artist background and album reviews
Reviews © Stephen Lambe 2001
Edited by and HTML © Russell W Elliot 2001
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Last updated: 07 December 2001
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Musical Discoveries editors were first introduced to Judie Tzuke's music more than two years ago by Dublin, Ireland correspondent Richard Moloney (see our jointly written review of Iona in Southampton, 1997). The recent release of Judie Tzuke's album Queen Secret Keeper has been the inspiration to summarise her background and to review four of her latest releases on the independent label Big Moon Records. Her albums can be purchased online at her website. Click on any image within the article to point your browser there.
Though she may well be a new name to visitors of this website, Surrey, UK-based Judie Tzuke has quite a history. She first hit the “big time” in 1979 with a hit single, the aching ballad “Stay with me til dawn,” and followed it up with an excellent debut album for Elton John’s Rocket Records, Welcome to the Cruise. Judie never repeated that success in the singles market, yet she has had a strong succession of hit albums and, having put together an excellent and loyal band, including song-writing partner Mike Paxman on guitar, maintained a strong live following.
Many of her supporters were rock fans, who enjoyed the contrast her fragile, emotional song-writing, with doses of melodic hard rock, ethereal ballads and various inventive points betwixt and between. Her “English Rose” beauty might have been something to do with it as well, but we like to think it was her dynamic, mobile, passionate voice that did the trick!
The early 80s were good years. “Sportscar,” “I am the Phoenix”, “Shoot the Moon” (a personal favourite) were all excellent examples of her craft, and the corresponding tours all saw her growing more confident and the band more ambitious. The live album from 1982 Road Noise was a fair, if slightly sterile representation of the early 80s band at its height.
However, Judie never really made it outside Britain, and sales started to drop. Ritmo was still a success, though a little more experimental with a few tracks dabbling in atmospherics, but The Cat is Out was a clear attempt to pull the music into the “sound” of the mid-80s, and it comes across as rather dated now. The subsequent tour, however, was very ambitious and is recorded for posterity on an excellent region 2 DVD available from her website, www.tzuke.com.
In the late 80s and early 90s, was a period of relative decline. The record deals got worse, and the albums became less frequent and patchier. Frustrated by this, but encouraged by the development in the Internet in the mid-90s, she and long time collaborators Mike Paxman and Paul Muggleton (now her partner) formed their own record label “Big Moon Records” and launched their website.
This gave them complete creative control, but was obviously financially risky, especially as the planned to sell their product ONLY by mail order and through the website. The first recorded output was Under the Angels (BM001) in 1996, a return to form. Though the music had lost many of its hard edges, the song-writing was still excellent.
Encouraged by this, they then put out Over The Moon (BM002), a live album recorded on the subsequent UK tours in 1997. It is an excellent summary of the best material from the early and mid-90s. It shows Judie singing as well as ever, with a well drilled band playing with skill. Its thirteen tracks include only three songs from her 80s heyday, the aforementioned “Stay with me til Dawn”, a simple piano and vocal arrangement of the ballad “For You” from “Welcome to the Cruise” and the ethereal “Higher and Higher” from I Am the Phoenix.
A funky version of “Wonderland”, the gentle “Fly,” the simple “Man and a Gun” and a rather rocky version of “Vivien,” still a live favourite, represent 1992's Wonderland, while the anthemic “One day I will live in France” and gentle title track represent the disappointing “Left Hand Talking” from 1991.
Though Mike Paxman was still very much involved behind the scenes, Judie was now working with a different guitarist, the talented David P. Goodes, and his qualities are best exposed on “Let me be the Pearl,” a dramatic song, bolstered by a blistering hard rock solo. Further drama is supplied by the superb “Under the Angels” from the album of the same name. This album also provides “Two Mountains” and the beautiful, fragile “Joan of Arc”.
Secret Agent (BM003) released in 1998 is perhaps the Judies best “later” album. Some of her band from the 1997 tour, including Goodes, had stayed on, injecting even more life into the music. “Tonight” kicks off the album in fine style, a simple, up-tempo song with a glorious chorus awash with harmony vocals, and makes subtle use of drum loops. “Swallowing” starts with a little more atmosphere, but soon breaks into another memorable chorus. “Both Alone” opens with chiming electric piano and a simple drum loop, with Judie’s vocals high in the mix.
The mantra-like ‘I’m here for you’ line leads into a gentle acoustic guitar solo from Goodes. “That’s where my heart used to be” uses a distinctive “effect” on Judie’s voice, but also uses male backing vocals in the chorus to great effect in what is otherwise a routine mid-paced song, while “The Girl I want to be” is also pleasantly melodic, but unremarkable with acoustic guitar again prominent.
