Note – this article was previously published in a slightly different version on Kind of Jazz.com in autumn 2013, having been written in late 2012. Some relative date references will therefore not add to the re-publish date of August 2015.
The trio of Carmel McCourt, Jimmy Parris and Gerry Darby emerged almost perfectly formed on the small Red Flame indie label in the autumn of 1983 with an eponymous 6 track mini LP that remains unavailable on CD in the UK. This startling debut’s minimal drum, vocal and bass sound and jazz influences showcased McCourt’s stunning voice and a radical re-interpretations of Smokey’s ‘Tracks of my Tears’, that was later re-recorded for their full debut released on London records in the Spring of 1984.
It is that album, ‘The Drum is Everything’ that Carmel are best remembered for – and with good reason since 28 years on it remains a stone cold, if obscure, classic. Further radical reinterpretations of standards like ‘Willow Weep for Me’ and ‘Stormy Weather’ rub shoulders with wonderful originals like ‘More, More, More’ and the frankly astonishing McCourt call and response vocal on ‘Bad Day’, a no.15 UK pop hit in August 1983. While the sound was a little more fleshed out than on the mini album, it still feels true to the trio’s original minimal vision and could have been made last week. The current reissue on Drumfire records adds some 5 bonus tracks, 2 of which are extended versions, to this timeless collection and also addressed the over-bright sound of the original 80s CD issue.
The video for “Bad Day” can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gdohz3yTWWc
The album sold respectably at the time, peaking at 19 in the UK during an 8 week chart run, and should have been the foundation for a credible and long lasting career. Instead it was two and a half years before second album ‘The Falling’ emerged on London and while nowadays no-one would blink at such a gap, in the 80s the pop world moved much faster. For example Paul Weller’s Style Council released the jazz influenced ‘Café Bleu’ the same week as ‘Drum’ but had issued a follow up, a live album and enough non-album singles to fill a further album by the time ‘The Falling’ arrived in stores in September 1986. The pop environment of 1986 was much changed to two years earlier and it was far from clear where Carmel fitted – Live Aid had seen a move back towards the rock ‘heritage’ acts who had been prominent in that show, while soul too had moved on embracing the machine age with the likes of Jam & Lewis’ productions for Janet Jackson, and Prince’s ‘Parade’. Lead single ‘Sally’ stalled at 60 that summer and the ‘Falling’ album managed only a solitary week at no.88 – the last time Carmel troubled the chart scorers.
One of the features of these reissues is the interesting and often candid recollections of each band member. Of ‘The Falling’ Gerry Parris tellingly recalls that there was “… a lot of angst …the process was very spread out in time and we changed producers several times…”. Given this the results should have been terrible but, an ill judged cover of the over familiar ‘Mama Told Me Not to Come’ aside, the sound of the first album was developed into a fuller and more commercial setting. Particular highlights were lead single ‘I’m Not Afraid of You’ and title track ‘The Falling’ that showcased Carmel McCourt’s vocal range in a more soulful context than previously. Following the surprise European hit with second single ‘Sally’ the Band’s strength as a live unit contributed to the album being a huge hit across the continent. France in particular took to the band with McCourt scoring a huge hit duet with Johnny Hallyday, the French Cliff Richard, on ‘J’Oublierai Ton Nom’ – mercifully omitted here.
You might think that this meant that the band had managed a difficult transition from cult minimalism to the brink of major stardom, yet in the Carmel story nothing was ever that straightforward. First impressions of third album ‘Everybody’s Got a Little… Soul’ were that big things were expected from the band. Recorded in New York and London the cover featured a blue tinted black and white shot placed on a black border that echoed Sade’s mega selling ‘Diamond Life’ from three years previously, perhaps a visual clue to the target market.
