When was the last time you had a song in your head and didn’t know what it was? Obviously this is a problem that society has worked hard to solve – not only are there apps that listen for audio and give you a song ID (a seriously impressive piece of technology), but if you remember any snippet of the lyrics, chances are you can just Google them and it’ll pop right up. Certainly this can still happen but I guess if you don’t know enough about it to figure it out through Google in 2015 then I would argue that it’s not really stuck in your head. I had this happen to me in 2001 and I was S.O.L. – I had a chorus so thoroughly lodged in my brain but only remembered about half the words. It was a woman singing “I could be the ….. standing on the …. (something something something), I could be swimming out to sea (something else)…to make it easier”, with some deep male backup vocals. I could bang it out on the piano, that’s how clear the melody was to me. Searching those lyrics on Altavista didn’t turn up anything, so I tried looking it up on Napster. For some reason I was convinced that the song was called “Swimming Out to Sea” and Napster blocked that particular search so I figured I was on to something.
Never quite turned it up, though. Some years later, it came crawling back (how does this happen?) and after a bit of Googling and some educated guesses I finally figured out what it was. The song was called “Under the Water” and it was by an artist named Merril Bainbridge. Unless you are from Australia (the land from whence she came), chances are you probably don’t remember her, but you might remember her Top 10 hit, “Mouth”. It’s the one with the chorus “would it be so bad, if I could turn you on”, and it was played on basically every radio station back in the day. These are the kinds of CDs you can pick up for a penny on eBay if you’re really interested, since it sold a bunch of copies but didn’t produce a successful follow-up single – “Under the Water” barely scratched the Top 100, and to this day I can’t remember where I first heard it.
So who is Merril Bainbridge? A pretty girl with a pretty voice, and to tell the truth I think the former either helped get her a record deal and/or held her back. Not that she was undeserving of a deal, but you can see some attempts made to sexualize her a bit in a way that’s not really compatible with her music. I remember “Mouth” being referred to as “racy” by radio DJs, though looking back, there’s really nothing there (“Garden in My Room” is a bit more suggestive, though it’s got nothing on your average 90’s pop star). Otherwise The Garden (1996) is mostly romantic, wistful pop, sometimes so lightweight that you forget it’s playing. It is music for coffee shops and bookstores; either bouncy and poppy or minimal and cloying, but always pleasant. There are a few attempts to get out of her comfort zone; the spacey “Spinning Around” centers around a blippy synthesizer line, and there are a few tunes with electric guitar – “Sleeping Dogs” almost moves at a punk rock tempo, and “Reasons Why” has a sort of anthemic Gary Glitter vibe to it. Still, Bainbridge’s music has this sort of sweetness to it that overrides everything – maybe it’s her voice, or maybe it’s the sort of chord progressions she uses, but everything here is charming and a bit toothless. I do get a chuckle out of the guitar feedback that begins “Sleeping Dogs”; you can picture the producer trying to figure out a way to add more rock to the album, if only for one single. Either way these are probably the best tunes; also of interest is a stripped back, acoustic cover of the “Being Boring” by the Pet Shop Boys that I barely recognized at first.
Bainbridge recorded a second album in 1999 called Between the Days. Same producer, but the sound is a lot more modern, with a bunch of up-to-the-minute loops and electronic effects that make it sound like every other pop album in 1999. Less acoustic guitar, way less piano, and every tune has some kind of drum loop (only two tracks credit an actual drummer). Clearly this was an attempt to put Bainbridge back on the charts, but it’s actually an improvement, full of hooks and choruses that fit her voice well. Sadly it didn’t work out, tanking in American and barely touching even the Australian charts. That’s probably because it lacked a strong lead single, though there’s plenty of great follow-up singles here – in fact everything but “Blindfolded” and “Love & Terror” probably could’ve been released as one. But it’s a pretty good album; nearly every song has a good chorus, and the late 90’s production touches aren’t overbearing. Best songs are “Big Machine”, which is way catchier than even “Under the Water” was, the title track, and maybe “Walk on Fire”. Worst is almost certainly the cover of “I’ve Got You Babe” featuring Shaggy, which is perhaps the most 1999 thing of all. Bainbridge has to sing both parts though, while Shaggy is just kinda there to shout over the top and rap one verse, though the word “croak” would probably be more accurate. You almost wonder if he knew what song he was recording.
Alas, Bainbridge has not been heard from since. Last I heard she got screwed over pretty hard by a record contract; a third album was produced but never released. That’s the life of a 90’s pop star; you could sell CDs at $14.99 and get your video played three times a day, but you were ultimately disposable if you didn’t have connections. Certainly there were artists like this in the 70’s and 80’s as well, but we still know and kinda revere them; Merril Bainbridge on the other hand is probably always going to be known as “the girl who did that one song”, if they even remember her name at all. Right idea, wrong decade.