Monday, July 16, 2007


I saw a picture and short interview with Anna Domino in Interview in what must have been 1986, when she was promoting her eponymous debut album and its single 'Summer'. I wish I still had that page; I remember the image fairly well. It showed her in close profile, a pretty and slightly exotic blonde, made more exotic by the fact that her haircut was a severe bob to about her ear, with everything below that point shaved to the skin. And I remember the article quoting her talking about how she was uncomfortable with how timid she sounded on the record. I thought, who is this woman?

I went out and found the 12" single of 'Summer', and it sounded nothing like I would have guessed. A horn section, piano and bass in a barely post-big-band arrangement; the first thing to suggest that it isn't actually a fifties traditional pop record is the slightly more modern drum arrangement clicking away. And then Anna's voice - a somewhat unexpressive but thoughtful alto, possibly Marlene Dietrich without the accent. Her doubled vocal starts, 'They say that summer won't last for long / What if it never comes? / And I did not know it would be so soon / that I'd wake and find it gone / All that magic, heat and light / last summer'.

It's a charming pop song that is intentionally vintage-sounding in order to play up its innocence and ingenuousness. And yet. And yet, there is a palpable darkness to this song. It comes from Anna's unemotional delivery (which is not a drawback in this case), and from the tense that shifts around; it seems she is both wistful about last summer and nervous about the coming one, so it must be winter. And there is darkness in the slightly less-than-peppy reading from the band, too. This is 'Happy days' on maybe half a valium. Or Brenda Lee rockin' around the Christmas tree without the sass. On the 12" remix of 'Summer' (by the legendary Arthur Baker) there's a somnambulent background vocal from a barely more expressive man.

But the balance is carefully struck; this is neither a downer nor an upper of a song. There is no romance here; Anna did not have her a blast with some summer lovin', nor does she seem to expect to. The simple naturalism of the lyrics is another departure from the fifties: 'It'll stay cold all night / 'til the world turns once from sun to moon / Midnight fades at dawn / and summer comes in on a blaze of color'. It's so beautifully strange - a pastoral lyric set to music from an era when pop was barely acquainted with rock and roll, yet cool and unmistakably modern in its angst.

The rest of Anna Domino's first album offers a diversity of related concoctions. There is a jazz reggae reading of Smokey Robinson's 'The hunter gets captured by the game'. 'Rythm' takes the music from West Side Story's 'Cool' ('Boy, boy / crazy boy...') but sings a tribute to the mystique of African women over it. 'My man' is a kaleidescopic retake on Billy Myles's sixties R&B standard 'My love is'. But then there are fiercely independent songs mixed in: 'Caught' is a hypnotic lament set to sequenced keyboards, with a chorus of Annas singing in pre-speech syllables. She had signed a few years before the album with Les Disques du Crepuscle, a visionary Belgian label that I've come to appreciate over the years, as they've introduced me to a rather eclectic roster of artists.

The effect is to provoke absolute intrigue with this woman and her point of view. She seems to exist comfortably in a no-man's land that is not pop. not alternative, not jazz, but that gives her potency, rather than ennervating her. I can't say that I am surprised that Anna Domino works in near obscurity to this day; the only Anna Domino fans I've ever known are the ones I've created.

'Summer' is a song I've cherished almost completely by myself for more than twenty years, and it is as distinctive and evocative now as it was then. Its uniqueness helps me keep my standards for modern music high; there are people like Anna Domino out there who raise the bar.

[Anna Domino does not seem to have an official website at the time of this post.]