"Gabi & Arsen" by Gabi Novak & Arsen Dedić (1980)

The first couple of Croatian pop have recorded occasionally trough 1960s and 1970s but this is their first (and only) genuinely duet album, which is strange because they were often perceived as a package deal, ArsenandGabi. Musical influence was mutual - if in the voice of his wife Arsen Dedić found perfect sound for his elegant chansons, Gabi Novak herself metamorphosed into sophisticated artist trough husband's top shelf repertoire. However, it must be noted that they both welcomed and encouraged collaborations with other artists, this album being a perfect example of that.

"Gabi & Arsen" is a very classy affair, perhaps a statement about themselves as artists - as they successfully weathered two decades in business, couple found themselves in a comfortable position where competition was not necessary anymore and they were established enough to enjoy view from the top. Recorded in Ljubljana with Slovenian producer Dečo Žgur at the helm, this album is sort of their Slovenian excursion - Mojmir Sepe, Jure Robežnik and Jože Privšek pops up as composers, while Dušan Velkaverh and Andrej Šifrer join as lyricists (along with songs by Kemal Monteno, Marina Tucaković, Željko Sabol, Rajko Dujmić and even poet Dobriša Cesarić). It is very endearing collection of warm, soft pop that explores dynamics between two musicians - as expected Novak pulls most of the vocal duties, while husband gently murmurs in the background, their chemistry and affection clearly audible. If there is one small complain - and this is purely my personal impression that takes nothing away from musical pleasure - is that couple occasionally sounds very middle aged and settled into "everything is behind us already" mode, when in fact they were in their early forties and have been married only a decade. However, the beauty they create together is undisputed and the poetic way they praise each other wrinkles is truly memorable. Perhaps it didn't bring any hits but this little gem is a thrill for the fans of both artists. 


"True Love" by Alex Harvey (1973)

This album by Tennessee country-rock songwriter has quietly stolen my heart and without noticing, I kept returning to it time and time again. Internet search proved to be bit confusing because there is another musician with exactly the same name but eventually I found out the identity of my guy and it dawned on me why I liked him so much in the first place - this particular Alex Harvey belongs to the same generation of artists like Kris Kristofferson, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham therefore its soulful country with just a enough of gospel touch in the background to make you stop and pay attention. Plus, as a songwriter he is excellent (his credits include "Reuben James" and "Delta Dawn") while there is something really endearing about listening composer's own voice, in this case whiskey-soaked, world-weary and slightly husky sound that combined with a cover photo really makes me feel like I know this guy.

"Makin' Music For Money" is opener and it probably first caught my attention - it is a statement in itself, of artist on crossroads, divided between the call of Mammon and urge to create music for the love of it. The rest is very much same high standard of songwriting with excellent lyrics and very enjoyable 1970s easy-flowing vibe that stands somewhere between country and rock - to hear Harvey singing his own material brings me the same pleasure as hearing Penn and Oldham performing their songs themselves (on excellent "Moments From This Theatre" album) and while my music taste usually goes in completely odd and unpredictable directions, I find myself returning to this album again and again. And singing on top of my voice. 

"Eight Show Tunes From Scores by George Gershwin" by Lee Wiley (1939)

Shadowy figure in the history of Jazz, Lee Wiley was one of those rarefied artists known mainly to cult followers but the more one discovers about her, the more interesting her small discography looks. She also sounds uncannily as some predecessor of later Peggy Lee who used same smouldering, whispery style but with far greater commercial success. Its a very seductive, intimate voice that sounds like a warm cloak wrapped around the listener and perhaps harks back to great, neglected Mildred Bailey (another artist worth researching) so there is a definite link between generations here.

So far everything I heard from Wiley was top shelf and this early recording is no exception. She slowly burns trough eight Gershwin songs that are considered standards now but were fairly new back than - famously, Wiley was probably amongst the first recording the whole collection of music by certain composer - the backing is very elegant and unobtrusive, while Wiley croons like a siren and pulls you into some twilight zone that still sounds incredibly haunting decades after it was originally recorded. Musicians do get occasional instrumental "hot" moment but mostly its all about the voice and the lyrics performed with great sincerity and attention. The overall impression is of the late hours music in some elegant nightclub, all you need is a drink and a waiter re-filling your glass, while pretty lady on the stage does her magic. Timeless. 


