Joan Armatrading

Sleight of Hand

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Joan Armatrading took matters into her own hands after the commercially disappointing Secret Secrets, producing and playing nearly all the guitars (acoustic and electric) on Sleight of Hand. It's not a demonstrably better record for it, although Armatrading's uncluttered production (with the aid of Steve Lillywhite, who mixed the record) is in many ways preferable to Secret Secrets' surfeit of sweetness. The album begins with two of Armatrading's most dance-oriented tracks, the Prince-ly "Kind Words (And a Real Good Heart)" and "Killing Time." Oddly, it's a style she doesn't re-visit on the album, returning instead to more familiar terrain on winning ballads like "Don Juan," "Jesse," and "Laurel and the Rose." If her voice has lost a little of its original luster, she reclaims some expressiveness and energy with the electric guitar, which may have been the rationale behind promoting the hard-rocking "Angel Man" as a single. As a producer, Armatrading is more inclined to engage in some very deliberate pacing, creating an extra layer of tension and drama behind songs like "One More Chance" and "Figure of Speech." While it comes at the cost of her last album's giddiness, she nearly makes up for it with the delightful "Russian Roulette." The backing band is again new, featuring a cast of relative unknowns plus a few returning guests. Keyboardist Alex White plays a prominent role in the arrangements, creating an atmospheric layer of sound that may well be the album's most audible link with Secret Secrets. Sleight of Hand often gets slighted come compilation time, but it's a well-crafted album that will appeal to fans who've traveled this far.

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