I wonder why Joan Armatrading has never titled one of her albums Smoke and Mirrors. That phrase neatly captures the specifics of what she does: she uses the billowing smoke of her voice to convey her often remarkable songs, which so accurately mirror a wide range of emotional states. But it also describes the shifty magic she wields, creating powerful statements from deceptive wisps of melody and verbiage. (Credit her songwriter's instincts: from the time she gravitated to music, as a British teenager of Caribbean heritage, Armatrading has thought of herself first and foremost as a composer.) Armatrading's hearty new album, What's Inside (BMG), contains a half dozen memorable examples, each benefiting from the uncanny synergy between the songs she writes and the voice she sings them in. You hear it on the opening track, "In Your Eyes"; its two-note hook begins with an octave leap, and I doubt it would work so well if not for the partial hiccup she imparts to the high note. On another song she reaches back for a hint of reggae to sing, "It comes all shapes and sizes / It's something you can never buy. / Don't wait until it's over ... / Obituary columns are filled with love," and the island lilt stops her from preaching. She puts herself "Back on the Road" to bid a good-bye to "Mr. Misery" and "Mr. Sorrow"; the edge to her voice combines with the blues note in the melody to nail her self-pity to the wall. In some ways Armatrading just continues to do what made her a cult fave 20 years ago, and you won't find me complaining. It means she "just" continues to create polished, evocative, and unforgettable songs, and that she "just" continues to walk the emotional tightrope between realistic despair and essential hopefulness (without diving into the bathetic chasm stretched out at her feet). Friday, 7:30 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield; 472-0449 or 559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kate Gamer.