Album review – Silje Leirvik: Endless Serenade

12 Feb

Silver & Gold: the throbbing undertow of Silje Leirvik’s songs would grace the soundtrack of any psychodrama

Endless Serenade: epic songs which offer more than a clichéd view of Scandivian bleakness

Endless Serenade: epic songs which offer more than a clichéd view of Scandinavian bleakness

The huge British appetite for Nordic Noir TV has tended to distract attention from another, more subtle cultural invasion: the rise of the Scandinavian singer/songwriter. Or, more specifically, the rise of the female Scandinavian singer/songwriter.

The throbbing undertow of Norwegian Silje Leirvik’s new album Endless Serenade would grace the soundtrack of any psychodrama, Scandic or otherwise. But there is much more to this rich collection of epic songs than inscrutable bleakness. Complex in theme and structure, they navigate shifting moods, ideas that morph tantalisingly in new directions just when you think you have them in your grasp.

With producer Rhys Marsh, Leirvik has experimented with tape delay machines, which gives a grainy, textured quality to the electro backing, peppered with pedal steel guitar. Her voice dances and soars above the almost industrial pulse of the reverb (shades of Sweden’s Anna von Hausswolff) as she steers a fascinating course between symphonic ballads (“Glass of Water”), folk-tinged stories (“Leah’s Song”) and sophisticated pop (the single “Silver & Gold”).

Like her compatriot, Anne Marie Almedal, Leirvik is too sophisticated a musician to be filed neatly under a generic label of Northern melancholy. Her lyrics are less rooted in landscape but there are edginess and dark moments of contemplation aplenty, balanced by passages of ethereal beauty and revelation when she discovers fresh truths about the opaque nature of love (“And Then Love Came” and the gently ironic, gritty “Serenade”).

All of the tracks are sung in English, with the exception of “Snø”, a lush ballad with a sweeping, cinematic feel which builds to a muted crescendo on a flute-and-drum backing. Leirvik’s vocals reach a compelling peak in her native language but they are glorious throughout, never more so than in the gentle, flowing “The Last Dance”.

Album review – Anita Wardell: The Road

11 Feb

“But Not For Me”: Anita Wardell in recital with Ed Cherry (not on The Road)

The Road: Anita Wardell's lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

The Road: Anita Wardell’s lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

For every Jamie Cullum there are a dozen highly talented British jazz singers who beaver away on the circuit to the delight of the cognoscenti, making critically acclaimed albums and commanding the respect of their peers without the benefit of a profile that might bring a wider audience to hear them.

Anita Wardell is a case in point. With a career dating back to the 1990s, she has enjoyed more than two decades of success. Last year, she was pronounced Best Jazz Vocalist at the British Jazz Awards, leading a shortlist that indicated the sheer depth of talent in this diverse field (Claire Martin, Liane Carroll, Val Wiseman and Clare Teal).

She has earned an international reputation for the scat-singing which has become her trademark, as well as the sensitivity with which she handles ballads and standards, discovering fresh nuances in familiar lines with the lightness and flexibility of her touch. She is one of the most innovative performers on the scene, but she could probably stroll through the Soho heartland of London jazz unrecognised.

Perhaps she’s happy with that. But given the quality of her recent album The Road, it seems a crime that her name isn’t more widely known beyond the glass walls of the jazz world. And I say that as someone who isn’t the greatest fan of scatting. But only a tin ear could fail to appreciate her musicality and subtlety in this department – by no means the only skill on show on this exciting record.

Belying the rather bleak and wintry scene on the album’s cover, The Road ripples like a sophisticated summer evening, particularly in Wardell’s nimble treatment of “Frevo em Maceio” and “Voca e eu”, both redolent of warm Brazilian nights, and her distinctive handling of an old favourite, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”.

A Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays mash-up  of “Travels” and “The Road”, with Wardell’s own lyrics, sets the scene for a journey across some nicely-chosen terrain, which includes a sensuous “You’re My Thrill”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” and a thrilling take on “Without a Song”.

