberty supported this new turn with a 1963 album, Make the World Go Away, and several singles.

Her driving versions of Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” show the Charles influence. Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely” is lovely, despite a fakey choked-back vocal moment at the end; her take on Cochran’s “She’s Got You” stands up well to Patsy Cline. She was actually the first person to record Cochran’s countrypolitan masterpiece, “Make the World Go Away,” and her version, with its controlled wailing against chorale-style backing vocals, is soulful and injects some grit into the overall introspective mood.

Her country sides should have marked a successful career transition for Yuro, but it didn’t work. Once Beatlemania hit, there was no place for her on the charts. She left Liberty for Mercury, and those releases aren’t included here.

But she returned  in 1968, and the six selections included on this package show her reprising the orchestrated, sophisticated pop sound of her post-“Hurt” singles. Yet the material is better, more contemporary and at times even luxuriant. “Something Bad on My Mind” has a Righteous Brothers-style expansiveness, though the song is a bit belabored. But “Wrong” is a treat with its insistent syncopation and gentle swing. And it was co-written by Yuro.

The standout of these final Liberty releases is the foreboding “Interlude,” a movie theme written by French composer Georges Delerue and South African-born lyricist Hal Shaper (“Softly As I Leave You”). It has a subtly stated but slowly mesmerizing minor-key melody that builds with enveloping impact. It’s one of the great overlooked 1960s movie themes, and it’s perfect for Yuro. (Morrissey much later covered it with Siouxsie.) 

Yuro was capable of handling so many styles of pop music with conviction, intelligence,  dynamism, and just plain talent. She too often didn’t have the material she deserved. And when she did get it, it was rare for the stars to align and give her the hits she needed. She’s a classic case of a pop vocalist – a rock, soul and country vocalist – who deserved much better. But we should be thankful for this.

 

 This first ran in Blurt (www.blurt-online.com) on Dec. 23, 2012, with art selected by Editor Fred Mills. 

For more on the singer, visit the Official Timi Yuro Association website.