Of all the mainstream artists to co-op New Wave, the most successful chart-wise by far was Kim Carnes. And I’m going to posit a fairly radical opinion – she may most successful on an artistic level as well, synthesizing New Wave’s flourishes and mechanical trappings into her own sound without losing or embarassing herself in the process (with one notable exception, which we’ll get to).

Carnes was floating around most of the ’70s as more of a folky singer/songwriter with little to minor success until she hit MOR paydirt with a Kenny Rogers duet, “Don’t Fall In Love With a Dreamer”. A solo hit with a remake of The Miracle’s “More Love” followed, and it looked like we might have a nice, comforable, hit-generating female Kenny Loggins on our hands.

“Bette Davis Eyes” changed all that.

It was another remake, this time of a 1974 Donna Weiss/Jackie DeShannon tune…the difference this time was producer Val Garay’s decision to record it live to tape with Carnes’ band drastically rearranging the song, shrouding it in drum machine hand claps and moody synth chords. The result was a timely, fresh Number One hit that topped the charts for nine weeks and won two Grammys.

The rest of the album Mistaken Identity isn’t quite all New Wave-y. In fact, there are several songs like “Hit and Run” and “Miss You Tonite” that are more like the Adult Contemporary Kim Carnes of old, which makes the choice of “Draw of the Cards” as the second single all the more intriguing. “Draw…” is dark, arty, atmospheric…pretty much like “Bette Davis Eyes”, only without the killer hooks. Don’t get me wrong – I love “Draw…”, especially because it got so far up the Top 40 without any real melody, save the repeated title as a chorus. And the video is creepy delicious, like Carnaval in Rio gone horribly wrong – don’t say I didn’t warn you in advance about the scary guy at the end:

Carnes wisely continued in this dark, dancey synthpop vein for her next album, Voyeur. The album’s lead single and title track was another great tune, but not as immediately catchy as “…Eyes”, yet it still made it into the Top 40, accompanied by a little-seen, spooky video where Kim is chased after witnessing a hooker get beaten – she hides out in a bar, slinks through dark alleys and runs into, um, a white horse and a ninja. I dunno. It was the Eighties.

After being part of the “We Are The World” recording and video (hey, if Dan Ackroyd can be there…), Carnes released “Invisible Hands”, a track and album that began to reflect the diminishing returns of her “Bette Davis Eyes” good will. The song is a bit of a dancefloor stomper though, all about the groove, personified by a killer synth bassline, but after about two and a half minutes, you’ve had enough. So, here’s the extended version! I’m a sadist, what can I say.

Carnes had fallen into a bit of a predictable pattern by this point – release a synthy, danceable lead single, follow that up with a more traditional ballad that would flop, repeat. The nadir of her New Wave flirtation was also her final solo appearance in the Top 40, “Crazy In The Night (Barking At Airplanes)”, a song just as embarrasing as its title. Wisely, Carnes then retreated back into duets with Kenny Rogers and Barbra Streisand, eventually settling in Nashville, where she has carved out a nice career as a songwriter while still recording the odd album here and there. But that’s how you do it, people – flirt with New Wave just long enough and know when to quit.

“Draw of the Cards” peaked at #28 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1981.
“Voyeur” peaked at #29 on the same chart and at #52 on the Club Play Singles Chart in 1982.
“Invisible Hands” peaked at #40 on the Pop Singles Chart in 1983.

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Kim Carnes
– a lot of this stuff is out of print, but I highly recommend The Mistaken Identity Collection – it features the entire album, plus all her key singles as bonus tracks, all on one disc.