The announcement this week that Fanny Lumsden is one of the nine artists on the Shortlist for the 16th Australian Music Prize is not just a very rare appearance by a country artist in the most prestigious album award in local music, but a prompt for anyone still slow to discover her. Go on, do it.
It also had me thinking about how her shortlisted album, Fallow, is not like a lot of the kind of country that still sells loads and annoys the hell out of people like me who genuinely love country music. (The kind of album that won’t ever make the AMP Shortlist.)
None of that stuff is new of course. And as this Wind Back Wednesday trip to 2003 reminds us, none of that has got any better really, though in retrospect the days when American country establishment gave a female artist this much room might now look like some golden years.
As a sidelight here, while Lumsden was still eight years from releasing her debut EP when this concert happened, another Australian artist of some fame now gets a shoutout and a prediction here. (No, it didn’t take a genius to do so at the time.)
Entertainment Centre, October 26, 2003
While its critics hyperventilate excessively, Australian Idol doesn’t really signal the end of the music industry or the triumph of style over substance (as if pop music hasn’t always had its fluff) or any such doom-laden threat. It’s just TV.
But in its early stages in particular it did show us something interesting about a trend in performance. The singing style pioneered in the ‘80s by the so-called divas – Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston – and taken up by many who called themselves soul singers in the ‘90s, has embedded itself in the amateur ranks.
Its characteristics are powerful lungs, hyper-dramatic “emoting” and vocal flourishes that are wonderfully Kath & Kim: i.e. look at me, look at me. After more than a decade of this the idea that these characteristics mark great singers has taken hold and sustained many a career. But as Leann Rimes proves, sometimes having the big, wonderful voice is a hindrance not a boon.
Rimes, who began as a teenage country singer and latterly has taken the Faith Hill/Shania Twain route by crossing over into pop music, can out-sing most of her contemporaries. When she leans back, opens her mouth wide and lets rip – as she did in the opening song You Can’t Go Back and particularly in her big hit How Do I Live - the natural talent is obvious.
But so enamoured is she of her instrument that she thinks that is the only answer. The result is under feeling and over singing, not just in songs that need help (as in most of her middling material) but in songs that practically do all the work for you such as Willie Nelson’s Crazy and Otis Redding’s Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay.
Rather than inhabiting a song she beats it into submission: she has width but no depth; power but no soul.
Rimes never get inside a lyric or opens herself to its possibilities and the result is that she satisfies an audience, who get the hits, but she doesn’t engage with them because they remain as removed from her as she is from the heart of the song.
It’s why the crowd, while still applauding, began drifting away some 10 minutes before the end of her precisely timed 60 minute set. They had nothing holding them there. Nothing binding them to her.
What a marked contrast there was with the earlier set by expat Australian Keith Urban.
Nominally a country singer, Urban is as slick and stage-mannered as they come and possesses songs that have more connection with AOR kings such as Train and Matchbox Twenty (and in some of the ballads, Savage Garden or David Gray) than anything genuinely rootsy. But he has presence and energy and he sells the songs not the Voice.
It’s why despite being the undercard (and really no more believable than Rimes, or Train for that matter) he had the audience on its feet and whooping by the end of his set. It’s why he is a genuine star who will be headlining this venue next time he plays here.