The highlight of the album is “With Every Breath I Take”, which Wardell turns into an elegant, thoughtful torch song. The way she holds the note on the word ‘break’ is a lesson in the virtue of restraint over grandstanding vocal gymnastics.

Album review – Lisa Cuthbert: Paramour

9 Feb

Party’s Over: edgy and constantly shifting

Paramour: an album with a howling sweep that gives vent to a universal agony

Paramour: an album with a howling sweep that gives vent to a universal agony

The ghastly, often brutal regime of the Magdalene Laundries – institutions to which Ireland’s ‘fallen’ women were consigned for more than 200 years, the last closing its doors unbelievably recently in 1996 – has understandably provided a rich, if grim, seam of inspiration for artists, writers and musicians.

Dublin-born singer/songwriter Lisa Cuthbert is the latest to give a voice of sorts to the thousands of unfortunate unmarried mothers, prostitutes and mentally ill women who suffered humiliation, virtual imprisonment, abuse and utter despair in these institutions that masqueraded as philanthropic houses of rehabilitation.

Her concept album – Paramour – is a dark journey through two centuries of almost gothic wretchedness, the historical context in which she places her characters being also studded with references to her own experiences at a convent school. The result is an angry, profoundly compassionate exploration of the lives led by these women, their precarious emotional resilience and survival, the desolation of their faith, and the viciousness of the nuns who ran the ‘laundries’.

There is a howling sweep to the album, which peaks regularly in rampaging swirls of rage as Cuthbert gives vent to the universal agony that it is too late to restore justice for these women. The damage runs deep, a cultural wound that is barely healed. From the opening track “Destitute”, the tone is set.

Occasionally its relentlessness borders on the excessive – but perhaps that is part of Cuthbert’s purpose: the listener’s submission to the cascade of intense rhythms, Cuthbert’s compelling, soaring vocals and chants, and the false peace promised by an insistent cello, is a metaphor for the helplessness of the fictional protagonists who populate Paramour.

There are also moments of real beauty – the heart-breaking “Gartan Mother’s Lullaby”, with its tinkling piano, children’s voices and the distant sound of artillery fire , the richness of “The Balancing Act”, the absorbing ballad “The Sooner You Know”, and even “Madame’s Secret Pain”, which suggests that things were not so black and white for the overseers of these institutions.

Is there absolution in the end? Not exactly. The edgy, shifting quality of the closing track, “Party’s Over”, draws a line of sorts, but the overwhelming weight of what’s gone before refuses to die away entirely. Paramour is an imposing and demanding piece of work – and a fitting tribute to generations of women whose lives were blighted beyond reason.

Album review – Kaz Simmons: Signs

8 Feb

For the Love of the Big L: Signs is a scintillating love letter to London

Signs: 'quirky' is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

Signs: ‘quirky’ is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

There are two stars of the show vying for top honours on Kaz Simmons’s new album Signs. The first is the singer/songwriter’s deceptively girlish voice, which weaves its way through this cycle of city tales with all the variety and flexibility of a seasoned jazz artist. The second is London itself, which emerges as an irresistible influence on her writing and is effectively the central character in a concept album that is far too mature in its themes and textures to be categorised with a glib ‘quirky’ label.

Simmons has raided the rich canyons of psychedelia for a sound that is also flecked with jazz, folk and show-tune references. The result is a constantly shifting musical landscape that evokes the sweeping pomp of symphonic prog rock one minute, a 1960s Marianne-Faithfull-Fitzrovia vibe the next. There’s even a hint of Sondheim when a slightly sinister organ undercuts a few bars of “London Loves” and briefly conjures Sweeney Todd.

This eclectic mixture might have overwhelmed the ambitions of a less assured musician. But Simmons has more than a decade’s experience as a session guitarist behind her, and this has clearly fuelled her dextrous ability to build unexpected bridges between different styles and techniques.

Take “I Know You”, which spreads like a pool of sunshine from its initial introspective folk idiom to an almost cinematic pan across the London skyline, encapsulating the frustratingly thin line between loneliness and a sense of belonging that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the British capital.

