Two new Kirsty MacColl albums - the fairytale and beyond?

More than a decade after Kirsty MacColl's death, two albums have been released in her memory. Liz Ely asks: do they bring us anything new or different?

Liz Ely, 16 March 2013

As Kirsty MacColl fans go, I am probably fairly young. When she died in 2000, I knew her as "the woman who sang that Christmas song with the Irish guy with bad teeth". Like many younger women, I have discovered her music posthumously and her wistful lyrics and easy melodies have become a part of the soundtrack to my life. Songs such as 'They Don't Know' and MacColl's (in my opinion better) version of Billy Bragg's 'A New England' were a big part of my late teens and early 20s.

MacColl's music is by turns funny, ironic, haunting and poppy. Lyrically, her songs may not seem explicitly feminist but she displayed a refreshing raw honesty and truthfulness about her experiences. Many women will recognise aspects of their own lives within her work, from the regret over a betrayal of friendship expressed in 'Caroline' to MacColl's contempt for deceitful pick-up artists in 'England 2 Columbia 0'.

In February, Union Records released two additions to MacColl's back catalogue, A New England: The Very Best of Kirsty MacColl and A Concert for Kirsty MacColl.

I'm sure this would have been a great performance but listening to a recording is another reminder of the superiority of MacColl's own version

The concert referred to in the title of that second album took place at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire in 2010. The evening was held 10 years after Kirsty MacColl's death, to honour her memory and raise money for the Kirsty MacColl Music Fund for Cuba. Kirsty travelled to Cuba many times and was heavily influenced by the musicians she met there. This is evident on a number of her recordings and it seems fitting that her legacy should be supporting young musicians in Cuba.

Artists on the album, who performed at the concert, include Amy MacDonald, Andrea Corr, Billy Bragg, Catherine Tate, Phil Jupitus and Alison Moyet.

MacColl was one of those artists whose cosy middle of the road Radio 2 image was a massive underestimation of her talent and imagination. However, the choice of artists featured in A Concert for Kirsty MacColl does little to challenge this perception and it is disappointing not to see a wider variety of musical styles represented.

The album starts strongly with Ellie Goulding's throaty rendition of 'Soho Square': a good introduction to the upbeat pop, with a hint of melancholy, that MacColl is so famous for.

Meanwhile, 'Days' is sung by Brooke Supple and sounds a little too much like the performance of an X Factor contestant. It's a brilliant song and a real classic, but it seems an odd inclusion given that MacColl's version of this Kinks song was just one of many.

MacColl's cover did something none of the artists featured here manage

Alison Moyet's two appearances on the album are high points. Moyet's deep slow delivery shows a real understanding of MacColls music without being too similar to MacColl's own style. Her version of 'Head' is as sultry as MacColl's; she lingers over the words to great effect here.

Catherine Tate performs one of MacColl's more humorous songs, 'In These Shoes?', to rapturous cheers. She sounds just like a comedian singing and plays an exaggerated character, where laughs are more important than the music. I'm sure this would have been a great performance for audience members but listening to a recording of it is another reminder of the superiority of MacColl's own version.

The low point on this album for me is Amy Macdonald's version of 'Tread Lightly'. It doesn't help that this is a favourite of mine, so expectations were high. Sadly, Macdonald fails to capture any of the melancholy of the original. 'Tread Lightly' has a pace which is at odds with the wistful lyrics but MacDonald doesn't manage to overcome this contradiction in her performance and appears to struggle to get through the song. MacColl's original takes you by surprise and is a track to play on repeat, full of hope and regret:

"Happy with your 2.2

What else is there for you to do
But turn and wet the baby's head
And pray he will be happier than you or me?
That's how it's meant to be
It's called a lifetime."

Billy Bragg performs 'A New England': his own song, which MacColl covered to great effect in 1985 when it peaked at number seven in the charts. Bragg is obviously comfortable with the song and this is one of the better performances on the album. Thinking of MacColl's version, I can't help but be reminded of how much she took the song and made it her own. MacColl's cover achieved something none of the artists featured here manage - she added something new to an old favourite with a completely new interpretation.

As it stands, I find it hard to understand why anyone would choose to buy this album. That's not to say it isn't enjoyable or without merit. It's just that the original recordings of these songs are so superior, I'm not sure why anyone would bother. Perhaps attendees of the concert will enjoy re-living what I'm sure was a fantastic evening of music, but anyone else would be better off picking up a Best of collection and listening to the songs in their original form. The covers here don't do anything new or interesting with the source material and each song remains too similar to the original style.

Here, high heels are weapons and the protagonist uses her shoes as an excuse not to follow the whims of her suitors

Released on the same day as the concert album, A New England - The Very Best of Kirsty MacColl would, for my money, be a better choice for anyone wishing to discover MacColl's music.

