Review: Belinda Carlisle Deluxe Remasters From Edsel (1987-1993)
As lead singer of California rock group The Go-Go’s, Belinda Carlisle conclusively proved that she, indeed, had the beat. In her solo career, she applied her powerfully soaring pipes – one minute honeyed, the next smoky – to some of the most iconic pop songs of the era. Edsel has recently repackaged Carlisle’s second through fifth albums as truly deluxe, hardbound 2-CD/1-DVD editions, and they’re a nostalgic trip back to the days when power ballads ruled the radio and one singer stood at the front of the pack.
When The Go-Go’s disbanded in the spring of 1985 after three hit albums including the 1981 chart-topper Beauty and the Beat, Carlisle seized the opportunity to go solo. The result was the 1986 IRS Records release Belinda. Produced by Michael Lloyd, it yielded a No. 3 U.S. hit with “Mad About You.” Some songs were written by Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s. Susanna Hoffs of another groundbreaking group of eighties girls, The Bangles, co-wrote “I Need a Disguise.” Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham was one of the writers behind “Since You’ve Gone,” and Carlisle herself shared writing credits on “Gotta Get to You.” Covers of Split Enz (“Stuff and Nonsense”) and Freda Payne (“Band of Gold”) rounded out the album which peaked at No. 13 in the United States.
After the jump, we’ll take an album-by-album look at Edsel’s newly remastered and expanded reissues!
Carlisle was set to do even better, though, with her Virgin Records debut, Heaven on Earth (1987). The snappy 10-track album was built around the effervescent almost-title track “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” With its infectious chorus, it’s one of the quintessential pop tunes of the 1980s and became Carlisle’s only U.S. No. 1 hit. It repeated its top-of-the-charts success in numerous other territories including England. Rick Nowels, co-writer of “Heaven” with Ellen Shipley, produced and arranged the LP which also spawned two more hits. There was nothing weak about Carlisle’s empowered delivery of Diane Warren’s “I Get Weak” (No. 2 U.S./No. 10 U.K.), while Nowels and Shipley’s haunting “Circle in the Sand” (No. 7 U.S./No. 4 U.K.) matched Carlisle’s strong vocal with an atmospheric arrangement intrinsic to the song.
Most of the songs on Heaven naturally revolved around the vagaries of love and relationships, ending, appropriately enough, with the declaration that “Love Never Dies” in the song co-written by Charlotte Caffey, Thomas Caffey and Nowels. Carlisle’s voice distinguished itself with its hint of husk and grit, lending gravity to even the frothiest and most pop-oriented pieces on the LP. Diane Warren supplied the kind of hook-laden songs that made her synonymous with the power ballad; in addition to “I Get Weak,” she gifted Carlisle with “A World Without You,” a less subtle variation on Tony Asher’s lyric to Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows.” Carlisle didn’t turn her back entirely on rock, however. Guitars wail on tracks like “Should I Let You In” and “Nobody Owns Me,” and the latter has one of her most aggressive vocals on the album. Following the cover versions on Belinda, Heaven also included an unusual, modernized cover of Cream’s hypnotic “I Feel Free.” It was overlaid with the expected layer of eighties gloss, but was nonetheless an effective and striking reinterpretation.
Every one of Edsel’s discs in this series is packed to the brim, generally following the format of Single Versions on the first CD following the original album sequence, and Remixes and other bonus material on the second disc. There are seven 7-inch single versions here, and a whopping 12 remixes by William Orbit and Shep Pettibone. Every one of the bonus tracks included on the 2009 Special Edition reissue has been reprised here. The DVD in each title includes music videos and brand-new interviews about each album with Carlisle. The Heaven on Earth package is perhaps the most desirable, though, as its DVD also includes the complete Belinda Live! concert from her Good Heavens Tour.
1989’s Runaway Horses fared almost as well as Heaven, and was graced by the presence of not just Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, but bona fide legend and Carlisle fan George Harrison. It was rewarded with a Top 5 placement in the U.K. but without a Top 10 single success domestically, the album didn’t score in America. The lack of U.S. success might be attributed to its more adventurous sound, again overseen by Rick Nowels. A conscious choice was made to give the album a flavor more European than American West Coast. Some tracks were recorded in France, inspiration was taken from the Louvre, and Marseilles was even referenced in a lyric. As Justin Kantor’s illuminating liner notes reveal, Belinda also desired to continue recording in an “authentic” rock style, rather than recording ballads a la Whitney Houston.
