Album review – Mary Gauthier: Trouble & Love

15 Jul

How You Learn to Live Alone: an electrifying performance from Mary Gauthier

Trouble & Love: powerful narratives and no self-pitying sobs

Trouble & Love: powerful narratives and no self-pitying sobs

Louisiana-born Mary Gauthier has lived more lives than a cat – and they all resonate through her songs with a truth and authenticity that goes way beyond the mainstream tropes of country and western music. This, after all, is a woman who lived among addicts and drag queens as a teenage runaway, fell prey to a spell of drug addiction of her own, and recovered to run her own small chain of Boston restaurants before selling up to become a full-time songwriter.

On her new album, Trouble and Love, Gauthier’s voice wears the scars of experience with hypnotic dignity, slipping in and around the powerful narratives of her songs with an easy musicality that also allows her to give her more trenchant observations a defiant edge. It’s a voice steeped in hard-earned wisdom, with no time for the self-pitying sob. There’s an assured intimacy which hints at the overall themes of the record, the first on her own label, of independence and moving on.

Gauthier says she’s taking back and claiming her power. So while the fatalism of the opening track, “When a Woman Goes Cold” and the notes of betrayal on “False From True” cover some familiar territory, the acceptance of deeds done and accounted for, explored in a number like “Oh Soul”, hints at the redemption and hope that finally gather pace in “Worthy”. Gauthier’s eye is on the horizon. As she later sings, we’re all just “Walking Each Other Home”

Co-produced with Patrick Granado, Trouble and Love grows greater with each listen. Gauthier’s formidable song-writing talents are complemented by contributions from Beth Nielsen Chapman and, on the bittersweet journey of “How You Learn to Live Alone”, the sublime Gretchen Peters. These are formidable partnerships that strike lyrical sparks, epitomising the strength of contemporary song-writing that flows out of Nashville.

Album review – Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell: We’re Just Passing Through

7 Jul

Just passing through? Let’s hope not. Robbins and Campbell are a partnership to be reckoned with

 

We're Just Passing Through: Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell make a formidable song-writing team

We’re Just Passing Through: Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell make a formidable song-writing team

Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell have teamed up to write We’re Just Passing Through, an album of songs inspired by travel, transient experiences and above all, the ruffled texture of human relationships. And despite a sanguine undercurrent which acknowledges that life has a habit of kicking back, it adds up to a charming and often joyful listen.

Campbell’s musical credentials are probably less well-known than his journalism and broadcasting work, and his song-writing skills will be a revelation to anyone who isn’t aware of the swing album he wrote for Mark Moraghan in 2009. Robbins, on the other hand, is a singer and songwriter of wide repute, although she is perhaps most fondly regarded for her gloriously accurate voice work on Spitting Image and Eurotrash. Between them, they’ve forged a creative partnership that on the evidence of this album could run for some time.

The musical range is eclectic, swinging – literally – from country-tinged folk (“Tell My heart”, Campbell’s sole vocal contribution, modest and whimsical; the man can sing, too) to bluesy jazz (“The Imposter in my Heart” and “Too Late for Love”) and a bit of guitar-driven rock (Robbins and Ray Brown sing the heck out of the up tempo “Parallel Lives”).

But the show-stoppers are some big ballads, which allow Robbins the chance to let fly with a voice that really gives the album its signature sound.

Ray Brown, who sings the Gerry Rafferty-esque title track, and Logan Wilson, who gets the slave-to-love swing number “Don’t Start me on Her”, both make significant contributions.

Yet it’s Robbins whose voice lingers once the record has stopped spinning. As anyone familiar with her last album, Soho Nights, will confirm, she handles tender-hearted anthems with an instinctive assurance and authority. “And Then I Loved You” and the late-night meandering piano ballad, “Something Wonderful and New” are mature, realistic observations of those touching moments of affirmation in new and seasoned relationships. But the stand-out song is the final track, “I Am Gone”, a grand, literate power ballad about the end of an affair, dripping with stately regret.

Readers with long memories might recall that Robbins has Eurovision form, having come third for the UK in the 1980 competition as part of the group, Prima Donna, with the pop song “Love Enough for Two”.

“I Am Gone”, in contrast, has a nostalgic feel that recalls some of those classy numbers delivered with conviction, usually by a female artist, in the years before the contest fell prey to spectacle. As a song-writing team, Robbins and Campbell are happily unfettered by any notions of cool, and long may that continue.