"Zagrebačka škola šansone" (1976)

The first part of mid-1970s compilation that celebrates famous so-called "Zagreb school of chanson"  this wonderful album focuses on artists who promoted chanson as an art form locally - the phenomenon started in early 1960s as reaction to ubiquitous festivals of pop music and initially it included actors as well as singers, apparently it was genuinely hotbed of creativity outside of mainstream. Because it never gained commercial appeal, it was mainly followed in the urban areas but every now and than someone sneaked into big stages of popular festivals so our homemade chansons were fairly well known - Chansonfest still goes on and local festival in Krapina is basically chanson performed in particular dialect. 

The names represented here comes as no surprise - they are all without exception big, legendary names in Croatian popular music and the level of sophistication, poetry and inspiration is staggering. It must be noted that each single of them seriously followed certain standards that consciously rejected banality associated with pop jingles, so although it sounds like fight with windmills, for a while they thrived on music as the art form instead as entertainment. The whole group included here worked and existed shoulder to shoulder with smörgåsbord of various other entertainers on TV (in my childhood that would include folk singers, rockers and basically variety shows) but they were accepted as artists - perhaps not the most uplifting, more of melancholic sort, definitely highly respected and kind of music played late in the night on the radio. I hear it now again, many years now after I had LP initially and its even better than I remember back than - from the lyrics and arrangements to performances themselves, it shows high level of very endearing artistic consciousness that excludes commercial appeal for decidedly reflective direction, kind of music one listens when alone. Highly recommended, though language barrier might be a problem for listeners who won't get the beauty of lyrics. 


"Leaving Neverland" by Dan Reed (2019)

This is highly controversial new documentary that apparently raises huge discussions around the world and leads to arguments between the fans and non-converted - at the end it all boils down to the fact which group you belong. It is also much, much more than story about particular case but in my opinion its about how the perception of someone widely known might change with time and are we actually able to accept the truth, no matter how unpleasant it might be.

I saw the two-part documentary recently and it made my blood boil. Honestly, I don't know what do I find more upsetting: the horror of obvious crime case, the fact that this all happened again and again in front of the whole world, the parent's obvious complicity and refusal to accept something is strange and unusual in letting their little boys sharing bed with a grown up man (on tours, while parents were tucked away elsewhere in hotels), visible distress of the victims who to this day are confused between their love and loyalty to man who abused them or - perhaps worse of all - reaction of the fans around the world calling for boycott of this documentary without actually seeing it and claiming its simply not possible, that it can't be because "he won so many awards".

For the start, let's go back in time a little bit and look closely at Michael Jackson - hugely successful pop singer who literary grew up under the TV cameras from adorable little black boy into weird and creepy looking eccentric, transformed into unrecognisable, effeminate creature who walks under the umbrella and hides his face under the mask. That, for the start should already be alarming but strangely enough, it seems the world accepted him as a harmless eccentric who simply loves to have children around because his is just a child himself. Hm. Than this person builds a entertainment park on his property where starstruck kids come to him. And parents of these kids are so impressed with his wealth, lifestyle and everything he can provide that they go with it, completely blinded with his fame and smiling happily as their little boys sleep in Jackson's bed. Than we have TV footage's from Jackson's tours where he always walks around with little boys (never girls) and still no one finds it unusual or alarming. And no one questions it, no one finds it unusual why would grown up man surround himself with boys instead of having adult partner around. After a particularly nasty court case and accusations, Lisa Presley enters the picture as obvious cover-up wife and leaves five minutes later. Wife nr. 2 provides children (?) and leaves with truckloads of money as well. Still, the public thrives on Jackson's fame and refuses to believe that someone so hugely popular could possibly harm children.