The lead single was a sympathetic and soulful reading of the Four Tops classic ‘It’s All In The Game’ while ‘Every Little Bit’, propelled forward by Herbie Hancock’s ‘Canteloupe Island’ riff, and ‘Jazz Robin’ exemplify the jazz twist being added to the best tracks here. Where the album fell short of its predecessors was an occasional tendency to over sing on a couple of tracks – worst offender being the opening title track, oddly reprised at the end of side 2. That said it remains a good album and the fab rarity ‘Long Come Liberty’ that Drumfire added among the 5 extra tracks to the 2012 reissue is pretty much worth buying the set for on its own. The booklet interviews are again revealing McCourt pointing to the move away from jazz illustrated by the making of the track ‘Jazz Robin’ “We, or I, wanted Jazz Robin in 5/4… I lost that fight on the album and I guess that’s where Jazz took a back seat from then on…”.
Two years passed before the band’s last album for London “Set Me Free” emerged in 1989, the only one of the Drumfire reissues to require a second CD to accommodate all of the extras from the multiple CD singles of the time. In spite of a generally positive critical reception, that included a then rare five star review in Q magazine, this is with hindsight the least satisfying of the London albums. While tracks like ‘I’m Over You’ and ‘Onward’ continue its predecessor’s soul influenced direction, the album sounds too much like a band in transition groping for a new sound. Sometimes the experiments work like the arresting opener ‘Napoli’ or ‘Take It For Granted’ but others simply fall flat – the cover of “You Can Have Him” is spoilt by generic 80s synth sounds, and the other big cover on the set ‘Lovin’ Feel’, extending ‘You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling’, feels obvious and meandering compared with the radical cover reinterpretations on ‘Drum’ a mere 5 years previously. While it remains a decent album 23 years on it feels over-produced and a little studied, four different producers being used across the 12 tracks on the main album may have contributed to this.
By the release of ‘Good News’ in 1992, Carmel’s profile in the UK was subterranean. I had the good fortune to see them play at the Palace Theatre near London’s Victoria station and came away convinced that I had seen a major talent, yet interest in the album remained almost non-existent. ‘Good News’ was a looser, more welcoming set than ‘Set Me Free’ having been recorded largely live in Bavaria Studios, Munich where it was ably produced by Jim Parris. Opener ‘Java’ hints at the world music experiments to come and works splendidly while single ‘You’re On My Mind’ dabbles successfully in reggae. Personal favourite ‘You’re All I Need’ showcases a much more relaxed Carmel vocal style that sounds more at ease with her ability to communicate. ‘African Bird’ and ‘The Judge’ among the bonus tracks should both have been on the album proper – the latter in particular nodding to the Acid Jazz/Talkin’ Loud sound made popular in the UK by the likes of the Brand New Heavies and Young Disciples at the time. This album and the CD singles from it have long been hard to find in the UK and the 5 extra tracks added by Drumfire to this edition make it a worthwhile purchase for newcomers and fans alike.
Final studio album ‘World’s Gone Crazy’ followed in 1995, but it did not build on the promise of its predecessor. For one thing we are back to the producer merry go round – some six being used on the main 9 tracks and there is a clear feeling of a band pulling in different directions. Carmel sums it up in her interview for the sleeve notes “I think we probably had enough of each other, record companies and travelling… the chemistry was breaking up…”. Best thing here by a country mile is the fabulous cover of Gregory Isaacs “If I Don’t Have You” but don’t be misled into thinking that the band had rediscovered their ‘cover mojo’, bonus track cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” should have been left in obscurity, although the sleeve notes strangely record it as being Jim Parris’ favourite.
It is sad that Carmel is not better appreciated in the UK – to our great shame these reissues received little publicity in her homeland and are already becoming hard to find. Drumfire did a sterling job in adding interesting extras to each collection, of particular benefit to ‘The Drum Is Everything’ and ‘Good News’, while the sound was noticeably better than on previous issues. As a long term fan it would have been nice to also see the Red Flame recordings reissued as well, possibly as a second disc to ‘Drum’, but this is a minor quibble. These albums deserve to be better known and Carmel’s talents much better appreciated – highly recommended.