Similar tropes weave their way through “Your Love” and “For the Love of the Big L”, in which Simmons could equally well be singing about her intrinsically flawed relationship with the city as about an unreliable lover.  “We’re friendly people, honestly…” she insists, as her poetic lyrics pick their way through the complicated litter of urban humanity.

Occasionally, as on “London Loves” or the title track, people emerge from the cityscape – a parade of paramours with varying eye colours, each one more feckless than the last, and out-of-sync couples.

She has surrounded herself with a vibrant and sympathetic band, including guitarist Martin Kolarides, Will Bartlett (who is responsible for that edgy organ), drummer Tim Giles and Riaan Vosloo on bass.

The only cover is a sweetly melancholy take on the Pee Wee King pop classic “You Belong to Me”, which is calming balm after the frenetic, always-rewarding drama of the previous eight songs.

Signs is an album to have ringing in your headphones next time you set out for a stroll around the big L. Any other city might do at a pinch, but it is essentially a scintillating love letter to a place that exasperates and enthrals this singular talent (and anyone else who knows it) in equal measure.

Album review – Mary Hopkin: Painting by Numbers

7 Feb

Gold and Silver: a delicate and hypnotic threnody

Mary HopkinSomewhere in a parallel universe, Mary Hopkin presides as an insightful grande dame of British popular music, afforded her due as a fine singer and an astute, thoughtful songwriter.

In reality, of course, she has long-since eschewed such a high-profile path, preferring to maintain a low-key presence in the industry, taking a gently cynical stand against some of its more outrageous manifestations, and popping her head above the parapet on Twitter from time to time.

Thankfully, however, there is still new music coming from the Hopkin household, and that lovely, expressive voice – with the extra shades and textures of maturity – continues to captivate.

Following on the heels of You Look Familiar (her 2010 collaboration with son Morgan Visconti) and the contemplative Spirit, her latest album – Painting by Numbers – is an intimate set of mainly home-made recordings featuring just Hopkin and her guitar, with occasional guest musicians adding some harmonic depth at the mixing stage.

As she explains in her sleeve notes, most of them have been lifted from DAT copies and even a worn cassette (the gorgeous “Incurable Romantic”), the master tapes having vanished long since. Polishing is kept to a minimum. A handful have been mixed and engineered in the studio, a few harmonies added here and there, but always without sacrificing the sense of a spontaneous take, complete with its slight hisses and clicks.

Painting by Numbers emerges as a sweet, thoughtful, honest work of integrity, showcasing Hopkin’s distinctive, effortlessly wistful voice and making it seem impossible that more than 40 years have passed since “Those Were the Days” made her a household name.

The essential melancholy of that signature song, with its undertow of life-lessons learned the hard way, found the perfect vehicle in Hopkin’s timbre, and it unravels further through these ten numbers, from the title track, through the touching reassurance of “Fair-weather Friends” (mixed by Alan Britton, who has also added some rich, steely guitars, and featuring Hopkin’s own backing vocals mixed by Visconti), to the poignant “Love, Long Distance”.

Part timeless folk melody, part meditation on love’s ability to survive the passing of time, the Visconti-mixed “Gold and Silver” is the standout track on the album, a delicate and hypnotic threnody that hangs tantalisingly in the air before it dies away.

There are other delights. “Improvisation” is a wordless chant which works its way under your skin, “Fresh out of Favours” a world-weary emotional stock-take, “Die for you” a reminder of the power of constancy,  and “Teardrops” a cautionary look in the mirror. Rounding things off, “Love Belongs Right Here” perfectly captures the lump-in-the-throat moment of parting, and is one of several moments when the album’s bittersweet quality gives your heartstrings an unexpected tug.

Studio interventions aside, you are left with the overriding sense of a singer at peace with her art and content to let it speak for her, plainly and simply.

