The question has been asked again and again in this age of music reality shows in which a fickle public can make a recording star – at least for fifteen minutes – by dialing an 800 number or sending a text message. Truth to tell, Laura Branigan could have been any kind of artist she desired. Armed with a powerful, resonant and highly individual voice, Branigan worked her way up the ranks of stardom. She ultimately chose to embrace the sounds of contemporary pop, forever to be associated with the big, sleek sound of the 1980s. But if the late artist will inevitably be remembered for “Gloria” or “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” her body of work reveals a multi-faceted vocalist whose alto was excitingly adaptable. The first phase of Branigan’s all-too-short career gets its most comprehensive exploration yet thanks to Other Half Entertainment and Gold Legion’s expanded CD reissue of her debut album for Atlantic Records, 1982’s Branigan. This loving reminder of Branigan’s dynamic talent adds seven delicious bonuses – six of which predate the album itself.
German producer Jack White and his co-producer/arranger Greg Mathieson were enlisted by Atlantic to shape Branigan’s debut platter after a number of singles failed to establish the singular vocalist in the pop mainstream. (More on those later!) With an A-list band including Toto’s Steve Lukather on guitar, Leland Sklar and Bob Glaub on bass, Carlos Vega on drums and Michael Boddicker on synthesizers, plus Maxine and Julia Waters on background vocals, Atlantic wasn’t taking any chances. White was determined to showcase many facets of Branigan’s burnished voice, alternating ballads with rockers and perhaps most key, dance-oriented floor-fillers.
Branigan begins modestly enough. Opening cut (and the album’s leadoff single) “All Night with Me,” written by future Walt Disney Music President Chris Montan, is an adult contemporary mid-tempo ballad placing Branigan’s warm voice out front. She embellishes the soft verses with vulnerability and the hook-laden chorus with sweetly seductive confidence, but the smooth composition serves as mere prelude. Though it came second on the album, Umberto Tozzi, Giancarlo Bigazzi and Trevor Veitch’s “Gloria” is second to none in the Branigan songbook. The track exploded onto the turntable with a torrent of urgency; its fiery, anthemic arrangement by Greg Mathieson (who arranged the original Italian version of the song) with its commanding power chords was matched by Branigan’s furious vocal. If the singer kept her cards close to the vest on “All Night with Me,” she unleashed her inner tigress four minutes into Branigan on “Gloria.” Branigan’s plea to the titular lady to “slow down before you start to blow it” was delivered as if the lives of both the singer and the subject of her admonishment were on the line. The Americanized “Gloria,” with Veitch’s new lyrics, couldn’t miss. It proved to be a supremely fierce performance wrapped in an irresistibly catchy package for the post-disco generation of dancefloor dwellers. It took Branigan to the top of the Cash Box chart and No. 2 on Billboard.
Following “Gloria” would be no easy feat on any album, so White and Mathieson provided Branigan with a move away from dance and towards rock. Adrian John Loveridge and John Wonderling’s melodramatic “Lovin’ You Baby” burns with requisite passion and desperation (“How could I live? Where would I go and what would I give? What can I say? How do I stand…if there’s no more lovin’ you, baby?”). It wasn’t the only rock-oriented track on the nine-song album. Dive in – after the jump!
“Living a Lie,” by Dick St. Nicklaus and Sue Neal, opens with a virtual reprise of the three notes behind “Gloria,” launching with unrelenting speed into a furious, almost punk attack. As on “Gloria” (except this time with wailing electric guitars in serious competition with the synths), Branigan leaves no room for doubt as she sets the record straight for the person to whom she’s singing: “You’re living a lie, you’re wasting your time/Caught in a dream, you’re living a lie…” There aren’t many lyrics to the song, but she imbues each successive verse with a steely, raw determination to get her message across, her forceful voice increasingly flecked with grit.
“Please Stay, Go Away” and “Down Like a Rock,” the latter from “Just When I Needed You Most” balladeer Randy Van Warmer, are both in the same pulsating rock vein as “Living a Lie,” though far less breakneck. These songs showcased the edgier aspects of Branigan’s sound, which could have seen the vocalist competing for material with the likes of Pat Benatar or even Debbie Harry. They also showcased the talents of the top tier guitarists enlisted for the sessions: Trevor Veitch, Michael Landau and Steve Lukather. “Down Like a Rock” stands out for its Motown-inspired bassline that would have made James Jamerson proud, naturally reinvented with an eighties new wave gloss.
Branigan was one of the very first American artists to discover songwriter Diane Warren, and in fact, “Solitaire” from Branigan 2 would reward Warren with her first U.S. Top 10 hit. No fewer than four Warren songs would appear on Laura’s third album, Self-Control. Here, Warren made her first major splash with an archetypal power ballad (what else?). “If You Loved Me” was co-credited to The Doctor and sensitively arranged by Greg Mathieson, its opening chords even somewhat recalling Burt Bacharach’s “Stronger Than Before” from Carole Bayer Sager’s 1981 album Sometimes Late at Night. White’s production of Warren’s song capitalized on Branigan’s ability to draw listeners into her own, personal musical conversations; here, she’s speaking to a former lover (“Now that it’s over,” she confirms at one point), admonishing him about what he would do if he truly had loved her: “If you loved me/If you ever did before/You could find those feelings/And feel them all once more…” It’s a modern-day spin on a time-tested theme, delivered with sincerity and a big voice.
