Album Reviews

Sue Barker: Sue Barker (Playback Records)

Sue Barker
Sue Barker
Playback Records

One of the dirty little truths about vinyl collecting is that a record’s rarity does not necessarily mean that the music found on it is good. Some really less than stellar records have exorbitantly high values. Why? Scarcity. Case in point: Australian nightclub singer Sue Barker. Sue Barker, her lone album, appeared in 1976, and as the label that released it folded almost immediately after its release, it went straight into obscurity, and original copies of the album now trade for several hundred dollars. For its rarity, though, it’s not exactly the most memorable record. This official reissue has been made in part to correct what must be an extremely frustrating reality: that for the record’s rarity, in the 40 years since its release, Barker has never earned any money from it–a noble and fair enough reason to reissue it.

Now, Barker isn’t a bad vocalist; it’s just that she’s not particularly memorable. Her song choices are interesting—they’re predominantly American, heavy on Motown, with a handful of jazz standards thrown in. She does a good job on classics like “Lover Man” and “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” and her take on The Young Rascals’ “Groovin’” is rather nice. But her takes on “Think,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and “What’s Going On” come across as painfully white-bread, omitting the groove and the intricacies of the melody in favor of forceful, overbearing singing, and it sounds a mess. (Let’s not even start on a white woman from Australia singing a song about African-American struggles!) The song choices are perhaps the biggest qualm; she goes for well-known soul numbers, but just because you have a strong voice with a certain amount of heft behind it doesn’t work for every song. In the extensive liner notes, it turns out that she and the label clashed over her song selection, and perhaps this is a rare case where the label’s concerns and instincts were indeed correct. It’s unfortunate, then, that the best song on the reissue is one of its bonus tracks; a cover of Janis Joplin’s “Half Moon”–it works because Barker has a Joplin-esque voice, and she tackles it in a straightforward manner. This is the sort of material she should have explored, and had her career lasted, maybe she would have.

Thus, Sue Barker is very much a debut album, with hints of promise, but one in need of maturation–the sort of thing only time can give you. Barker could sing, but Sue Barker just doesn’t feel like it captures her talents. She would continue to perform live, but had no interest in continuing on as a recording artist, and would stop making music entirely shortly after the death of her son, and since then, her mystery and legacy has grown. This reissue gives the opportunity to experience one of the rarest Australian soul records of the 1970s, even if it’s not a particularly good one; it leaves one wondering what might have been.

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