31 March 2009

Shakespears Sister: Retrospective on Studio Albums

by Slowdive Music

Years ago, in what I consider another lifetime, I was sitting in my best friend’s, Mia’s, car, which we named the Happy Car (after “Happy House.”) She played the album “Hormonally Yours” before it was a hit album, and I was flawed. The beauty of the album, the urgency of its composition and arrangements, and just that great feeling one has when listening to great music (you know, the feeling of being lifted off your seat) just enraptured me. Though I had heard and really liked the first album by this duo, that day in the Happy Car I fell in love for life with this band. Furthermore, it is hard not to think of Mia and the heydays of college when listening to “Hormonally Yours.” So, Mia, this one is for you, because in many ways, you too are Shakespears Sister.

Named after an essay by Virginia Woolf, Shakespears Sister was one of the few bands in the early 90s to try and merge the gap between the guitar dominated and electronic scenes. Neither rock nor synthpop, a better classification would be synth rock. Creating a blend of savvy guitar playing with quirky keyboarding, the Shakespear’s Sister created a unique, heady pop sound that definitely left a mark on both sides of the Atlantic. Their signature song, “Stay,” breached the Top 10 in multiple countries and showed the potential of musicians that could think outside of the box and discard both the mainstream and underground.

The band has two historical lines that merged into one narrative. First there is Siobhan Fahey, then married to David Stewart of Eurythmics fame (they split in 1996), Shakespears Sister would be her first musical venture after leaving Bananarama. The concept of the band originally made her the heart and soul of the band; leaving Bananarama because she could not resolve herself to accept the direction the band had taken, her new project was both an embrace of the pop sensibility she perfected in the 80s and an expansion of her repertoire to a darker, more rock oriented sound. Enter stage left the American, Marcella Detroit (nee Marcella Levy); she made a name for herself working with a range of artists that include Belinda Carlisle, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper, Chaka Khan, and Bette Midler. Originally, she was not half of the duo, and this was reflected in the fact that it was only Fahey who graced the cover of the first album. However, before finishing the recording of the first album, she would become the second half of the duo, till Fahey would dissolve their collaboration after their second album. Bringing both an American and British feel to the band, “Stay” would be one of the few singles of 1992 that would make audiences forget the dominance of guitar oriented music.

Fahey brought the deeper, lower range in vocals, while Detroit was able to hit those high notes that most vocalists would be jealous of. With Fahey’s pop sensibility and Detroit’s savvy guitar playing, their two albums would reach Top 10 status in the UK with ease. The third album, “#3,” would not breach the top of the charts. Though some think that it was not as strong as the first two without Detroit, while others may say that it was, the problem was that whenever any outfit waits that long (12 years) to release a new album, the reception is rarely what it deserves. The reality was that the record label did not want to release the album after completion; it took Fahey years of pestering to get back the rights and independently release the album. Shakespears Sisters, which originally competed against the music of the veterans of post-punk, shoegazers, dream pop artists, and the earlier wave of 90s Brit Pop, were at a lost in the world of Placebo, Muse, and the nascent Keane. They were relegated to nostalgia, which demonstrates the fickleness of the mainstream to validate younger artists and not those who have proven themselves.

Though both Fahey and Detroit composed and performed successful songs prior to Shakespears Sister, and even continue to do so, the apex of their career was this band. And one is only left to hope that one day, whatever differences they may have, the two will come back together and make us stay for another moment in time.

“Sacred Heart” (1989)

Why is it a must? First off, the single “You’re History.” If there was a song on this album that really pointed to the future potential of how Fahey and Detroit were going to play with their vocals, this was it. A sythpop-esque background, intruded upon by a guitar solo, the song keeps a nice tempo between dance pop and ballad. Then there is “Twist the Knife,” giving into the 80s cliché of incorporating Latin elements; the accent is impeccable as Fahey sings the word “carbon” – translation: “fucking bastard.” The opening track, “Heroine,” is as addictive as the drug, and the only song that is really close to clear out rock. Right from the beginning, this album rejects the demureness and moodiness of post-punk and the growing shoegazing movement’s compressed sounds, while retaining all the headiness; it does anything but reaffirm the music industry moving towards guitar oriented music; and it embraces pop sensibilities in order to deliver a darker sound than expected from these two.

Track Listing:
1. Heroine
2. Run Silent
3. Dirty Mind
4. Sacred Heart
5. Heaven Is in Your Arms
6. Twist the Knife
7. You’re History
8. Break My Heart
9. Red Rocket
10. Electric Moon
11. Primitive Love
12. Could You Be Loved
13. You Made Me Come to This

“Hormonally Yours” (1992)

Why is it a must? It would be a cliché to say “Stay” – but here we go… “Stay.” What an amazing song! This is not the normal, run-of-the-mill duet. A song of life (the ethereal vocals of Detroit) versus death (the sinister vocals of Fahey), it is a clash against each other, struggling for domination. With a video that is appropriate to the song, the song truly expanded the idea of how two vocalists could interrelate to one another in one song. (Honesty time, the real meaning of the song has nothing to do with that myth. According to Fahey and Detroit, they are portraying characters of the cat people on the moon, one of which fell in love with a human, while the other was out to kill him.) Then, of course, there is “The Trouble with Andre,” which of course is that he is a liar. And the closing track, “Hello (Turn Your Radio On),” a song that I usually run to when I am completely depressed. No beat, just ambience, as they sing, “Hello, hello… Turn your radio on. Is there anybody out there help me sing my song… Life is a strange thing, just when you think you learn how to use it, it’s gone.” Full of unforgettable tracks (“I Don’t Care” and “Let Me Entertain You” to name two more), this is an album that is truly timeless and still feels as fresh as the first time I listened to it.

Track Listing:
1. Goodbye Cruel World
2. I Don’t Care
3. My 16th Apology
4. Are We in Love Yet
5. Emotional Thing
6. Stay
7. Black Sky
8. The Trouble with Andre
9. Moonchild
10. Catwoman
11. Let Me Entertain You
12. Hello (Turn Your Radio On)

“#3” (Recorded 1995-1997, Released 2004)

Why is it a must? Okay, let’s admit this right off – this is more of a solo album than anything else. Detroit has departed from Shakespears Sister and Fahey is the sole member of the band. Working with various musicians and songwriters, including ex-husband David Stewart, this album really gives the listener the insight of everything that Fahey had learned to that point. Though the opening track, “Go,” is a bit derivative, trying to recapture Detroit’s presence in the band, other tracks really showcase a new urgency. For instance, “Opportunity Knockers” really moves Fahey to a more standard rock sound, and “The Older Sister” really showcases her ability to arrange music in a quirky cuteness that will irk you. “Do I Scare You?” is the classic Sister sound, neither electronic nor rock, this song builds the same anxiety and urgency that the band was known for. A great album, but not really a Shakespear’s Sister album – I recommend it, but do not be disappointed if you do not hear that energy that created the band’s greatest songs.

Track Listing:
1. Go
2. I Can Drive
3. Do I Scare You?
4. Opportunity Knockers
5. Can U Wait That Long?
6. Oh Dear
7. Excuse Me John
8. The Older Sister
9. Singles Party
10. I Never Could Sing Anyway