Joan Armatrading

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Fred Schruers

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Show some emotion. It's an instruction so direct that it reads as something strange and hollow. If you don't already trust Joan Armatrading as an exceptionally forthright huntress and performer, you could mistake those three words [also the title of her fourth album] for the most familiar sort of '70s epigraph….

But Armatrading … has earned the right to be blunt. She is determinedly warm-hearted, with her every move founded upon a sensuality that is just as appealing as (and maybe more trustworthy than) the grabass openness of Bonnie Rait or Maria Muldaur. And her ear-boggling voice is simply the necessary and sufficient instrument for her songs.

Yet this West Indian emigre to London, despite three well-touted albums, is still waiting to break big. Perhaps it's because she is such a willful composer…. [It] is on the stripped-down "Woncha Come On Home" that Armatrading exhibits the virtues she carries in her own hands…. Joan plinks out the accompaniment on thumb piano and acoustic guitar, letting a rasp invade the lilt of her voice: "There's a madman standin' on the corner and he keeps on lookin' at my window."

This is a poet's madman, a stick figure only as scary as the singer's loneliness. If the lyric wasn't delivered so wryly, we might have to laugh at him. But since we know that Armatrading's persona in song has included such unusual actors as the gruff but hurt bullygirl ("Tall in the Saddle") and a dazed succubus ("Water with the Wine") we can be most intrigued to hear her admit to a moment of utter need.

There are not many singers, male or female, who seem to summon such cozy inquisitiveness from their audience. (p. 68)

There aren't many who can exalt heartsickness as Armatrading does. It's what the medical men call good pain, and for Armatrading it occurs out on the borderline between love and pride. And it's a tribute to her musicianship and spirit that Joan is still patrolling that territory as compellingly as she was five years ago on her first album: "Take what you could / Give what you must 'cause / Whatever's for us, for us …" (p. 69)

Fred Schruers, "Armatrading's Forthright, Show's Kinda Flaky," in Crawdaddy (copyright © by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January, 1978, pp. 68-9.

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