Nowels and Shipley’s “Leave a Light On,” with an indelible and reassuring slide guitar solo from Harrison, peaked at No. 11 in America. Harrison also contributed his distinctive tone to six-string bass and twelve-string guitar parts on the fierce “Deep, Deep Ocean.” Strings swelled on the second single, the evocative “Summer Rain,” which showcased Carlisle’s sensual side. But the Robbie Seidman/Maria Vidal song got no higher than a U.S. No. 30 perch. Both songs did better in the U.K., with “Leave a Light On” hitting No. 4 and “Summer Rain” No. 23. The passionate title track composed by Nowels and Shipley seemed to reflect the personal trajectory the solo Carlisle was on: “Runaway horses/Ooo baby hold on tight/Racing through the darkness/Trying to find a light/You and I on runaway horses/Baby hold on tight.” Carlisle later revealed the demons she was fighting in her personal life, but her music was very much pointing her towards the light – almost always with a sing-along song! Carlisle’s darker side was also indulged on the post-breakup reflection of “Vision of You.” A harder edge could be heard on “(We Want) The Same Thing,” with searing guitar and an anthemic quality.
Spanish guitar, accordion and gypsy violin added new textures and cinematic flavor to “La Luna,” like “Vision” and “Same Thing” written by the prolific Nowels/Shipley team. Carlisle and Charlotte Caffey co-wrote the equally intriguing closing cut “Shades of Michelangelo.” Reflecting on the song, Carlisle noted its hint of melancholy. This is clearest in the florid, poetic lyrics (“A still life portrait/A view from my window/Touched by innocence/Now fading away/Into a quiet storm/Of the tears of the angels/Falling around me/As I’m watching the days…”) that cede to a more optimistic tone and imagery of “a tomorrow so bright.” Not that brightness was absent from Runaway Horses; “Whatever It Takes” was a sunny expression of deep love. Though it was intended as a duet with Bryan Adams, record company politics caused Adams’ vocals to be mixed low in the final version. Edsel’s reissue adds seven single bonuses on Disc One, and another ten on the second disc from a variety of remixers including Peter Arata, Rick Nowels, Steve Beltran, Justin Strauss, Daniel Abraham and Jason Corsaro.
A Go-Go’s reunion in 1990 was a well-received diversion for Carlisle, and preceded 1991’s Live Your Life Be Free, a return to the more sixties-inspired sound of both the Go-Go’s and her IRS album. Though the LP didn’t chart in the U.S., Live Your Life earned Carlisle her final U.S. hit single to date (Nowels and Shipley’s brisk and lusty “Do You Feel Like I Feel”) and hit the Top 10 overseas. Nowels co-produced Live Your Life, this time with Richard Feldman, Eric Pressly and David Munday. Carlisle admitted in her 2010 autobiography that The Boston Globe “had a point” when the newspaper called the LP “emotionally vapid.” Though her assessment of the album is a bit harsh, it does pale in comparison to its two predecessors. The Nowels/Shipley title track, which opened the album, was the big sing-along song everyone expected from the pop star. A persuasive argument to “be with me,” it features a “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”-like guitar riff and an empowering chorus.
There’s fire, too, on Nowels’ “You’re Nothing Without Me” (“You’re nothing without me/I wouldn’t walk out that door/Or you may find out the hard way/Just what love is for…”) which was inspired by a conversation with Bette Midler and molded in the style of The Exciters’ “Tell Him.” Tough guitar and dense production mark “I Plead Insanity,” and surf guitar adds to the rich atmosphere of “Emotional Highway.” That said, the song –with its ominous main riff – cries out for actual horns rather than keyboards. Midler wasn’t the only other superstar to inspire a track on Live Your Life. Nowels’ “Love Revolution,” with its fine acoustic guitar work, was originally penned for Daryl Hall and John Oates!
Carlisle also attempted to channel a “Burt Bacharach sort of style,” as she puts it in Kantor’s liner notes, into “You Came Out of Nowhere.” His distinctive style is rather hard to detect in the contemporary arrangement, but there is a breezy sweetness about the track nonetheless. Written by Carlisle, Richard Feldman and Marcy Levy, “Little Black Book” instead seems the tribute to Bacharach both with its title and its reference to “You’re always there to remind me.” The lyric also references numerous other pop songs in lines like, “Yesterday is the only place we’ll ever know” or “Day by day, time slips away/Where did our love go?” This pleasant track is enhanced by Pat Seymour’s string chart. Future superstar Sheryl Crow (as Cherryl Crow) sings background vocals on this track and two others on the LP including the pretty MOR ballad “Half the World.”
“The Loneliness Game” by Carlisle and Eric Pressly concludes the album on an ironically upbeat note, as the lyric is downbeat and seemingly intensely personal: “Inside I know what you’re thinking/She’s too pretty to be sad/She’s too rich to cry/She’s no different/She’s just the same/No one’s left out of this loneliness game…” It’s all too easy to read into the lyrics.