Album review – Mary Carrick: Let’s Fly

3 Jul


Dance me to the End of Love: just one of Carrick’s clever song choices

Let's Fly: Mary Carrick's voice is reminiscent of great torch singers from the past

Let’s Fly: Mary Carrick’s voice is reminiscent of great torch singers from the past

You don’t hear too many voices like Mary Carrick’s in popular music these days, beyond the boundaries of operetta or traditional musical theatre. Her clear, mellifluous soprano might not quite have the resonance of, say, Audra McDonald’s, but it is pleasingly elegant and molten – and all the more refreshing for its lyrical clarity in an age when diction in singing doesn’t always seem to be a priority.

In her technique, Carrick harks back to the intimate, low-key drama of the great Helen Morgan and her sister torch singers of the 1920s and 1930s.

At first glance, Let’s Fly looks like another album of standards. And in a crowded market, your instinctive response is to ask, what’s different about this one? The answer lies in Carrick’s clever song choices.

The old-school standards – “Come Rain or Come Shine”, a mash-up of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, and Cole Porter’s “So in Love” are deftly handled to be sure, but they are mainly the cornerstones of a record which celebrates more contemporary song-writing talents. And the contrast is fascinating.

The album opens with the delicious fatalism of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Time”, and takes in Jason Robert Brown (“Stars and the Moon”) and Stephen Schwartz (the sublime “Meadowlark”) – all holding their own alongside the masters of the American songbook.

Carrick really nails her singing colours to the mast at the heart of the set with two numbers. The first, an impassioned take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” confirms that wistful ballad as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. The second, a sizzling interpretation of Barry Manilow’s “Man Wanted”, is a reminder that he, too, is one of the finest songwriters of our time.

The final number, an echoing, sweeping version of Craig Carnelia’s “Flight” is a moving and inspirational note on which to end.

It takes a singer with Carrick’s vision and a passion for story-telling to weave songs like this into compelling and unexpected combinations. And she succeeds with the help of a fine band – three of whom, pianists J.Gawf, Todd Brooks and Eric Andries, also take credit for the pristine arrangements.

Album review – Judith Owen: Ebb & Flow

30 Jun


I’ve Never Been to Texas: Judith Owen gives 1970s themes a contemporary touch

Ebb & Flow: much more than a tribute to the 1970s troubadours

Ebb & Flow: much more than a tribute to the 1970s troubadours

Forty years on, the early 1970s are increasingly seen as a golden age for the singer/songwriter and new generations are discovering the depth and creativity of performers who have long since ascended their own musical Mount Olympus. Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Carly Simon… the list of deities resonates with true greatness and their influence is keenly felt by today’s troubadours.

Listening to Judith Owen’s new album, Ebb & Flow, which is a self-confessed salute to their legacy, it is fascinating to hear just how much that influence reverberates with relevance. The hunger for thoughtful, personal, meaningful lyrics is greater than ever after a prolonged period in which pop’s dependence on production technology and sampling has seemed irreversible.

Owen has enlisted the help of several musicians who were key to the success of some of the totemic albums of the age, including drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. And there’s a poignant, unlisted nod to Carole King to catch the listener out at the end of the record.

But Ebb & Flow is only superficially a retro ‘tribute’ album. Owen has a consummate skill for referencing themes and riffs that evoke a 1970s spirit while remaining fresh and contemporary. Witness her deft handling of that hardy chestnut “In the Summertime”, which strips away the nonsense and becomes a rather touching, nostalgic skip down the memory lanes of youth.

Overall, however, the substance of the album is more than nostalgic. Loss and separation are the leitmotifs, with Owen seeking resolution and acceptance of the pain through graceful lyrics that explore the visceral impact of these experiences. Catharsis triumphs over anguish and agony, although the wounds remain. Nowhere is this crystallised more effectively than in the twin tracks that deal with the loss of her parents: the heart-stopping “I Would Give Anything” and “You are not There Anymore”.

The life of the troubadour provides the meat for songs like “Hey Mister, That’s me up on the Jukebox” and “I’ve Never Been to Texas”. Elsewhere, Owen takes good old-fashioned betrayal as a core theme and teases it into a couple of deceptively low-key, completely lacerating sets of lyrics (“You are not my Friend” and “Some Arrows go in Deep”).

Fluid and fluent, Ebb & Flow envelops you in its multi-tiered exploration of hard-learned lessons, in which realisation is never subsumed by bitterness. It’s a real grower.