“Secret Agent”, however, kicks the album back into life with surprising power and passion. A spine-tingling ballad full of drama and some astonishing singing from Judie, it starts quietly, making good use of a string section, but by the second chorus it has grabbed the emotions completely--an epic in four minutes, and an instant classic.
The album takes a breather with the chirpy “Little Cloud,” which continues the effective use of drum loops and acoustic guitar, but the feel changes completely with “Dancing on Charcoal," which uses exotic percussion, nylon guitar and choral vocals to set an angelic, African mood, and adds the sweet backing vocals of Bailey, Judie’s young daughter to excellent effect.
The jazzy, glorious “Fuel Injection” is another album high point, the gentle verse giving way to a spine-tingling chorus. “Bully” is another classic, and is Judie’s most aggressive song since the early 80s. It starts atmospherically with heavy drums, but builds to a wailing guitar solo and almost shouted backing vocals fully expressing the anger and frustration in the lyrics. It feels like this should be the last track on the album, so “Move On,” though pleasant, can’t really compete with what has gone before. “Mother” is an excellent album closer, using gentle vocals, piano and strings at the start then bringing in percussion, guitar and layered backing vocals to add power and emotion.
Judie toured with Secret Agent in 1999, but in 2000 she won back the rights to, and re-released, her first three albums. The subsequent promotional tour was a particular pleasure for old fans, as she re-introduced some tracks from these albums to the live set, some of which she had not played for 20 years! A number of these are represented on her latest live album Six Days Before The Flood (BM 007). The title refers to the terrible floods in the South of England in the Autumn of 2000.
Judie had assembled another superb band, including the ever-present David P. Goodes, and this collection is an interesting one with the old songs “Welcome to the Cruise” (with “Baba Riley” style guitar intro), “Living on the Coast”, delightful ballad “Understanding” and especially the wonderfully intense “Sportscar” requiring her to rock out uncharacteristically. Also featured are excellent versions of “Bully”, “That’s where my heart used to be” and the title track from “Secret Agent”, while, unusually, there are four tracks from her, at that time, unreleased and unnamed new album. More of these later!
The set is completed by a gentle Russ Ballard cover “I don’t believe in miracles,” a taster for a covers album (which, at time of writing, has yet to appear). All in all, a faithful, well produced souvenir of an excellent tour.
Having included four songs from the forthcoming album on Six Days before the flood, it was something of a surprise that when Queen Secret Keeper (BM008) eventually appeared in the middle of 2001, the tone of the finished versions had changed considerably. The album seemed to be a deliberate attempt at “modernisation.” An artistic decision or a commercial one? Whichever the reason, it seems to have split fans, and is a significant departure from the dynamics of previous offerings, using drum loops to give the music a “groove” which gives it a more current, chilled out feel. Though the album never quite reaches the heights of Secret Agent there is still much to enjoy.
“Don’t Look Behind You” starts the album in typical fashion with acoustic guitar and synth combining with a drum and bass style drum loop low in the mix, and a breathy vocal from Judie. “The One That Got Away,” featured on the previous live album has a more traditional feel, though it has been taken down a notch from the live version, using brushes on the snare. The gorgeous chorus remains intact, though.
“Do You” is a rather mediocre showcase for Pino Palladino’s guitar and bass work over another drum loop, though the soulful backing vocals are rather effective. “123" is far more satisfactory, the dynamics of the song perfectly complementing the groove, with Judie’s vocals managing some genuine urgency. “Drive” is pleasant enough, with real drums for a change, but seems to me to be a bit of a plod, and BBC Radio 2 DJ Bob Harris--a fan and long-time supporter of Judie’s work--provides an exceptionally cheesy voice over. “Indian Giver” is, however, a stand-out moment, combining a drum loop with a slightly rockier feel and a lovely chorus.
Though “Days like These” has a slightly different feel to its previous live version, it retains its beauty. “All of Me,” however, is transformed from a fairly standard mid-tempo rock song with guitar solo, into something more urgent and keyboard orientated and the ballad “One Minute” loses a little passion for the sake of smoothness, with a drum loop that would simply not have been there at all on previous albums. “Little Diva,” is a weaker track, but “Breathless” is much stronger with a pleasing chorus and a telling jazz guitar break.
Set closer, “Lion," thankfully is another Tzuke classic, with a big, “Beatle-y” feel that reminds me of “I am the Walrus” and the sort of epic chorus we have come to expect.
So that brings us up to date. Judie and her loyal team of collaborators and friends have continued to make great music over 20 years. She is a wonderful, expressive, and very English-sounding singer, and a writer of melodic, accessible, intelligent songs. She deserves a wider audience--in the UK and outside it--and hopefully this review will go some way to helping her with that. For further detail, visit her excellent website at www.tzuke.com.
Many of Judie's albums can also be purchased at amazon.com here.
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