Dressed to Kill
Country songwriter emerges with distinctive orchestral pop disc
By Michael McCall
JUNE 5, 2000: Terry Radigan had a vague idea of the kind of publicity photos she wanted to accompany her debut album, Radigan. When she met with photographer Jim Herrington, she told him she had in mind something retro and cool, using Nancy Sinatra's '60s album covers as a reference point. For Herrington, a light went off He remembered some striking photos of Sinatra wearing a man's shirt with tails, knee-high boots, and bare legs, her feet planted apart and her hands outstretched across a guitar standing up in front of her.
Radigan envisioned her half-naked body and backpedaled. "I don't know," she told the photographer. "It sounds a little cheesecakey." Herrington tilted his head down and looked at her above his wire glasses. "Are you in show business?" he asked.
That night, Radigan came home and told her husband, Ned Massey, about her day. "I started out real reluctant about it," she told him. "But by middle of the day, I was as comfortable as could be. There I was, sitting around, drinking coffee, and talking to the crew with no pants on. We had a blast."
In a way, Radigan's startling new collection of songs came about just as boldly and unexpectedly. After moving to Nashville with the vague notion of pursuing a career as a country music singer and songwriter, Radigan endured a series of bad breaks and misadventures, all of which resulted in her locking herself into a tiny attic studio to make her own music.
After much experimentation, she has surfaced with a distinctive sound that's not country at all. As found on Radigan, which came out on May 23 on Vanguard Records, the singer has taken ambitious, orchestrated '60s pop and adapted it into a moody, textured, thoroughly modern sound that she alternately describes as spooky and sultry. It's both, not to mention highly original.
"I love retro-sounding, real arranged records," Radigan says, sitting in the dining room of her modest, carefully decorated Sylvan Park home. "I just kept layering things and experimenting, and this sound emerged. Eventually, I had a really clear idea of what I wanted. And because I was working by myself, I took the time to get it as spooky as I could."
In the course of describing her songs, she references Peggy Lee, European film soundtracks, Burt Bacharach-Hal David productions, Al Green, Chris Isaak, and Ennio Morricone. "You listen to albums by Peggy Lee or those productions by Bacharach and David, and they're just so rich and so deep," she says. "There's so much going on, but it's all done with this clarity and space. I think those recordings sound so much better than records today. Now you have this wall of sound that's kind of one-dimensional, and the voice is buried in there. But I got in the car one day and this Al Green song came on. It was just stunning. It had so much emotion in it, yet it was so elegant. That was the kind of record I wanted to make."
Eventually, Radigan's friend and occasional cowriter, Don Schlitz, passed a tape of her songs to veteran music executive Steve Buckingham, who works with the California-based Vanguard label. Buckingham immediately signed Radigan and was ready to release her music as it was. But Radigan wanted more sonic depth than her home studio afforded. She convinced Buckingham to let her work on the record more, and she called upon another cowriter, guitarist-producer Kenny Greenberg, who jumped at the chance to work with her.
"What's great about Kenny is he's a producer and a great guitar player," Radigan says. "I wanted to work with as few other people as possible on this. With Kenny, it was like multitasking."
Greenberg suggested they recruit another coproducer, Justin Niebank, because of his engineering ability. From there, the trio brought in the rhythm section of bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Chad Cromwell to replace or sometimes augment what Radigan had created with drum machines and samples. They also replaced her synthesized orchestral parts with a real string quartet.
The resulting album shares attributes with another of the year's most memorable releases, Shelby Lynne's I Am Shelby Lynne. Both records draw upon polished '60s music that combines strings with rock guitars and R&B rhythms to create a languid, airy, resonant atmosphere. But if Lynne's work focuses on the sultry emotional entanglements of Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man," then Radigan's is closer to the dynamic, bold, heady pop of such Jackie DeShannon compositions as "When You Walk in the Room," "Needles and Pins," and "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." However, like Lynne's album, Radigan's offers an eclectic smorgasbord of styles that's hard to pin down.
For example, the punchy, rhythmic "So What," with its gospel-like call-and-response chorus, sounds like a lost '70s soul track by Philadelphia producers Gamble and Huff. Elsewhere, Radigan blends dense, guitar-driven rock tunes (the pure American pop of "Blink") with sensual, extravagantly arranged numbers that would work as theme songs to a James Bond film ("The Things You Do" or "Let Him Go"). Each track gains strength from Radigan's unrestrained vocal phrasing, which opens up her girlish voice with slurs and bends, slipping from a romantic purr to insolent declarations, depending on the song's intent.
Now she has the challenge of recreating these songs live. "I didn't make it with a bunch of guys in the room, so I don't want to take it out that way," she says. "But if I go out with just my guitar, then people will think it's a singer-songwriter, folkie kind of record, and it's not that. And if I go out with a basic guitar-bass-drums setup, it will sound like a rock record, and it's not that either."
So Radigan came upon a solution: "I decided to take the basic tracks from the record, the bass and drums, some of Kenny's guitar and some of the funkier sounds we created, and have them come through a big boom box I put onstage. But for the string parts, I'm going to have a live string section. It's going to be me, the boom box, and the string players. That way I can play it live and make it sound like the record, and I make an event out of it."
Besides, she adds, there's another advantage. "With the boom box, I know I've got a band member I can get along with."
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