Album Review – Fiona Bevan: Talk to Strangers

22 Jun


Fiona Bevan explains how Talk to Strangers is a reflection of her life

Talk to Strangers: timeless themes explored through eclectic forms and styles

Talk to Strangers: timeless themes explored through eclectic forms and styles

 

Given her pedigree as a songwriter and in-demand collaborator on a wide range of musical projects, it seems extraordinary that we are only now hailing Fiona Bevan’s debut album, Talk to Strangers.

The co-writer – with Ed Sheeran – of One Direction’s “Little Things”, Bevan also made a notable contribution to Gwyneth Herbert’s treasurable The Sea Cabinet song cycle. Like Herbert, she is a unique talent, capable of harnessing styles, riffs, hooks and melodies and spinning them into complete, multi-tiered and utterly absorbing stories.

The lyrics of these songs are scintillating. Bevan’s voice, with its flexibility and that helium shimmer at the top, is the perfect vehicle, treating them with a pop sensibility that seduces you, allowing the darker streaks and uncertainties to sneak up on you and pull you deep into the narrative labyrinth.

Don’t be fooled by the quick tempo of the opening tracks, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Slo Mo Tiger Glo”. Sinister underlying forces soon emerge, piercing the guitar-driven ballads with doubts and questions, not least in the pent-up rage of the “The Machine” and the pure sadness of “Dial D for Denial” – a break-up number that pitches torch-song lyrics against an up-beat melody to heart-wrenching effect.

The airy, wistful beauty of “Monsoon Sundance” provides some respite before things take another detour into the complex landscape of “Exorcist”, where jealousy eventually finds resolution, and the thoughtful title track – a cry for the power of human communication.

These are timeless themes, rendered in eclectic forms and styles that acknowledge Bevan’s cinematic and literary influences, while remaining proudly independent and resistant to categorisation.  The epic feel of the closing number – “Last Days of Decadence”, partly a response to the last financial crash – would resonate in any decade of the last 100 years.

Talk to Strangers is an ambitious piece of work. Bevan paints big, bold musical pictures. The joy of repeated listening lies in discovering the depth and detail which lie just beneath the surface.

Album review – Franka de Mille: Bridge the Roads

10 Jun


Fluid, assured and with an underlying catch of vulnerability: Franka de Mille sings “Gare du Nord” unplugged

Bridge the Roads: a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons

Bridge the Roads: a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons

The influence of the chanson doesn’t always cross easily into British musical sensibilities, which tend to favour a more ironic or cynical approach when it comes to exploring gut-wrenching emotion in song. But occasionally, a singer emerges who revels in the shape and form of an art-form with a commitment that transcends the reservations and embarrassments of tastes that might be more naturally drawn to the bleak introspection and political nuances of folk noir.

Franka de Mille’s album, Bridge the Roads, delivers such a revelation – a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons about separation, longing and atonement which disarm the listener with their honesty.
The lyrics don’t dissemble. Cradled by discreet strings, shimmering mandolins and yearning accordions, they spin raw tales of hurt in which the story-teller reaps the consequences of deception – not least in the album’s centrepiece, “Gare du Nord”, which details the devastation of parting with an existential frankness that harks back to Juliet Gréco at her most mesmerising.

Fluid and assured, with an underlying catch of vulnerability, de Mille’s voice is the perfect vehicle for a journey that begins with the upbeat, country-tinged incitement to “Come On” and the fiddle-enhanced self-realisation of “Fallen”, before things grow increasingly dark and contemplative with “Solo”, a lament that plays cleverly with the song title. “Birds”, punctuated by a wail of anguish that could come from the heart of the Balkans, later picked up in the visceral pain of “So Long”, is a deeply affecting exploration of a father/daughter relationship.

Occasionally, the sun shines through the gathering clouds, hinting at the possibility of healing from these bruising experiences: “Bridge the Roads” itself is a number which sets out the defiant promise of survival and resilience just in time. A complex, rewarding blend of European influences and evocative song-writing.

Radio interview: Piers Ford talking about torch singers and life as a jobbing journalist

4 Jun

new-small-pic.jpg

On 23rd May 2014, I was a sofa guest on BBC Radio Suffolk, chatting to Chrissie Jackson about this blog, among other things, and why there are plenty of female singers who deserve much greater media coverage – and why now is the right  time to get on with writing a book that’s been germinating for 20 years. This is a conversation-only version of the interview, with music and radio bits edited out (thanks to my brother, producer Julian Ford).

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 449 other followers