It seemed this album and I were bound to meet eventually. I kept seeing the cover in magazines, shop windows and websites, and slowly my resilience crumbled, my ignorance gave way to curiosity and genuine excitement, despite having absolutely no idea of the contents therein. Normally I’d ignore such matters, as most newish music is of little or no interest to me, but this time something was different. Take the album cover, for starters. A coy, over the shoulder glance, the beginnings of a smile... I was enticed, but not brazenly. She was beautiful and inviting, but without the drippings of raw sexuality that are used all too often to sell records. It seemed to me a friendly invite, one that would provide me with something much more than cheap thrills, something classy, but most importantly, nothing disappointing. I pondered on her image for a few days without doing any further research, and finally when I read a 5-star review of the album in the Daily Telegraph I could resist no longer. After checking out a few of the tracks on YouTube I was more than convinced, and immediately bought the Special Edition CD. I can’t remember the last time I paid full price for a brand new CD either, so this should give you some idea about how much I was looking forward to this album.
I’ve learned much in the meantime about Rumer. Her debut album Seasons of My Soul established her as master of lush, orchestral pop. Her voice, a sparkling jewel, a trickling steam of pure alpine water, a soft but penetrating light, is simply majestic. (Almost every review/commentary on Rumer’s voice makes a comparison with Karen Carpenter, and while the likeness is noteworthy, I think it’s casting a shadow over her. While it certainly is a compliment, [and not an unjust comparison] Rumer is her own person, and her style, while perhaps influenced by K.C. is certainly not derivative.) Equally adept at ballads and the more up-tempo soul outings, Rumer showed a great sensitivity and maturity on her debut. The lush arrangements a la Burt Bacharach attracted the praise of no less than, er, Burt Bacharach, who invited her to perform at his house in California. So now we are, two years later. Logically, the next step might have been to continue honing her songwriting talents, getting some more attention and releasing a second album of self-penned songs in the hope of getting a few hits. Thus, Boys Don’t Cry could perhaps be seen as a step backwards, consisting entirely of covers of 70’s soft rock songs by some of her favourite musicians. Not only that, but songs written entirely and performed by men. The title, Boys Don’t Cry, is most probably a reference to this, the steadfastness of the men, expressing their emotions through song and not tears. Maybe the album itself is a subtle critique of the music industry, implying it’s easier to get by in the business if you’re a man or that older music is superior? I don’t want to read too much into it, (I probably already have) however I think you could agree that for an up and coming artist, an album of covers is certainly a little unorthodox. You could, that is, until you hear it. Rumer’s voice and style is so perfectly suited to these compositions that her decision makes perfect sense. The album wouldn’t sound out of place were it released in 1972; even if I go back to the album cover for a moment: the sepia tone and classy design appear to be beckoning us back to this bygone era.
Sonically, Boys Don’t Cry isn’t a million miles away from her previous work. However, with this selection of songs she has wholly eliminated the whiffs of Adele-like self-depreciation that sometimes invaded Seasons of My Soul. In place of this comes a real sparkle to the upbeat songs and a determination in the sadder songs. Listen, for example, to the cover of Todd Rundgren’s Be Nice To Me, originally a drippy ballad that makes you want to slap Mr. Rundgren Don Corleone-style and cry “you can act like a man!” Rumer’s interpretation adds some swagger, with a lounge-jazz backdrop and her voice rising above the pity, pressing on with none of the defeatism of the original in an air of playfulness and hope. The Paul Williams ballad Travelin’ Boy is given a similar treatment, with the beauty of Rumer’s voice ultimately negating the regretful lyrics. A refreshing attitude no doubt, as if there’s one thing this generation does well, it’s moan. Sure, life’s tough, but stop beating yourself up about it and demanding sympathy and just get on with it; it’s what everybody else does. Even the most tender and mournful of ballads on this disc – Home Thoughts From Abroad – never regresses into floods-of-tears/I’m-going-to-shoot-myself territory. A lyrical tale of two lovers separated by the vast Atlantic, Rumer captures the heartache and deep anguish of the couple in an achingly compassionate manner, but one that ends with you feeling there’s a chance for them yet. And on the flipside, Rumer sounds perfectly at ease on Isaac Hayes’ Soulsville, a deeply soulful tale of social injustice in the black community. Or how about Sara Smile, Hall & Oates’ first big hit: backed with bluesy horns and piano, her voice swings and soars, getting hooked into those funky sounds and expressing her voice in a way that makes my heart melt. She’s a true artist, one with an abundance of talent, but the humbleness to acknowledge her debt to her influences in this album. But honestly, if you weren’t familiar with the original songs you wouldn’t think they were covers at all. Nothing sounds forced, there’s not a note out of place: her ability to carry songs and transform them into her own is simply resplendent.
“Pop music doesn’t necessarily have to be shit,” Gil Scott-Heron once said, and it’s absolutely bang on the money. I’m not saying all pop music is bad; it’s just that most bad music happens to be pop. It doesn’t have to be this way, though, and when a wellspring of intelligent, soulful pop music bursts through the ravine of turgid emotionless crap, I am extremely grateful. Rumer has done just that, although with an album of cover songs I’m sure she will attract plenty of skeptics. You’re always going to get detractors though, and rarely would they be less deserved than now. Rumer is a shining knight in the current music scene with a golden voice as her weapon. It might not be the most modern sounding of albums, but does that matter? A lot of musicians could stand to learn from her.
Words - Adam