With strong contributions from so many others, Branigan’s own ability as a songwriter was overshadowed. “I Wish We Could Be Alone,” which compares favorably to Warren’s offering, marks Laura’s sole contribution as a songwriter to the LP. Its piano part adds a childlike simplicity that’s touching as Branigan sadly sings of a love that can never be, to the lover she can never have. The original album’s closing cut, “Maybe I Love You,” continued the thread of dialogues with lovers. Branigan veers from sweet coos to throaty yelps when nothing else will suffice, with power guitar rooting the ballad by Veitch, Mathieson and Alan Sorrenti firmly in the decade of its birth.
Seven rare bonus tracks flesh out this reissue. Of most interest are the six single sides which predate the original album. Once signed to Atlantic, Branigan was initially paired with Arif Mardin, possessor of “the greatest ears in town” and veteran producer/arranger for such greats as Bette Midler, Chaka Khan, Melissa Manchester and Aretha Franklin. The collaboration should have been made in heaven, but failed to click on a commercial level. In late 1980, Mardin matched Branigan for her debut 45 with “Fool’s Affair” from the pen of Richard Kerr (“Mandy,” “I’ll Never Love This Way Again”) and Troy Seals. If it’s not as strong or memorably dramatic a song as any of his hits – also including “Looks Like We Made It” and “Somewhere in the Night” – it gave an ample showcase for the purity and versatility of Branigan’s voice; she also blended beautifully with background vocalist Luther Vandross in Mardin’s typically classy production. (Manchester also recorded “Fool’s Affair” in 1980, on her For the Working Girl album.) It was backed with Laura’s own “When,” which boasts an intricate if busy arrangement buoyed by Latin-style percussion. “When” would reappear in 1985 as the flipside of Branigan’s rendition of “I Found Someone.”
1981’s “Looking Out for Number One,” by Eagles collaborator Jack Tempchin (“Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and Bill Bodine, upped the funk factor and rewarded Branigan with a minor Dance hit. It’s presented here in both its single version and Richie Rivera’s extended Midnight Mix. Its B-side, Robbie Seidman’s “Love Me Tonight,” was perhaps Mardin’s oddest choice for Branigan: a brisk, up-tempo slice of twangy country-pop. (Yet more Mardin tracks sit in the vault for an album reportedly entitled Silver Dreams, hopefully awaiting future excavation. Among these is an alternate album version of “Number One.”)
Producer Paul Shaffer of “It’s Raining Men” and Late Night/Show with David Letterman fame, teamed with Branigan in 1981 for an ebullient take on Bert Berns’ Exciters hit “Tell Him” which also failed to register. While these tracks might not have established a strong, identifiable sound for Branigan, so crucial for an up-and-coming talent, they make for fascinating listening today. Like Mardin had, Jack White and Greg Mathieson placed their star in varied musical settings, but their use of a core group of musicians and contemporary sensibility lent a consistency to Branigan that her early singles lacked. The disc is rounded out by the 12-inch mix of, naturally, “Gloria.”
As with Gold Legion’s 2013 reissue of Branigan’s 1984 Self Control, Christian John Wikane supplies a lengthy, entertaining account of the album’s history. Wikane has drawn on the vivid memories of Mathieson, White, Warren and Veitch to skillfully craft his detailed essay. Alas, there is no remastering credit for the disc – which sounds crisp and present – and discographical annotation is also missing. (Justin Smith was credited with remastering Self Control.) The initial pressing of Branigan is housed in a limited-edition slipcase which holds the CD in a standard jewel case.
Laura Branigan left us too soon, passing away in 2004 at the age of 47. Reissues such as this, however, will see to it that all the voices in your head keep calling Laura, an artist for any era.
You can order Branigan at Amazon U.S. and U.K., as well as from Laura’s online store!
- All Night with Me
- Lovin’ You Baby
- Living a Lie
- If You Loved Me
- Please Stay, Go Away
- I Wish We Could Be Alone
- Down Like a Rock
- Maybe I Love You
- Looking Out for Number One (Midnight Mix) (Atlantic single DMD 265, 1981)
- Fool’s Affair (Atlantic single 3770-A, 1980)
- Tell Him (Atlantic single 3846, 1981)
- Love Me Tonight (Atlantic single 3807-B, 1981)
- When (Atlantic single 3770-B, 1980)
- Looking Out for Number One (Atlantic single 3807-A, 1981)
- Gloria (12” Mix) (Atlantic 12-inch single DM 4835, 1982)