Documentary is not about Jackson but about his victims - Wade Robson and James Safechuck were both separately abused by their idol for years and years, protected him on a court and lied to themselves and to their parents. The obvious question is: why did they change their mind now, so many years after the fact and when Jackson is no more around to react and protect himself. As expected, many people believe it's all about the money and financial gain - this kind of perception just shows how these people see life around them, as constantly materialistic world where things are sold and bought. I have seen documentary, seen the trembling hands and felt the deeply stressful and traumatic state of both (now grown up) men and I absolutely believe they are telling the truth. Psychologists who specialised in child abuse claim its actually very typical that victims of such crimes take a lifetime of accepting what happened to them and most of the time, memories are covered under layers of self-defence. To this day you can tell that both Robson and Safechuck idolise the man who destroyed their childhood but at the same time they are horrified with all of it. 

One of the interesting things that I immediately thought of, is how much Jackson always cultivated the image of harmless, child-like Peter Pan: from experience I know that when people so strongly build a certain public persona, reality is probably completely different. It's an act. Look closely at his whispery, giggly talk and facial expressions, everything points how artificial and unreal this is - when he was finally arrested, his mug shot shows someone clearly deranged and self-delusional. He got away with court case by paying everybody off, but the dark clouds of shame and scandal never got away completely and now the truth finally came out. I have no doubt what these men are saying is truth and to everybody who has actually seen documentary its very clear and obvious these people were victims. And the parents - this is so infuriating - these people are so delusional that I wanted to jump into TV screen and beat them up. Absolutely infuriating. Strangest of all is the reactions of fans around the world who refuse to believe it, because Jackson's music was part of their lives for such a long time, they simply can't accept this. Personally, I have always felt Jackson was a creep so this don't really come as big surprise, its just upsetting that the world refused to believe what was very clear and obvious. 


"Let Me Off Uptown" by Cheryl Bentyne (2005)

For all her importance and influence, Anita O'Day seems to be rarely mentioned nowadays - while the holy trinity of Billie-Ella-Sarah is accepted without doubt, this strong-willed, scat virtuoso with a particular, sly sound is more of musician's musician, known and loved by cognoscenti but seldom heard or played anywhere. A 2007. documentary "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer" tried valiantly to put things in perspective and introduce than still-living artist to new generations, but it came too late - O'Day passed away before the movie premiered and I still remember the impression of a frail, old lady being hurt after all these years with stigma "The Jezebel of Jazz"  that made her even more unrepentant - since she was publicly tarred and feathered, O'Day decided to continue with smoking and snorting everything that came her way - damage was done anyway and this is all what people wanted to know. Her 1981 memoir "High Times, Hard Times" was heavily edited and tailored almost exclusively on seedy parts of travelling musician's life, pampering to sensationalistic audience but hardly a word mentioned about music. Which is strange because music is the real legacy this wonderful artist left behind.

To my knowledge, Cheryl Bentyne (one of The Manhattan Transfer singers) is the first singer recording full-blown O'Day tribute album - I've heard literary hundreds of albums where singers bow to Billie, occasional respectful nod to Ella or Vaughan, but hardly ever anybody re-visited O'Day who in her time was serious hit-maker and recorded dozen of masterpiece albums for "Verve". So perhaps the main difficulty was selection of material, since O'Day has quite impressive body of work, starting from series of delicious 1940s singles to neck-breaking scat recordings later - Bentyne and her team did their homework seriously and hand-picked little bit of everything, representing the width and depth of O'Day repertoire from various stages. There is a hip swing of 1940s title song, followed by selection of famous ballads and peppered with scat numbers for which O'Day was so celebrated.

Cheryl Bentyne is of course, her own woman and she don't even try to imitate O'Day - her voice is much lighter and gentler than O'Day husky, sly purr - what she does very effectively is to channel the spirit of her strong-willed predecessor and lovingly re-visit all these standards that no one else dares to look at. "Waiter, Make Mine Blues", "Man With A Horn" and of course fast-paced "Tea For Two" (O'Day's trademark) are all here, along with faithful renditions of "Skylark", "Pick Yourself Up" and the most of the music associated with O'Day - its a very enjoyable listening and it will probably turn you on to original recordings. 


