Mari Wilson: Pop Deluxe UK CD 
- Island Of Dreams Intro
- Always Something There To Remind Me
- I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love
- The Look Of Love
- Don’t Sleep In The Subway
- You’re My World
- 24 Hours From Tulsa
- In Private
- White Horses
- Anyone Who Had A Heart
- I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten
- I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself
- Island Of Dreams
This was Mari Wilson’s second cover album in a row, but it is a more ambitious work than the “Cover Stories” album from 2012. That album was recorded to capture the vein of her jazzclub performances that have been her stock-in-trade throughout the 90s. If you saw Mari Wilson singing in the last 20 years, it likely sounded like that album, with stripped back jazz combo arrangements for piano and guitar at most. This album sees her working once more with keyboardist Alastair Gavin [ex. Wilsations] who last figured on her “Rhythm Romance” album of 1991. Gavin was responsible for the arrangements here which see Ms. Wilson revisiting the work of her pop forebears through his creative lens for some surprising results. What that means for our ears is; a whole lot of Dusty, Petula, Sandie… as well a lot of royalties for Bacharach and David, whose peerless songbook accounts for almost half of the songs here.
More than anything, after a few plays this album has slotted in nicely next to my other favorite cover album of recent years: The British Electric Foundation’s “Dark” album of 2013. Like that album, this one also features a wide range of vibes present that give the rugged pop tunes [that have given so much to so many singers] a new outlook, and in a couple of cases, sees them in newly definitive forms. This, for me, is the measure of a cover album. If, at the end of the play, several songs can be said to have new ownership that extends beyond the pleasure of hearing a classic song well done and into definitive territory, then so much the better. This was certainly the case with “Pop Deluxe!”
The program got off to an effervescent start with “Always Something There To Remind Me” now given a gentle technopop arrangement that still relied on the acoustic guitars for the warmth that would be a hallmark of this album. While the keyboards of Gavin were the foundation that this album was built upon, it strayed far from the electronic template due to the close-knit combo playing here. There were plenty of real instruments to be had here in addition to the machines.
The tempo picked up with the ebullient technopop of “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love,” featuring an insistent walking bass line and thunderous tympani [Julian Fairbank] competing with the synths for a bracing and delightful effect. I can’t understand why others don’t offer up such dynamic arrangements that juxtapose atypical instrumentation for the delightful frissons that result. Gavin’s creativity with the charts was going to be giving Ms. Wilson a bright and varied canvas on which to paint her vocals here.
The gears then switched for a smoky jazznoir rendition of “The Look Of Love” that was the first [but not last] time I thought to myself while hearing this that it was sitting on the same shelf as the B.E.F. album invoked earlier. The piano driven ballad nonetheless features some of the most buttery jazz guitar I’ve heard in a while courtesy of Paul Dunne. As much as the sultry sax defined the vibe of Dusty’s version, the guitar did the same here.
Following that, it was time to break out the throbbing arpeggiators for a dynamic take on Petula Clark’s “Don’t Sleep In The Subway. The first third of this album was surprisingly liberal with the technopop, making it something of a revisit to the Tony Mansfield production style of “Showpeople.” Particularly when the acoustic guitars [they always were a Mansfield production gambit] made their appearance here. Then, another strong left turn was made with the jazzrock arrangement of Cilla Black’s “You’re My World.” The surprising arrangement sounded almost like a lost track from Steely Dan’s “Aja” with the sessionpro guitars hitting their marks most effectively.
Then, the album delivered a stone cold classic. I’ve been listening to the songbooks of Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark for decades, so this material has been under my skin for a long time. I like my British femme pop of the 60s. Until I heard the heart-wrenching version of “24 Hours From Tulsa” as sung here, I felt as if I had never heard the tune before. Sure, I’d heard it, but I’d never actually felt it. Even in the hands of Dusty Springfield, whose version has been in my Record Cell for 28 years, it seemed to be a glib trifle and little else. Dusty had sold this song short. This was probably down to the fact that Bacharach and David had originally penned the tune for a man; Gene Pitney. The female-led covers seemed to share a more devil-may-care attitude of the song as possibly delivered in Pitney’s hands. I can’t really say for sure, because I’ve never heard Pitney’s version. What Ms. Wilson did with the song here was dramatically different.
First of all, the shimmering heartbreak of the arrangement primed the canvas for a symphony of nuance. The unresolved string chords recalled nothing so much as Scott Walker’s “The Electrician” and the emotional tenor of this rendition isn’t too far from where that song went. The glacial pace of the song only heightened the grief that the song held in Ms. Wilson’s hands. Listening, one truly felt the gravity of the situation for the first time. Beyond the pretty melody, I don’t think I ever really listened to what the song was saying before. Now, all of the import of the situation and regret of the singer [such that it seems like the new flame is already recognized as a mistake] comes to the fore. The ending decrying that she can never go home again was devastating. This song absolutely could have been the centerpiece of the last B.E.F. album as it perfectly fits the “dark versions of previously happy songs” briefing that informed that project. I will never hear this tune the same way again.
Next: …What do you do after the bomb drops?