Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Ancient Heart," by Tanita Tikiram

In 1988, two generations of talent united, one from the 1960’s / 1970's, and one from the 1980’s: Rod Argent, keyboardist and songwriter in the legendary 60’s band, The Zombies (see previous entry), who went on to become leader of the 70’s prog-rock band, Argent, scoring a 1972, #5 hit, “Hold Your Head Up,” paired up with Tanita Tikiram, an unknown, British ingénue with a chaffed, world-weary voice. The result was the magnificent and enigmatic album, Ancient Heart.

While a hit, internationally, and faring not-too-badly in the United States (reaching #59 in “Billboard” magazine, a respectable showing for the album not containing a hit single), Ancient Heart was, essentially, ignored by North American pop radio, marginalized by the blips, bleeps, hiccups, and squeals that comprised the landscape of the U.S. music market in 1988-89, which was at the time dominated by the likes of flavor-of-the-moment, girl-acts, like, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and Paula Abdul, one of whom I actually saw in concert. Twice: in 1988 and in 1989. And I bought t-shirts. Both shows. Sigh… Why am I telling you this? Ok, so I while I won’t disclose which one of these three, pop-tarts my sister paid good money for us to go see (thanks, Sis!), I will share that the two concerts, truly, electrified my youth. Whatever. I’m not ashamed.

Well, anyway, it was my senior year in high school, 1989, and I bought Tikiram’s debut cassette, never having heard one note of music, just on the strength of magazine marketing. It’s true, silly as it sounds. The advertisement featured the oh-so-artsy album cover and described the songs as “hauntingly beautiful,” which was spot-on, as it turns out. But what the ad didn’t say was that Tikiram’s debut was also joyful, mysterious, sweet, wistful, melancholy, sometimes sexy, at all times melodic and as catchy as hell.

The album opener, “Good Tradition,” a rumination on family life, not, topically, unlike Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town,” dazzles with it’s brimming-with-joy drum rhythms and playful violin and horns. Sparkling, spry, and rejoicing, the song is an anomaly for this introspective, little album. It’s one of those tunes I find myself singing under my breath when I’m doing dishes, walking to work, or jogging with my wife, matching my gait to the beat of the music in my head. “Your mother smiles, the children play, and all the bad things happen miles away…” It’s stayed with me ever since I first heard it in the summer of 1989, and after over 20 years, it’s become like an old friend.

The sultry mood that carries the majority of the album is of a piece: quiet, studied, while thematically vague and peculiar. Songs like, “Cathedral Song,” and the startlingly intimate, “I Love You," and “Valentine Heart,” offer calm, muted tones, while "For All These Years" and the minor, MTV video hit (and perhaps her best-known song), “Twist In My Sobriety,” cast an eerie and beguiling shadow over the remainder of the album, which includes the haunting “He Likes The Sun” and the sorrowful, album closer, “Preyed Upon.”

Tikiram’s subsequent, early 1990’s releases were less impactful, artistically, save for a few songs from each collection (to wit, her second album, The Sweet Keeper, was overall, well…sweet, and the next album, Everybody’s Angel, is worth a listen, if nothing else for the beautiful, “Only The Ones We Love,” with ethereal backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and for her remarkable evocation of Van Morrison, laced throughout the album), but each, successive album was met with less and less fanfare and notoriety. All but erased from the music scene by the mid-to-late 90’s, Tikiram released a “best of” collection at the turn of the century and is rumored to have started work this summer on a comeback album, to be released in the spring of 2011.

I’m listening to Ancient Heart as I write this, and the music sounds, to me, like no specific time period in popular music, especially not the late-1980’s when it was written and recorded. What also transcends time is that voice: sultry, savory, and smoky-flavored. Emanating from a then, 19 year-old; her voice belied her age, sounding like something from a finely-seasoned chanteuse, well beyond her teenage experiences. Lyrically, the songs on Ancient Heart are rhythmic and catchy, but nebulous and thick: trying to understanding their meaning is like running in a pool of water, exhausting and fruitless. Was it pop music? Was it world music? Was it Jazz? Yes, yes, and yes. Put simply, the sounds on Ancient Heart defy classification and feel timeless, as if recorded yesterday, or maybe a hundred years ago.