by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
It sadly was a short-lived trend, but one of the more intriguing and musically sophisticated sub-genres of music to be found on Top 40 and adult-contemporary radio in the back half of the ‘80s and the earliest part of the ‘90s was a sound that emerged out of the U.K. called “sophisti-pop” that was a clever hybrid of jazz, soul, and pop. It didn’t quite have the same hip factor amongst the music press as actual jazz, naturally, but it had a certain flair to it that made it a bit more stylish and intriguing than much of the standard Top 40 pop of the times. This week, we look at three of the finest albums from this oft-forgotten genre, starting with 1985’s Blue, the debut outing from the jazz duo of guitarist Kurt Maloo and pianist Felix Haug, better known as Double.
It’s amazing in hindsight that the album even sold in the numbers it did, because it truly sounded like absolutely nothing else on pop radio at the time. There were occasional hints of more obviously commercial territory in cuts like the dance-oriented “Your Prayer Takes Me Off,” but much more representative of the duo were tracks like the bossa nova of “Rangoon Moon,” the gentle minor-key pop of “I Know a Place” and “Tomorrow,” and the atmospheric grooves of “Woman of the World.”
The duo even scored an unlikely Top 40 hit in the haunting ballad “The Captain of Her Heart,” which climbed all the way to #16 and the piano lines of which were impossible to get out of your head once you heard the song.
Sadly, the duo only made one more album – the 1987 commercial flop Dou3le, which nonetheless still boasted some great songs like “Gliding,” “Devils Ball,” and the jaw-dropping acoustic ballad “Wrong Time” – before splitting up in 1989. The duo would reunite in the late ‘90s for a third album, but Haug would sadly pass away from a heart attack before the project could be completed.
One of jazz-pop’s most successful artists was also one of the more unlikely success stories of the late ‘80s, a female Polish vocalist by the name of Basia Trzetrzelewski who had previously been one of the original members of the pop trio Matt Bianco, who became a regular chart fixture in the U.K. in the ‘80s but went almost entirely unnoticed in the United States. Taking her bandmate Danny White with her to both co-produce and co-write with, Basia departed Matt Bianco after one album to start a solo career. Unexpectedly, Basia found success immediately in the U.S., scoring a Top 40 hit with the title cut from her solo debut, 1987’s Time and Tide. While all three of her studio albums for Epic Records are quite excellent, the best and the most successful was 1989’s London Warsaw New York. The album’s lead-off cut, the unforgettably hypnotic pop of “Cruising for Bruising,” would give Basia her second American Top 40 hit.
There were no other hit singles from the album, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of good songs, the album being a very solid listen from start to finish, highlighted by the dramatic ballad “Brave New World,” the pure bossa nova of “Baby You’re Mine,” the haunting “Reward,” the surprisingly excellent and jazzy remake of Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” and the rousing Latin rhythms of “Copernicus.”
Following one more studio outing (1994’s The Sweetest Illusion) and a fine live album, Basia would sadly retire from the music world, unexpectedly resurfacing in 2009 (with longtime cohort Danny White thankfully still intact) with a new studio disc, It’s That Girl Again.
Everything But the Girl, of course, would briefly become huge stars in the mid-‘90s following the hit success of the unlikely dance remix of their Amplified Heart track “Missing,” after which the duo – comprised of vocalist Tracy Thorn and instrumentalist Ben Watt – would immerse themselves fully into the world of club music. If you explore the earlier part of their catalog, however, you’d be surprised to find just how heavily influenced the duo is by jazz and soul. Their stylish 1990 outing The Language of Life, in fact, was surprisingly helmed by longtime jazz producer Tommy LiPuma, best known for his work with George Benson and Diana Krall, and even features a cameo from legendary jazz saxophonist Stan Getz on its closing ballad “The Road.”
Naturally, fans of either the duo’s more club-oriented material or their more indie-flavored pop may cringe at this disc of stylish jazz-pop, but it’s an extremely well-made and relaxing album and particularly great for late-night listening, loaded with fine and melodically memorable cuts such as the hypnotic “Driving” (which nearly sounds like it could have been a Basia song), the uptempo soul-pop of “Get Back Together” and the brass-laden “My Baby Don’t Love Me,” the smooth pure soul of “Letting Love Go” (which boasts the disc’s most instantly catchy chorus), and the album’s title cut, a lovely ballad jazzy enough to call to mind Anita Baker’s albums from the same time period.
The duo would continue in the sophisti-pop vein all the way through Amplified Heart, the bulk of which ironically consists not of club material but of easygoing acoustic pop – highlighted by cuts like “Rollercoaster” and “Troubled Mind” – made with the help of folk stars like Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks and Pentangle’s Danny Thompson. The duo’s later, more club-oriented outings were just as well-crafted, but Thorn’s soft and lovely voice was so perfect for sophisti-pop that it’s not hard to wish they had continued in the same easygoing vein.