Friday, November 17, 2006

Songs To Learn And Sing #17

If you're just joining us, this is the feature where a series of bloggers and randoms are selecting the song they think you should know about. Doing so effusively today, Neil from Music Like Dirt:

Esther Phillips - Home Is Where The Hatred Is

On Monday December 13th 1971 in a studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Esther Phillips performed a cover version that to this day almost 35 years later remains one of the finest soul recordings ever committed to tape. Cover versions are much maligned, too often tossed out as a cheap B-side or worse still what's commonly known as the 'Jo Whiley', which if I leaf through the dictionary I find described as "ironic, wacky and always unbearable cover version, often of an R&B track performed by insipid indie guitar group (see entry for The Kooks)".

Home Is Where The Hatred Is was originally written and recorded by Gil Scott Heron and is itself something of a classic, so this was not something to take on lightly. Esther however was a formidable woman and produced a performance - aided and abetted by some of the finest backing musicians - of such remarkable intensity and beauty that it, in my opinion at least, outstrips the original.

It can be safely said that Esther Phillips experienced more highs and lows than most. From the moment she recorded her first track at just 14 years old, her life was, as Ronan Keeting once said, a rollercoaster. Known originally as Little Ester, she was within a few years chronically addicted to heroin while still just a teenager. It was an addiction which caused her to record infrequently through the fifties, almost dropping out of music altogether, before making a comeback in 1962 when her version of the country standard Release Me became a hit (yes, the Englebert Humperdink one) Almost immediately her record label went bankrupt. She was by now no longer Little Ester, if myth be believed the surname picked up when she passed a Phillips gas station.

She continued to battle drug and personal problems in the 60's, but for all the lows there were some highs. Signing for Atlantic, an inspired cover of And I Love Her (re-titled with a Him) brought her to the attention of the Beatles, who brought her over to the UK in 1965 to appear on a special edition of the BBC's Ready, Steady, Go.

Home is Where The Hatred Is was recorded for another new label - the fledgling Kudo - and after yet another spell in rehab. The lyrics lay out a stark tale of the destruction wrought by a lifetime of addiction, a fairly daring subject for Esther to tackle, and she later admitted that it was the hardest lyric she's ever performed.

[blockquote]"Stand as far away from me as you can, and ask me why
Hang on to your rosary beads... close your eyes to watch me die"[/blockquote]

But what a performance! Phillips, in possession one of the truly classic expressive soul voices (part Nina Simone, but also fully her own), drew on what was by now a sixteen year battle with drug abuse to put that emotion in every line and syllable. At points her voice seems close to breaking while at others she sounds fiercely defiant.

And it's not just the vocal performance that makes this one of the most painfully beautiful records ever made. Kudu saw Esther as their prime act and as such drafted in the finest backing group they could possibly assemble. Nowadays people rarely bother to record with real string sections due to cost and the ready availability of fairly decent keyboard versions, but here the strings are breathtaking. There are about ten seconds which when I first heard the record (on Coldcut's seminal Solid Steel radio show) sent shivers down my spine and caused me to rewind and repeat, rewind and repeat, rewind and repeat. As Esther sings "home is where I live inside my white powder dreams" the strings reply in dramatic defiant fashion, but then as she follows "home was once an empty vacuum that's filled now... with my silent screams" they almost scream for her. If I had to pick my favourite ten seconds of music of all time this would probably be it. I can't adequately describe how good it is.

Listen to the track with headphones on or with decent speakers to appreciate the mix which seems to pluck out every instrument and afford them a tiny bit of the sound spectrum that is theirs alone. Stereo doesn't get used like this much any more either, so you get the delicious alto sax of Hank Crawford in the left ear while perhaps a trumpet comes in on the right. The arrangement was done by Pee Wee Ellis and the impeccable drums by James Brown's stickman Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie. From the backing singers and keyboards to the guitars the names involved are like a who's who of the finest musicians of the era. Nominated for a Grammy in 1972, the album lost out to the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted And Black. Aretha promptly gave the Grammy to Phillips saying that From A Whisper To A Scream quite simply deserved it more.

As a student I remember stumbling across a vinyl copy for a fairly ridiculous amount of money in a long defunct record shop in Kentish Town. These were after all the days when some albums were pretty hard to find, or at least harder than typing an artist's name into Soulseek and then ten minutes later possessing everything they ever recorded. Thankfully in the 1990s the track became widely available as part of the Blaxploitation compilations and on a fantastic best of the Kudu years CD. If you don't already own the album or any of these compilations a tenner will never be better spent. Delete the MP3 (or record it at a higher quality), chuck everyone out the house, draw the curtains, turn off the lights and sit in the middle of the speakers and soak up the majesty of this recording. Wonderful!

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