Album review – Lucy Ward: Single Flame

7 Feb

The Last Pirouette: exhilarating dance of death

Single Flame: auspicious, deep and full of complex nuances

Single Flame: auspicious, deep and full of complex nuances

When Lucy Ward name-checks Melanie Safka and Bob Dylan in the opening track of her brooding, portentous album Single Flame, she is giving notice of the high standards she has set herself as a singer/songwriter – and signalling to her listener that the voyage they’re embarking on won’t always be comfortable.

It is testament to her skill that as she leads them into ever darker and murkier waters, the lyrics underpin her swirling, haunting melodies like seams of black diamonds, redolent with hard truths and acerbic observations, and she never compromises her intentions.

From “I Cannot Say I Will Not Speak” onwards, Ward proves she is right up there with artists like Ange Hardy, and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, who have brought a new kind of gritty realism to modern British folk music, utterly contemporary – and often devastating – in their themes of protest and injustice but equally true to the rich heritage of traditional story-telling.

There is a doom-laden quality to many of her songs that is never less than satisfying and is often bleakly tender, not least in the album’s masterpiece, “The Last Pirouette”. Here, the fading beauty of a washed-up prima ballerina becomes a metaphor for the end of the world. By rights, it should put you on your own suicide watch. Instead, it soars in exhilarating three-time, echoing in the vaults of the ceiling like a universal dance of death.

Other songs cover similarly traumatic terrain: “The Consequence” explores the chilling, seeping imprint left by domestic violence; “For the Dead Men” is a multi-layered exploration of the relationship between campaigners, the victims of injustice and the bystanders who do nothing – all dead, either in the cause or morally, through their inaction; “Rites of Man” is a shimmering eulogy to nature, the ultimate casualty of human folly.

Indeed, folly – of humanity, of war, or of the individual (check out “Icarus”, a sorry tale of desertion) – is one of Ward’s grandest themes. As we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, numbers like “Shellback” (Ward’s first composition) and the upbeat “Marching Through the Green Grass” (an adaptation of an Appalachian folk song) assume a heart-catching resonance.

But if all this sounds forbiddingly apocalyptic, the depth and beauty of the writing also generates shafts of hope that pierce the blackness. “Velvet Sky” is an anthemic explosion of colour and optimism.

With producer and occasional co-writer Stu Hanna, Ward has created the glorious, almost symphonic equivalent of a diorama in which characters spring to life and move against the backdrop of her assured musicality. This is an auspicious piece of work, which reveals more depth and nuance with each play.

Album review – Sara Syms: Fade to Blue

21 Dec

Dance on my Grave: Sara Syms offers a bleakly lilting invitation

Fade to Blue: Sara Syms is honest, thoughtful musical company

Fade to Blue: Sara Syms is honest, thoughtful musical company

With Fade to Blue, Chicago-born Sara Syms has produced a debut album steeped in Americana. It’s a heady mix of blues-tinged roots, with dashes of bluegrass and jazz, which reflects the diversity of her influences, including Patty Griffin, but is also an emphatic statement of musical independence.

From the storming “Devil Came Around”, through the bleakly lilting “Dance on My Grave”, to the lyrical sensuality of the title track and the irresistible hook of “Waves Crashing”, Syms and her song-writing partner Lynn Verlayne have crafted a rich aural patchwork of numbers.

Each song draws on the insight of experience and explores the many complexities and shades of relationships. These are not the laments of the romantic victim so much as a quest for affirmation and clarity, acknowledging that when it comes to love, nothing is ever simply black and white. Sometimes, as Syms sings in “Free”, you just have to borrow a silver lining.

“Someday” and “Gypsy Dreams” are two songs about longing from different angles, the first bittersweet and hopeful, the second hinting at the exotic distractions of a romance based on fantasy. “One Last Hit” is a suite of fables about the destructive power of addiction, while the sad, poignant beauty of “To Be in Love” explores what we’re missing if we don’t live in the moment.

Fade to Blue is an assured debut album, and an intimate take on universal themes. Syms is thoughtful, honest and touching musical company – never more so than on the final track, with its uncluttered realisation that “All We Have is Now”.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 368 other followers