If you were watching music videos during the winter of 1990, you probably saw a lot of Taylor Dayne’s bustiers … watched Michael Bolton as he seemed to strain mightily to release something from one orifice or another … and wondered why it was ever necessary for Paula Abdul to team up with anything called a “Scat Cat.” But if you were lucky enough to flip away from MTV during one more airing of “Janie’s Got a Gun,” waiting over on VH1 was the clip for the classiest, most retro-romantic pop song of the season.
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Julia Fordham spent portions of the ’80s as a backing vocalist for Mari Wilson and Kim Wilde, before graduating to the spotlight with a self-titled debut album on Virgin that landed in 1988 — right in the middle of about a zillion other debuts by female singer/songwriters. If Sinead O’Connor and Melissa Etheridge were at the rock-based edge of that spectrum, Fordham was at the other extreme, with a delicate voice that ranged easily over three octaves and begged for lush, jazz- and world-music-tinged arrangements. She scored a top 30 U.K. hit with “Happy Ever After” from that first album, and made some serious headway in the U.S. as well, but she sometimes seemed uncomfortable in the midst of the disparate instrumental elements (Spanish guitar here, heavy-handed horns there) she chose for herself. It wasn’t until her second album, the perfectly titled Porcelain, that she found perhaps the fullest expression of her style.
Producer Hugh Padgham’s influence is evident from the first notes of the gorgeous opening track “Lock and Key,” which are underscored by Miles Bould’s percolating percussion. For Porcelain, Padgham found great use for his trademark focus on sophisticated rhythmic structures, and he reined in the occasionally over-bright sound of Fordham’s debut album; he also reined in his vocalist a bit, getting from her a set of performances that brilliantly showed off the textures of her sometimes husky, usually fragile-sounding instrument. “I pursued a certain kind of delivery [on Porcelain],” Fordham told me a few years later, when I interviewed her in advance of her 1994 album Falling Forward. “It was emotive, but also quite controlled.” The album’s title track seemed nothing less than a metaphor for her gifts, as she marveled at an overly smitten lover’s ability to “treat my skin like porcelain, rare and special porcelain.”
“Manhattan Skyline” was the beneficiary of a format tweak at VH1, which at the turn of the ’90s – spurred in part by the sudden popularity of Bonnie Raitt and her Nick of Time album — was veering away from the “Greatest Hits of Music Video” emphasis of its late-’80s programming and tentatively sticking its toes into adult-alternative music. Fordham’s video, with its exquisite black-and-white cinematography and her breezy vocal, was just far enough left of center to bump up the channel’s hipness factor while fitting comfortably alongside mainstream AC hits.
Deeper into the album, Fordham dabbled in lush cabaret balladry (“For You Only for You”) and samba (“Genius”). The latter track’s cheery, danceable arrangement masks a lyric decrying the destruction of Amazonian rainforests – a juxtaposition that echoed the odd leap from the personal to the political on “Happy Ever After.” Thankfully, the conceit works – as do the simple piano accompaniment of “Towerblock,” the girl-group harmonies on “Lovely Face,” the just-slightly strained high notes that help her achieve a tone of aching vulnerability on “Girlfriend.”
It all added up to Fordham’s most affecting album — and her best-selling one as well, ascending into the top half of the Billboard 200. She remained on Virgin through the end of the decade (and three more albums), scoring a couple of minor AC hits in “I Can’t Help Myself” and “(Love Moves in) Mysterious Ways” — and then she moved to Vanguard Records in 2002 and suddenly found herself with a danceclub hit, of all things, in the form of “Wake Up With You (The I Wanna Song).” Still, it’s for Porcelain and “Manhattan Skyline” that she’ll be best remembered — for injecting a rare touch of beauty and subtlety in a season that saw little of either.
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