The first disc contains four single edits, one of which is previously unissued; for this album, the eight remixes (including four previously unreleased tracks) have been bolstered by two B-sides, “Only a Dream” and “The Air You Breathe.” These Richard Feldman-produced tracks are as strong as any of the material on the album itself, especially the insistently catchy “The Air I Breathe.”
The Best of Belinda Volume One was issued to tremendous European success in 1992, and renamed Her Greatest Hits stateside. The next year, Carlisle issued her final Virgin LP. Real met with great success in Europe. It was her fifth consecutive album to go Top 10 in the U.K., and preceded another Go-Go’s go-round. In America, it landed on largely deaf ears. Ralph Schuckett, Charlotte Caffey, Thomas Caffey and Carlisle herself assumed production duties from Rick Nowels, and the stylistic shift was immediately evident from the opening salvo, “Goodbye Day.” Schuckett was the husband of Ellen Shipley, co-writer with Nowels of nine of Belinda’s hits between 1987 and 1991, and his C.V. included work with icons like Carole King and Todd Rundgren. Schuckett was tasked with returning the Go-Go’s lead singer to her punk roots with a back-to-basics rock record. And so there was nothing shiny or glossy about “Goodbye Day,” which kicked off the album with another kiss-off to a departed lover. Drum loops gave a contemporary edge to a number of tracks including “Too Much Water” (also adorned with elegiac strings), but Real stood apart as a mature return to guitar-based rock with just enough pop sensibilities to retain Carlisle’s fan base.
The punchy sounds of “Big Scary Animal,” a U.K. Top 10 retitled “It’s Too Real” for the American market, are contrasted by the fragile, vulnerable Belinda on “Where Love Hides.” Carlisle aimed for Real to be a more adult look at relationships, and so there’s marked uncertainty in “Tell Me” in which the narrator begs “Tell me your darkest secret…I’ll tell you mine.” Perhaps the album’s biggest production is “One with You,” an intense invitation for intimacy (“I wanna be one with you/Get down to the real emotion/I wanna let love break through/We can kiss the truth…”) Unfortunately, the track entitled “Windows of the World” isn’t the sublime Burt Bacharach/Hal David song but rather a bouncy, new pop composition from Carlisle and the Caffeys. (All told, Beilnda co-wrote six of the songs on the album, demonstrating her great growth as a songwriter.) The passionate “Here Comes My Baby” ends the album on a dramatic high note.
The second disc of Real doesn’t include remixes, but rather, six demos, three songs recorded in 1999 for a greatest-hits compilation, and three live B-sides recorded in 1998 at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater. These demos – three songs that made the album and three that didn’t – are in a fully-produced vein, and are a complete treat. “What’cha Doin’ to Me” rides a sexy Stevie Nicks-esque groove, and “Change” offers another introspective and possibly autobiographical lyric from the soul-searching artist: “Found everything she wants that money can buy/But she is lost somewhere in between the lines/Ohhh, inside she’s crying/Her whole world is dying…” Of the A Place on Earth: The Greatest Hits material, a dance beat enlivens “A Prayer for Everyone” and “All God’s Children.” “Feels Like I’ve Known You Forever” is fresh and beguiling.
This series is perhaps the best to emerge from the Edsel camp since the acclaimed round of Everything But the Girl reissues, and production manager Val Jennings and designer Jools Williamson are to be commended on these comprehensive sets. Phil Kinrade has crisply remastered all albums and bonus content. The lavish hardbound books are loaded with photographs, lyrics, personnel and album discographical annotation, and of course, Kantor’s superb essays drawing on new contributions from Carlisle. (Oddly, discographical information has been left out for all of the various single permutations.) The lyrics are one of the many wonderful touches in these invaluable packages.
The DVDs are an integral part of each set. Fans will delight in having Carlisle’s music videos with each album, but the real prizes are Mark Goodier’s new interviews with the singer. Speaking to the unseen Goodier, the singer is relaxed, candid and down-to-earth. It’s a relatively rare opportunity to see and hear an artist reflecting on an album in depth – its songs, its videos, its place in her career and even its affect on her personal life. These interviews (each edited from one session, it appears) range from 8 minutes’ length (Live Your Life Be Free) to 22 minutes (Real). Carlisle speaks with affection for many of her collaborators over the years including Rick Nowels, Diane Warren, Michelle and Chynna Phillips, and especially Brian Wilson, whom she cites as “inspirational” and someone who “changed how I look at things.” She also reflects on her “serious disagreements with record company people,” but is looking back from a fine and contented place.
In 2013, Belinda Carlisle released her first U.S. single in seventeen years, the uptempo “Sun,” as part of UMe’s Icon series of no-frills greatest-hits packages. It’s unclear whether she will make a full return to the world of pop music, but until then, Edsel’s series is a winning reminder of the fun and heavenly music she’s already given the earth.
You can order each title by clicking on the cover artwork, above!