Cassidy Compilation Convinces

Perhaps you've heard the story by now. It was too good/sad to be true when I caught it a few years ago on CBS's "Sunday Morning." Cassidy was a Washington D.C. cult phenomenon who, it was said, could sing anything from the roughest-edged soul to the most delicate folk. The painfully shy blonde had trouble in front of a live audience but she had her supporters, including Chuck Brown, the innovator of the short-lived D.C. soul/dance/P-Funk-like phenomenon called "Go Go." The idea seemed to be to build it into a genre, competing with what was happening in New York City, but rap and hip-hop overshadowed it. If you can find a copy of Go Go Crankin': Paint the White House Black--a Go Go compilation issued in 1985 on Island subsidiary, 4th & Broadway (Broadway 4001)--you'll get the picture. It's still great party music, and tracks like "Drop the Bomb" by Trouble Funk still pack a powerful punch.

But back to our story: in 1992 Chuck Brown produced The Other Side, a duet album with Cassidy that included, of all things, a tender solo version of Cassidy's "Over the Rainbow." Her first solo album, Live at Blues Alley (recorded in January 1996) was issued locally in the D.C. area that fall, but by then she was seriously ill with a particularly virulent cancer (metastatic melanoma), and she passed away on November 2 at the age of 33.

It was only after her passing that the fame train left the station, slowly at first with the album selling "in the thousands," but from there a cult phenomenon developed and her fame spread, gaining her fans throughout the world. A posthumously issued album, Eva By Heart, followed, and then came this compilation, which includes songs from all three of her albums--though only "Over the Rainbow" was pulled from The Other Side.

Hearing the made-for-a-TV-movie story and reading the song titles (including "Autumn Leaves," "Wade in the Water," "People Get Ready," "Songbird," "Over the Rainbow," and Sting's "Fields of Gold"), I was wary of getting hooked by the melodrama, or, for that matter, coerced into listening to renditions of those moldy tunes, no matter how well done. I figured: local production, local talent, and a legend driven worldwide more by an exquisite tragedy than by talent.

Recently a friend gave me the Songbird CD, and I was converted. Yes, the production is simple, spare, and occasionally "local" sounding, but it's also extremely tasteful and resourceful (real violin and cello instead of synth), despite the slightly stale (but thankfully modestly applied) reverb. And yes, some of the song choices are kind of blah, but what makes an artist great is the ability to transcend circumstances, and this Cassidy does. The global response is to her voice, not her sad story.

You don't need to read James Gavin's excellent telling of the story (from which I've freely drawn for this review) to feel the supportive vibe on the disc. Cassidy's voice is so overwhelming that her evocative acoustic guitar work hardly gets mentioned, but when you listen, you realize she's a "full service" artist. Considering that she was once too shy to sing in public, the live tracks from the Blues Alley album are all the more impressive for their polish, purity, and communicative brilliance. I guess for continuity's sake, the compiler chose to edit out the applause after the live tracks, which is a shame. It would have been nice to hear the audience response.

When supporters say Cassidy could sing anything, they weren't kidding. Listen to her soar on "Time Is A Healer" and you'll find she could sing soul with Aretha's intensity and control (if not quite with the same power) and folk like Sandy Denny or Pentangle's Jacqui McShee. Wherever she took her voice, from a whisper to a shout, she maintained an astounding Merlot-like smoothness and suppleness. Contrast her take on "Songbird" with Christine McVie's original. Don't expect me to do it here, though--I'm asking you to do it by checking out this album. While the lounge-club arrangement falls short of the perfection of Fleetwood Mac's, Cassidy's vocals (lead and background) take the song in a totally different emotional direction.

As for comparisons between the CD and the limited-edition LP (which was mastered by Nick Webb at Abbey Road and pressed at the meticulous German Pallas plant), I have no illusions about the source tape: this is a compilation, and I'd be surprised if some kind of standard-grade digital apparatus wasn't used in its assembly. Nonetheless, the LP, with its black backgrounds and rich midband textures, brings Cassidy fleetingly back to life while the stylus navigates the grooves. The LP packaging, with its embossed gold lettering, is also superior to the CD. The CD sounds merely "very good." Whatever Nick Webb did (and he's given "further" mastering credit on the LP version), it worked!