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.
You wouldn’t think that any album from the Eighties that yielded not one, not two, not even three, but a whopping four Top 40 hits would ever even so much as fall out of print, but for some inexplicable reason, Irene Cara’s 1983 full-length What a Feelin’ has not only been out of print in the U.S. for years and is currently only available as an import, but the album was never even released on CD at all here in the States. Go figure.
Much like Lisa Loeb years later, Irene Cara rocketed to stardom long before she ever released a proper debut album. Though she’s primarily remembered these days as a recording artist, Cara first rose to fame as a child actress and was one of the cast members of the sadly-short-lived PBS kids’ show The Electric Company during its first season. Cara would continue to pick up increasingly bigger roles – in television and film both – over the ‘70s, playing the lead in the 1976 theatrical release Sparkle (a musical drama featuring songs penned by Curtis Mayfield, one of which – “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” – would go on to be a massive Top Ten hit two decades later for En Vogue) and playing Bertha Palmer Haley in the award-winning television mini-series Roots: The Next Generations.
But it wasn’t until Cara landed the role of Coco Hernandez in the 1980 big-screen musical Fame that Cara would finally make her mark as a singer. The soundtrack – which primarily featured songs penned by Dean Pitchford (best known for writing both the screenplay and the songs for the film Footloose) and Michael Gore – turned out to be a mammoth success, and Cara was the primary beneficiary, scoring her first two Top 40 hits in the process: the movie’s now-iconic disco-tinged title theme (“I’m gonna live forever / I’m gonna learn how to fly!”), which would rocket all the way to #4, and the sadly-now-forgotten Top Twenty-charting piano ballad “Out Here on My Own” (penned by Gore with the help of his sister, ‘60s superstar Lesley Gore of “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Own Me” fame).
The success of Fame landed Cara her own sitcom deal with NBC; the resulting show, Irene, had a cast that included future stars Keenan Ivory Wayans (In Living Color) and Julia Duffy (Newhart, Designing Women) but only one episode would be aired. Cara was then offered a chance to star in the TV version of Fame (which ran from 1982 through 1987), but she turned it down, wanting to turn her attention to recording (Erica Gimpel would subsequently take over the role of Coco Hernandez), and instead accepted a record deal with Network Records, a short-lived Warner Brothers subsidiary that also served as home to Todd Rundgren’s band Utopia, Australian band Moving Pictures (“What About Me”) and former ’60s pop star Del Shannon. Cara’s debut album, Anyone Can See [produced by Ron Dante, formerly the voice of The Archies (“Sugar, Sugar”) as well as Barry Manilow’s longtime producer], sold disappointingly, its lone hit single (the title track) failing to even reach the Top 40. (It didn’t miss by much, though, having peaked at #42.)
Enter legendary producer Giorgio Moroder, best known as the songwriter and producer behind nearly all of Donna Summer’s biggest hits, who was given the task of composing the soundtrack (issued, fittingly enough, by Summer’s former label, Casablanca) for the Jennifer Beals film Flashdance. Cara had the fortune of being tapped to both sing and, with the help of Keith Forsey, pen the lyrics to the movie’s now-immortal title theme, “Flashdance … What a Feeling.” It wasn’t the most obviously commercial song – much like Summer’s “Last Dance,” it starts off as a dreamy ballad and shifts gears entirely roughly a minute into the song – but it was a masterful piece of pop songwriting that understandably took the country by storm, topping the Hot 100 for six weeks and winning trophy after trophy, including the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal and both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Song. By this time, Network had been absorbed into Geffen Records (ironically, the same label that Summer was also with at the time), and Cara would make her label debut on Geffen with What a Feelin’, produced almost entirely by Moroder (though former Elton John sideman James Newton-Howard helms the closing cut, “You Were Made for Me.”)
Naturally, “Flashdance … What a Feeling” served as the album’s centerpiece, but it was far from the only hit the album yielded. The opening cut, the fun “Why Me?,” coupled a gritty, dirty guitar riff with a perky, stomping pop beat and glossy keyboard fills to create a fun pop single that sounded like an updated, rock-tinged reinvention of the Holland-Dozier-Holland-era Supremes sound; the single barely missed the Top Ten, stopping at #13. Cara had even better luck with the timely dance-pop of “Breakdance,” which capitalized on the breakdancing craze, and rose all the way to #8. The album’s fourth hit single, “The Dream (Hold on to the Dream),” hailed from the soundtrack to the Mr. T.-starring film D.C. Cab (in which Cara made an appearance as herself) and was added to later pressings of the disc as a replacement for “Talk Too Much.” While “The Dream” didn’t do nearly as well on the Hot 100 as “Flashdance,” it’s structured quite similarly, its near-ballad-like intro giving way to a more dancefloor-friendly verse before the hook finally hits, and boasts a nearly equally catchy chorus, so it’s a bit head-scratching why the single couldn’t climb any higher than #34.
What ultimately makes What a Feelin’ so fun, though, is the remarkably generous helping of hooks that crop up throughout the surrounding album cuts. The lyrics to the futuristic pop of “Romance ‘83” date the song quite a bit (there’s even a passing reference to the video game company Atari), but the song’s melody is every bit as immediate and infectious as that of “Flashdance” and Cara’s delivery of the wistful, reflective lyric (“I look back on a time when the world was so young … just living life simple was the thing to believe / Now I don’t really know, really know anymore”) is perfectly nuanced and serves as a suitable dramatic counterpart to the robotic voice that pops up repeatedly, reciting a laundry list of technology terms.
The vaguely-Latin-tinged pop of “Keep On” is a different kind of beast entirely, a lovely light dance tune reminiscent of Let It Loose-era Miami Sound Machine – Cara and Moroder (who wrote the song together) wisely keep the groove just light and playful enough to keep the record from seeming too overly club-oriented, and, like Miami Sound Machine’s “1-2-3,” the song consequently works just as well as a slice of adult-contemporary pop as it does a disco side.
But perhaps the best of the non-singles on the album is the ballad “You Took My Life Away,” which boasts a melody that’s not only equal parts catchy and devastatingly pretty but – thanks to its creative key changes – pulls off the difficult feat of being both simple and unpredictable at the same time, and as the track plays, you can’t help but wonder how no one else had ever thought of it before. It’s a brilliant piece of songwriting that would have been a surefire bet to scale the charts in a big way if Geffen had only bothered to issue it as a single. [It’s actually arguably second only to “Flashdance” as the best song on the album.]
Cara’s musical career strangely came to a total standstill shortly after, and four years would pass before she finally re-emerged with 1987’s Carasmatic, which neither charted nor spawned any Hot 100 hits. Cara would turn her attention back to acting, and it wasn’t until 2011 that she finally released her fourth album, jointly credited to her all-female backing band Hot Caramel. But it’s What a Feelin’ that remains her most satisfying album and one that is really long-overdue for a CD release. Until that happens, you’ll have to settle for the original vinyl, which can traditionally be found with little difficulty in the dollar bins at most secondhand record shops and is an absolute steal at that price.