"The Legendary Alberta Hunter The London Sessions" by Alberta Hunter (1934)

Famous blues mama Alberta Hunter had a music career that spanned almost the whole 20th century (with some breaks in between) and this might be the most unusual work in her recorded discography. Though she is best known as blues artist, she always considered herself a pop singer and the fact that she started as one of stars of "Black Swan Records" and "Paramount" now seems more as necessity and matter of race - back than, segregation kept artists pigeonholed and only people like Ethel Waters and Josephine Baker managed to cross over into wider market. Hunter might have wanted other things in life and she worked hard to widen her horizons - eventually she moved into elegant nightclubs and into theatre, where she famously performed in "Showboat" with Paul Robeson.

As expected, Europeans treated her differently than audiences back home - here, she wasn't just another black singer but a full-fledged star and this recordings give us a wonderful glimpse of Hunter as a dance band vocalist. Backed by Jack Jackson & His Orchestra, she performs songs by Cole Porter and Noël Coward that sounds light years away from risqué material of her former years - her joy and pleasure in this sophisticated music is very obvious and in fact even her style suits the material very well. Sure, this is not blues and perhaps life was unfair to constantly box her in that category, since Hunter was always perceived as blues artist (she ended her days singing risqué songs again) but this rare experiment shows Hunter in another universe, how her life could have been.

To fully understand the appeal of this music, one must check music popular in 1930s UK: artists like Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson, Adelaide Hall, Al Bowlly and Jessie Matthews were all the rage, often singing with a large dance band orchestras. It might have been just a chapter in her extremely long career but it sounds extremely interesting.


"Divas Volume 1. 1906-1935" by Various Artists (Nimbus Records)

This was the compilation that started my love affair with old 78 rpm recordings from a century ago. Back than, some two decades ago, I knew classical music just vaguely, had nobody to point me to that direction and was at that age where pop music was all I cared about. But the experience of working on the radio and seeing how it all works behind the scene soured my enthusiasm for pop music to the point that at home I turned to old jazz & blues recordings that I liked immensely precisely because it was another world. The sound of old, scratched recordings actually thrilled me and transported me to another dimension, it was like time machine - besides, after 1980s I got so tired of ubiquitous synthesisers and drum machines that were all the rage, hearing that sound everywhere made it all somehow plastic and uniformed. So I dived into old 1920s recordings of earliest blues artists and from here it was just a step into this.

Like always, it was nothing planned: I strolled casually trough my local library, looking for something else and voilà this compilation caught my attention. 
Took it home and enjoyed it immensely, because it opened new door to me - it also had nice liner notes with explanations who these people were and why they were so important in their times. In the meantime I became very familiar with British record company Nimbus Records whose sub-label Prima Voce lovingly restores these old, pre-WW2 classical recordings and keep them on the market for connoisseurs of this type of music. We are talking about gramophone with giant acoustic horn and recordings that had one song per side - something that Sherlock Holmes would have played at home (I was thrilled to discover that Romanovs in their court loved and collected some of the music compiled here). 

We are far removed from the times when these recordings were originally created; where classically trained soprano was once the most familiar and popular of voices, eclipsed by other forms of modern music, operatic soprano today is one of the most alien - it came to sound pompous and affected to majority of audience long removed from its popular appeal. Although authors like Rupert Christiansen claim this was the popular music of its time, I am not absolutely convinced that its appeal ever went beyond limits of urban cities and audiences who had access to theatres (and gramophone), however there is no doubt that people like Mozart and Bellini were hit makers of their time. Ladies represented here were huge stars with international following and although these recordings were very important in shaping future generations of singers (young Maria Callas idolised Claudia Muzio who is included here) we must not forget that in reality they were primarily live performers who cautiously approached this new recording business as novelty, never expecting the future will evaluate them on the strength of these recordings. Just a magical time machine experience and I am very glad to find this compilation again. 


Tošo Dabac

Beautiful old photo by famous Croatian photographer Tošo Dabac