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Arts: To Shirley, with love

The dresses are gone, the voice is deeper - but the solo David McAlmont is still in search of his feminine side.
The very first note is something of a shock. For a split second, you wonder if you've put the wrong CD in the player. No. This really is David McAlmont. Why the surprise? Because that first shimmering note is rich, resonant, and pretty damn low. Admittedly, we're not quite in Lou Rawls territory but coming from the man famous for inhabiting the eerie stratosphere of falsetto-land, this is quite a leap.

Indeed, the whole of A Little Communication, his first solo album, is several steps beyond what anyone has been expecting. And he's genuinely proud of it. "This is the first time that I've listened to an album of mine and heard everything I've felt musically taking place."

It's not hard to see why. Surrounded by the beautifully finessed sounds supplied by producer Tommy D, the voice is, at last, centre-stage. Post- Bernard Butler - from whom he less-than-chummily split in 1995 after a brief creative liaison - McAlmont has finally gone solo at the age of 32, presenting what one critic has already described as "the best British vocal performance of 1998".

If you're looking for categorisation, it's British soul, as in "heart and...". Yet it's not just the utterly distinctive vocals which make the album so noteworthy. The entire effect is of a singer-songwriter hitting a deep vein of self-confidence. Music PRs are overly fond of loftily promoting a second-rate talent as "a major recording artist" but on this showing, McAlmont emerges as the real McCoy. All the more perplexing then, to discover that he dislikes being in the studio.

"I'm at my most confident on stage. It's the thing I do least which really bothers me," he says, gravely. "It takes me a long time to find myself in the studio." That may go some way to explaining why A Little Communication has been three years in gestation. Many performers who favour live appearances end up imprisoned by the deliberations and slow delivery of the recording process, their spirit neutered by the sterility of the studio, their performance swamped by over-production. Ironically, the hallmark of this album is its freshness.

It began life in 1995 with David Arnold, who had produced McAlmont's deliciously camp cover version of "Diamonds Are Forever". "He said did I want to be Shirley Bassey for a day? I said, `Absolutely!'" The thought of singing in front of a big orchestra was a blast but it suddenly occurred to him that this wasn't karaoke. "As much as I had been inspired by her, I couldn't do her. What would be the point? So I had to come up with something else." This ex-performance art student used it as a statement about gender roles. "Musically and visually on the video, I finally put something to rest. I'd made all sorts of attempts to address it, but I'd never managed it as well as I did there ... that whole transformation from a grumpy bloke walking the streets of Soho into this `Virtual Shirley World'. I would say that was one of my finest hours and it was useful because I thought, `Right, you can't top that. Now I can move on'."

As a result, the two of them began work on the album. "The sound was really expansive and epic ... Bassey-esque. But it wasn't right so we went back and tried to make it a bit more edgy, but that didn't quite work either. I'd never paid attention to the compliments I'd been paid before but it just got to the point where I realised that people were interested in what I was doing and finally I had to accept that." So, with Tommy D now on board, the focus returned to the voice, pure and not so simple.

In classical music, falsetto or counter-tenor voices have been used as a less savage substitute for the castrato tradition. Together with its similarity to the boy treble timbre, the falsetto sound has a sense of youthfulness, other-worldliness and a seemingly genderless purity. It is sometimes genuinely difficult to tell if the sound is being produced by a man or a woman. "I still think I sound a bit like a kid," McAlmont muses.

It certainly creates an ambiguity that he relishes, both as a songwriter and a singer. But unlike, say, the unyielding sound of The Stylistics, McAlmont's voice has a far more expressive quality, probably because he's got over three and a half octaves at his disposal. (We're almost talking Cleo Laine here). Best of all on the new album is the fact that his falsetto has now become merely one more tone in his vocal palette. Most of the time, he sings in an easy, sinuous high-tenor. "It's useful but I'm sort of over the falsetto now," he smiles. "With alcohol and smoking, I think I've made my range a little lower but that doesn't bother me. I always fancied sounding like Rod Stewart."

As John McEnroe remarked, "You cannot be serious?"

"Yeah. I didn't like the fact that I always sounded so gorgeous and angelic. I like it now, though."

Nonetheless, Art Garfunkel was an early inspiration. "It was about how beautiful and dreamy his voice is and the fact that the voice belonged to a man." His mother encouraged him to listen to Tony Bennett, who he still rates above Frank Sinatra for his emotional connection to a lyric, but most of his other mentors are women because "there's a vulnerability to female performers that a lot of men don't have". He cites Roberta Flack as central to his vocal development. "Songs like `Reverend Lee' and `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', which I do a very good karaoke version of!"

He began singing at his Pentecostal church in the West Indies at the age of 13, but believes that listening to people like Dusty Springfield, Karen Carpenter and Shirley Bassey really taught him how to express himself vocally. (Dusty in Memphis remains one of his favourite albums.) Those women, and plenty more besides, have traditionally cornered the pain market, producing album after album of "My man's left me and I'm miserable". He points to Peggy Lee - "very devil-may-care and world-weary, like in `Is That All There Is?' - and Nina Simone. "She's so acidic. There's pain there, but it's aggressive. She's saying, `there's someone who's responsible and as soon as I get my hands on him, the guy's gonna die!'"

A Little Communication is a Nineties spin on all that. He's learned the trick of being confidently vulnerable. His sombre face looming out of the publicity photos may be a shade intimidating, but he comes across as self-assured and beguilingly gentle. His lyrics alone illustrate his unusual willingness to reveal himself. The subtext is about wanting to be with someone, admitting errors of the past and acknowledging the cost, but hoping to have learned from his mistakes. Importantly, he manages to escape the standard male smugness which runs along the lines of: "Hey, I've been a really bad boy, but I've apologised so it's fine."

His views on masculinity go way back. His father left home when he was young "and I grew up feeling basically appalled by a lot of the men in my family and what they were capable of doing to the women they were supposed to love. I had very different notions of what affection should be. It sounds daft, but a lot of what I've expressed so far in my career has been about men-hating. It's no longer like that. I think I've grown up and I've begun to understand men, which is to understand myself. That's what makes my music tick".

`A Little Communication' is out now on Hut Records