joan armatrading, "like fire" (1976)

Posted on January 1st, 2007 by Scraps.
Categories: Music, Songs.

Song Project #2

Joan Armatrading's eponymous album was her third album -- is there a list of non-debut eponymous albums out there anywhere? -- and it towers above the rest of her work. Her subsequent albums aren't bad, and a few of them are quite good, but none of them approach Joan Armatrading's consistent inspiration. But then, Joan Armatrading is one of the best singer-songwriter albums ever made -- it has a firm place in my favorite twenty albums of all time, any genre, period -- and of all the great albums made by major-label singer-songwriters, it is the most underrated.

I'm not sure why. Possibly because it stands out so much that nothing in her career since has supported the idea that she had a great album in her. Possibly because an album by a black Caribbean woman in 1976 that wasn't soul, reggae, or even folk -- it's just a straight pop-rock album -- was bound to fall between the cracks. There's nothing arresting about it, nothing eccentric or groundbreaking; there's nothing special about it, except ten straight excellent songs; there's nothing notable about it, except that it's perfect.

"Like Fire" is the ninth of the ten songs. There are greater songs on the album: "Love and Affection" and "Help Yourself", especially, but both of them are in a sensitive singer-songwriter style, and great as they are -- I'll get around to writing about them -- I didn't want to give the idea that that sound was all Armatrading was about. "Like Fire" shows off two aspects of Armatrading that have never got the attention they should: her guitar playing and her arrangements.

Give it a listen: Joan Armatrading, "Like Fire"

The acoustic guitar opening is breathtaking. The progression is odd: the first four bars end in a weird chord, then the four bars are repeated, followed by a shorter progression repeated three times -- it's hard for me to count the beat here, because she's messing with which beats she's emphasizing, but it sounds to me like she switches from straight 4/4 at the beginning to a 1-2 1-2-3-4 beat, or maybe just 2/4 -- then a tension-building held chord that seems as though it's about to break into the song, but she throws in a few weirder tension-building notes before the drums carry us into the main groove of the song -- where her acoustic chords remain strange and tense, the laid-back groove carried by the electric guitar and pushed forward by the cool but propulsive drumming -- that's Dave Mattacks, by the way -- like a bubbling electric current being barely held in check. The bass marks the bars with a quizzical slid note. Even in the chorus, Armatrading's chords are tense -- can anyone tell me what these chords are? -- and only after the chorus ends, and the song gathers itself for a couple of bars before plunging into the bridge, does the tension bloom into a harmonically uncomplicated major-key (I think) release, the drums settling down to relaxed timekeeping. But she pulls the song tight again as the bridge ends -- "I'll only leave you if you leave me" -- and again the song stops, gathers itself, and winds back up, with a few more bars of acoustic tension-building, into a reprise of the intro. From here she goes back into verse and chorus, the goes out on a slow fade of the verse, leaving the tension unresolved, keying the listener up for the last song on the album.

This song has the melodic and rhythmic virtues and the stamp of individuality of mid-70s Joni Mitchell, and to me that's damned high praise. The songs on Joan Armatrading are in a variety of moods, but every one of them, without exception, shows the same inspired invention and intricate craft of "Like Fire"; and "Like Fire", for all its excellence, only hints at the greatness of her thick, rich voice, one of those sopranos that doesn't sound like soprano till you try to sing along. If you like this song, I can't believe you wouldn't like the whole album. It's in print; it's probably midlist. (Okay, I will end the evangelism here.)

20 comments.

Anna

Comment on January 1st, 2007.

i love this album, too. i've owned in all the forms it can come in - LP, tape, cd, and now mp3. my favorite song for a very long time has been "Tall In The Saddle." i heard someone characterize it as a love song, and well... i guess so. more of a breakup song, and a pretty angry one at that. anyway, yes, thank you for writing about this album, it's amazing.

Scraps

Comment on January 1st, 2007.

Thank you! Good to see you here.

Kathy Walton

Comment on January 2nd, 2007.

Joan Armatrading is one of my all time favorites. I have all her albums (on vinyl) and keep a turntable functioning strictly for her and for my collection of Jacques Brel vinyl. I really should look into having all that digitized.

Kathy Walton

Comment on January 2nd, 2007.

(Reposting my comment because I forgot to click the box to email follow-ups)

Joan Armatrading is one of my all time favorites. I have all her albums (on vinyl) and keep a turntable functioning strictly for her and for my collection of Jacques Brel vinyl. I really should look into having all that digitized.

