Taking a break from her “day job” as the lead female vocalist of ’70s prog rock outfit Renaissance, Annie Haslam set out to record a solo debut that was an outlet for her self-penned tunes that just didn’t fit the Renaissance house style – but that doesn’t mean it sounds like anything else released in 1977. Haslam recruited former Move, ELO and Wizzard frontman Roy Wood to produce the album, and Wood was already known for his own distinctive style. He also didn’t exactly have a long list of production credits for projects that weren’t The Move, ELO or Wizzard.
The result is a quirky and eminently listenable album that showcases Annie Haslam somewhere between her Carole King-esque singer/songwriter mode and something closer to Kate Bush territory, and also gives multi-instrumental whiz kid Wood full reign. A blast of brass opens the album with “If I Was Made Of Music”, but the production work never overshadows Haslam’s voice, which always has center stage. “I Never Believed In Love” is one of three songs actually written by Wood, and it bears the hallmarks of his vaguely-Beatlesque oddball Move-era songwriting.
It’s the next song, however, that can blow your hair back – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” (from the musical Carousel) gives Haslam’s considerably vocal range a real chance to shine, accompanied by an ocean of multi-tracked balalaikas. It’s not like any other rendition of this particular song or, indeed, like anything else you’ve heard before. (It’s not for nothing that, of all the songs on Annie In Wonderland, this song was chosen to be dissected and analyzed in detail on a BBC Radio special celebrating Roy Wood’s career.)
Almost as mind-blowing for its sheer display of Haslam’s near-operatic range is the soaring, wordless vocal of the otherwise-instrumental “Rockalise”. Drastic key/octave changes are also central to “Inside My Life”, which is as close as thiis album comes to typical ’70s singer/songwriter stylings – and in the capable hands of Haslam and Wood, it’s still not terribly close to typical.
What’s most surprising here is that this was the first and final collaboration between Annie Haslam and Roy Wood, but there’s another story there: they got engaged as Annie In Wonderland was being recorded, and never married over what’s said to have been a four-year relationship. Annie In Wonderland was a career-making album in the UK (and sadly overlooked elsewhere), and by all rights should have kick-started Wood’s career as well as Annie Haslam’s. That it didn’t is truly sad; this album’s inventiveness and willingness to overstep the usual bounds of pop music are off-the-scale. Future collaborations could have been beneficial to all involved, but alas, it wasn’t to be, leaving Annie In Wonderland as a singular achievement that launched Haslam on a whole new career trajectory away from Renaissaince. Very highly recommended.