The album begins with 'In These Shoes?'. Here, MacColl is knowingly comic in her delivery; high heels are weapons and the protagonist uses her shoes as an excuse not to follow the whims of her suitors. It's a fun and comic song as well as one which could quite easily prompt a debate about heels as empowerment or oppression.

'Walking down Madison' is a song of its time: about how poverty is bad and how we are all just the same, regardless of how much money we have.

It's a little too earnest for me and, at six minutes, far too long. Some of the lyrics of 'Walking Down Madison' are condescending.

"To the bag lady frozen, asleep on the church steps," MacColl sings, for example.

There's something problematic about recording artists telling us that "poor people are people too", no matter how noble their intentions. The fact that this is a post Live Aid-era record is evident. 'Walking Down Madison' is a song best left in 1991.

'They Don't Know' is an all too accurate account of being in love with someone you suspect you shouldn't be:

"No I don't listen to their wasted lines

Got my eyes wide open and I see the signs
But they don't know about us
And they've never heard of love."

Like so many of MacColl's songs, 'They Don't Know' is bittersweet and ambiguous. The defiant devotion of the protagonist could be nothing more than a deep love for someone misunderstood. This is how I viewed this song as a teenager. However, 10 years later, I can now see there are signs here of the isolation of an abusive relationship and that it hints at how love can make you oblivious to the flaws of a controlling partner.

With each listen I change my mind as to whether the singer is in a healthy wonderful relationship or trapped by her own devotion. Listeners will, of course, bring their own experiences to the song, which is an indicator of its quality.

This is one of those songs that is hard to write about, due to it being so firmly ingrained in our collective consciousness

'England 2 Colombia 0' is another highlight of this collection. It's a narrative pop song about a woman who falls for a married man but discovers his lies in the nick of time:

"Your perfume was adultery but I'm not a piece of meat

So I'll be the one that you couldn't acquire
I found out in time you're a serial liar."

This is a triumphant finish to a song where the protagonist savours the pleasure of rejecting a love rat. It's really catchy too.

'Caroline' is another fantastic track and reveals another side of this story: a song about the guilt of betraying a best friend for a romantic partner, exploring the pain of guilt and betrayal in a nuanced way: "No I don't want to see Caroline, don't want to see her face when she finds out you're mine."

'You Just Haven't Earned it Yet Baby' was written by Morrissey and Marr of The Smiths, which is readily apparent seeing as "You must suffer and cry for slightly longer" is the sort of bitter lyric you would expect from them. It makes you want to put on a baggy cardigan and head down the indie disco.

Kirsty-MacColl-A-New-England.jpg

'Bad' is perhaps one of MacColl's most explicitly feminist songs:

"I've been the token woman all my life

The token daughter and the token wife
Now I collected tokens one by one
'Til I've saved enough to buy a gun...
...Oh look out world I'm about to be bad."

'Bad' is MacColl as Thelma and Louise, filled with rage and frustration and about to go on the run. It's short and punchy, with MacColl's usual knowing humour.

The collection finishes with 'Fairy Tale of New York'. This is one of those songs that is hard to write about, due to it being so firmly ingrained in our collective consciousness. Those of us who live in Britain have all heard it so many times that it's easy to forget how great it is. 'Fairy Tale of New York' is MacColl's most enduring music legacy and will hopefully continue to introduce her music to new generations.

A New England is a great collection but, as with the concert release, there is little that you couldn't find elsewhere. It is a comprehensive Best of which covers more ground than previous releases and feminist indie fans unfamiliar with MacColl could do worse than pick up a copy, but anyone who already owns her records won't find anything new.

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Image descriptions

1. Front cover of A Concert for Kirsty MacColl. This is a blue-tinged black and white head and shoulders shot of a slightly smiling Kirsty MacColl in a black jacket and white T-shirt, standing in front of an out-of-focus building.

The in-article version of this also includes album details: a light olive sticker with "An outstanding evening of music, 12 of Kirsty's most famous songs performed live by Alison Moyet, Billy Bragg, Ellie Goulding, Amy Macdonald, Andrea Corr, Eddi Reader and many more" [top left], along with a strip, just above the bottom of the picture, containing the following writing in caps: "A magical night of music keeping Kirsty's spirit alive (Geoff Lloyd (Absolute Radio)" [left side of strip], "A Concert for Kirsty MacColl" [middle of strip] and "A celebration of an indomitable spirit" (David Sinclair, The Times) [right side of strip].

2. Cover of Kirsty MacColl's 'A New England' single. This contains a picture showing Kirsty MacColl looking up slightly towards her right (not smiling). You can just see her face and some of her left shoulder. This is in a strip and is placed between the title and artist text over a white background.

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Liz Ely

Liz Ely lives in Edinburgh where she can still be found drinking coffee, moaning about the Tories and wearing hats

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