Scraps

Comment on January 2nd, 2007.

(Here's a follow-up!)

We don't have a working turntable, and there are at least a couple Armatrading albums we only have on vinyl, alas.

Kathy Walton

Comment on January 2nd, 2007.

I put off dental work to buy a working turntable! It was the Jacques Brel that precipitated it, though. Oeuvre Int├ęgrale. 14 vinyl albums with original recordings. A treasure.

Scraps

Comment on January 2nd, 2007.

Wow. Brel is one of the (many, many) holes in my musical education. I have a lot of Scott Walker, who was heavily influenced by Brel, but I have nothing by Brel himself.

rich

Comment on January 2nd, 2007.

'some water with the wine' is an all time favorite.

Scraps

Comment on January 2nd, 2007.

Hey Rich! Good to see you here, too.

ethan

Comment on January 2nd, 2007.

Non-debut eponymous albums: Blur (#5), Diana!, Diana Ross, Ross, Diana, and Ross (#3, #12, #15, #17, and #21), ABBA (#3), Sheryl Crow (#2), Liz Phair (#4, and it is a good album no matter what anyone says), Nancy Sinatra (#13; she'd come close before but it took her 38 years), Throwing Muses (#8 as well as #1), The Velvet Underground (#3, though #1 might count, too), The Supremes (#33 if you include all the collaborations and live albums). I'm sure I'm missing a bucketful.

Scraps

Comment on January 3rd, 2007.

Good list! I used to have a long list of them, but you've got some I didn't have. A few more off the top of my head: Television, The Band, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tindersticks (#2 as well as #1), Peter Gabriel (#2,3,4 as well as #1)...

That Liz Phair album, though: man, I thought it was completely, wretchedly awful. Not because it was a pop move, but because it was a bad pop move. Christina Aguilera's albums are better than that. De gustibus!

ethan

Comment on January 3rd, 2007.

Well, Christina Aguilera's last album is certainly better, but it's probably the best album that came out in 2006. As for Liz Phair (the album)--you might want to go back and listen to My Bionic Eyes, Firewalker, Red Light Fever, and It's Sweet. Just sayin'. But then again, I'm a BIG time pop apologist.

But c'mon...in My Bionic Eyes (which is one of my favorite song titles ever) she says "As I got light as a feather they got stiff as a board." Genius.

Sigh. I know I'm the only one, but I'm so sure I can't be wrong...

Scraps

Comment on January 3rd, 2007.

I think of myself as a pop apologist, but you certainly outdo me! But then, a couple years working the nightshift with relentless current radio hits, mostly the same ones every night, turned me against even most of the songs I thought were okay the first time around (not including Aguilera, I'm afraid, though she doesn't annoy me as much as Britney). But some of them -- Kelly goddamn Clarkson, for example -- I hated from the start, and can't for the life of me figure out why (say) "Since U Been Gone" gets defended by critics, with its horrid screechy vocal, and . . . where was I? Oh yeah. I may get back to the Liz Phair someday, because I know the sound put me off so much (not a Matrix fan) that I probably didn't give the songs a fair chance; but I don't even like her second and third albums very much, so I didn't even find the eponymous one a betrayal or anything: just didn't like it.

Cheers!

ethan

Comment on January 3rd, 2007.

Coincedentally, I also don't understand why Since U Been Gone gets defended by critics...but I also like it.

Sorry I hijacked the coversation so far from Joan Armatrading, by the way. Good song! Good song!

(And thanks for stopping by my place!)

Scraps

Comment on January 3rd, 2007.

You needn't worry or apologize for talking about other music in comment threads, so far as I am concerned.

rich

Comment on January 5th, 2007.

non-debut eponymous albums? metallica (the black one with the snake on it. not sure what number it is in their catalog).

Scraps

Comment on January 5th, 2007.

I remembered Jawbox's eponymous album yesterday; I think it was their third.

Richard

Comment on January 16th, 2007.

Hey, just wanted to pop in here about the Armatrading song. I finally got a chance to listen to it a few times. It's fantastic. I'll be on the lookout for the album, now. Thanks!

Scraps

Comment on January 18th, 2007.

Thanks for telling me! That pleases me very much.

kat

Comment on January 18th, 2013.

I thought I was the only one who feels that way about this album. You've exactly expressed why I've loved it for decades. I used to listen to it to too often, which one shouldn't do. Now I restrain myself to less frequent listenings and after a period of abstinence from its charms I'm always stunned by its perfection.

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