Happy 15th Anniversary to Fried’s eponymous debut album Fried, originally released August 30, 2004.
Obsessive music fans (like most people) can be a bunch of contrary dickheads. Prince fans are the ones I’m most familiar with, you know, the type that proclaims, “I don’t really like ‘When Doves Cry,’ you should hear this outtake from ’83 when he farts into a jar. It’s amazing.” See what I mean? Contrary f**king Mary.
You may ask why I raise this now. Well, I’m about to tell you about an album that precisely nobody I’ve ever met has ever heard of. So in effect, I’m going to these lengths to assure you that I’m not being a dick. Fingers crossed, eh?
In the summer of 2004, there was a spread in one of the broadsheet newspapers in the UK about the search for a soul vocalist that had lasted years. My interest piqued, I hit the nirvana that was HMV and scoured the shelves for it. At that point all I knew was that it was some dude from Fine Young Cannibals (who wasn’t lead singer Roland Gift) who had scoured the world for a singer to write and perform with.
In an age of the new breed of nascent star search talent programs like X Factor and its predecessor Pop Idol, this seemed a resolutely old-fashioned approach to recruiting a singer to work with. It struck a chord with me as an antidote to the rise of the aforementioned programs that offered immediate success and fame at the expense (in my eyes, at least) of substance.
Having bought the album and enjoyed it, further research was needed on my part. The dude from FYC turned out to be guitarist David Steele who had co-written and co-produced The Raw And The Cooked (1989), an album that had given him financial security by dint of selling 15 million or so copies and producing two number one singles in the US (“She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing”). That security gave him the opportunity to take his time in seeking out a glimmering diamond of brilliance to sing the songs he’d written since the Fine Young Cannibals broke up in 1992.
That voice came in the shape of a young woman called Jonte Short from New Orleans. Recommended by a friend of Steele’s, she was heavily pregnant and singing in a nightclub when Steele came to watch. A product of the gospel tradition, she had already caused some consternation among her family by abandoning God’s word in favor of secular music when Steele heard and loved her.
By the time of the album’s release, she was a 24-year-old mother of two thrust into the spotlight that Steele’s past brought. A search reveals that the spread I’d seen was from The Guardian, but there were others too. Venerable British magazine Blues And Soul ran a story about the group, as did The Independent All the stars were lining up for Short and Steele, success was inevitable.
But it never came. Sales were disappointing and the group left London Records shortly after the album’s release and struggled to find a new home. The material was good, the voice was amazing and the supporting cast was stellar. But there were other forces at play.
Despite appearing at the end of the rejuvenation of the genre via neo-soul, the R&B charts were filled with Usher’s Confessions album and its ilk in 2004. Fine Young Cannibals had faded from view, making Steele’s past less than vital, despite his obvious skills and expertise. Who was going to be interested in a soul album that featured more than its fair share of southern-tinged slide guitar? The world shrugged despite the quality of the material and the unquestionable appeal of Short’s voice. A case of wrong time, wrong place, if ever there was one.
While commercial success avoided the duo, as an artistic endeavor it really hits the spot. Album opener “When You Get Out Of Jail” perfectly shows the strength of the whole project, without offering enough explanation as to why it didn’t hit the sweet spot commercially. A driving hip-hop beat, see-sawing strings and a melancholy piano run combine with Short’s astonishing voice to create a piece of stirring heartache. There’s even a guest verse from Wu Grand Master RZA to further enliven things. The bridge, with delirious backing from Short herself, is a thing of beauty and the tale peaks with a lyric dripping in desire and wanting: “You’re cold nights, soon be warm / Cos I’m gon’ keep ya, in my arms / Good lovin’, I been keeping / When you get home, won’t be no sleeping.”
A clue as to its lack of commercial appeal lies in “Whatever I Choose, I Lose.” How many other soul tracks from 2004 start with that most downhome of sounds, the slide guitar? I’ll wager only a few, if any at all. It sounds so delicious but completely at odds with the soul music scene at the time. Surely music buyers couldn’t have been that short-sighted, right? I think we all know the answer to that one, don’t we?
The issue recurs throughout the album. Despite the slight concessions to modernity, it resolutely refuses to be dragged away from a distinctly unfashionable, yet always stylish soul sound. “Things Change” is a case in point, with its sitar-and-strings rumination on a relationship that has run its distance. Short’s vocals capture the intense mix of emotions perfectly: “Being with you was a mistake / A mistake I was happy to make / Things change.”
Slide guitar also swaggers into “You’re With The Wrong One” and blesses what is already a bitter tale of heartbreak with an added layer of drama. The sparser accompaniment to “Ain’t You The One (I’ve Been Looking For)” allows the undiluted quality of Short’s voice to worm its way into your heart. It really is quite a magnificent tool that she wields with such ease and style.
That same sparseness continues on the mesmerizing “Love Is A Stranger” (co-written by Beth Gibbons of Portishead). Pizzicato strings accompany that voice as it quivers and quakes through the desolation of love lost or, indeed, never had. Short displays the full range of her voice to devastating effect.
Listening now, it seems unfathomable that people didn’t fall in love with the duo and this album’s charms, given some of the records that mined a similar seam but with less authenticity and purity of soul. How could a church-raised singer of this quality fail to connect with the quality of material to, in turn, connect with the wider world? We’ll never know for sure, but one thing is for certain: if you take the time to get off the beaten track and give this a spin, you’ll be rewarded for your time.
That wasn’t quite the end for Fried though, as 2007 saw the band resigned and the album re-released by RCA with three new songs. Sadly (and upsettingly predictably) the re-release and renaming of the album (Things Change) did little if anything to gain any further traction or attention for the under-loved duo. While I cannot, hand on heart, testify that this is a staggering work of groundbreaking genius, it is clear that Jonte Short and David Steele deserved so much more than that which came their way.
Having listened almost non-stop to the album, the question I am left contemplating is what happened to Jonte Short? Where is she now and what is that voice doing? I pray it isn’t lost to music, be it sacred or secular—the loss would be shameful.
As for if I avoided being or sounding like a dick, well, only you can tell and frankly my fragile ego requires no feedback on the matter. Let’s focus on what’s important, finding this beauty of an album and falling in love with it like I did.