Album review – Betty Buckley: Ghostlight

20 Oct

There’s no Sondheim on Ghostlight but in the absence of more current video content, here’s a blast of “Children Will Listen”

Ghostlight: Betty Buckley's atmospheric new album is effortlessly majestic

Ghostlight: Betty Buckley’s atmospheric new album is effortlessly majestic

I wonder if I was the only one whose heart sunk just a little with the release of Barbra Streisand’s commercially fail-proof duets album. Not because there would be any doubt about the quality – which is as clinically polished and pitch-perfect as we’d expect – but because this great, great artist is treading such predictable water at a time when other mature singers are forging ahead into new territory.

Cue – and all hail – Ghostlight, the shimmering, moody new album from Texas’s finest, Betty Buckley, which sounds positively experimental in comparison.  There has always been a freedom in Buckley’s song choices that, while paying glancing obeisance to her status as a Broadway leading lady, suggests an independence and elegant wilfulness.

She has never been a conventional belter, and in this eclectic selection of standards, torchy ballads and soft rock and country songs, she takes some of the most familiar lyrics in the American songbook to darker, outlying terrain – exposing them to the ghostlight of the title and stripping them back to a kind of minimalist perfection. She is joined in her quest by producer T Bone Burnett, a life-long friend, who is responsible for the album’s stark, spacey beauty.

Looking back to a review I wrote of her 1993 record Children Will Listen for The Gramophone Good Musicals CD Guide, I note my remark that Buckley is “Refreshingly unafraid to try something different… [her] voice is unusual – husky and intense – often falling away almost to a murmur…” I would change little about those observations today, beyond adding that the years have simply brought greater depth and resonance to her interpretations.

She never forces the issue – as these beautiful versions of “Body and Soul”, Bewitched” and “This Nearly Was Mine” aver, pressing all the right emotional buttons without ever going over the top. Heartbreak is only a note away. “Lazy Afternoon” takes on an extraordinary air of mystery, hinting that anything could materialise out of the haze.

But the most interesting tracks fall in the album’s second half. There’s a sublime take on the Jefferson Airplane number “Comin’ Back to Me”, with its exquisite string arrangement, a poignant “Take it With Me When I Go”, and an honest, lyrical reading of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “When Time Stands Still”. Effortlessly majestic.

Album review – Reb Capper: Bakelite

20 Oct

Bakelite: crackling sonic references herald the arrival of a singular talent

Bakelite: nursery rhymes and plainsong are just some of the influences at work on Reb Capper's ambitious new album

Bakelite: nursery rhymes and plainsong are just some of the influences at work on Reb Capper’s ambitious new album

There must be something in the Suffolk water that is particularly good for nourishing the county’s female song-writing gene pool.  Artists like Fiona Bevan, Rhiannon Mair and Reb Capper all have steadily rising profiles that are capturing attention well beyond the county boundaries.

With a generous 14 tracks showcasing a prodigious gift, Capper’s first full-length album is a curiosity shop of influences, styles and genres. Inside, nursery rhymes are retold, folkloric sprites summoned, passions collide, and the calming notes of evensong counterbalance gypsy dances and the crackling sonic references of the title track, “Bakelite”.

Capper’s ability to create a vivid idiosyncratic world in song has inevitably already drawn comparison with Kate Bush – and equally inevitably, garnered her the ‘quirky’ tag. There are certainly echoes of Bush’s early work in a shared gift for fusing human emotion with myth and earthy nature (“Voodoo Doll” is a case in point) but the similarity is mainly present in Capper’s eclectic range of influences – cinematic one minute, rooted in English folk music the next – which fuel her personal musical vision.

Bakelite is an ambitious album, full of charm. Lush emotional ballads like “Masquerade” and “Egg Shells” rub shoulders with numbers such as “Teddy Bears Picnic”, “Lemon Aid” and “Goblin Song”, which evoke a joyous early 1970s spirit reminiscent of the late Lynsey de Paul or Blue Mink.  “Evening Song” grows from its plainsong intro into a soaring, hey-nonny folk number, eventually combining the two  in an audacious mix, while plangent church bells segue into a blue-grass jig on the wry “Wedding Bells”.

All in all, a tasty feast, beautifully produced by Steve Mann and Capper herself, heralding the big-stage arrival of a singular talent.

Album review – Ange Hardy: The Lament of the Black Sheep

14 Oct

A natural folk-song writer: Ange Hardy’s album launch gig is full of insights into her craft

The Lament of the Black Sheep: Ange Hardy's rich landscape of song is populated by many ghosts

The Lament of the Black Sheep: Ange Hardy’s rich landscape of song is populated by many ghosts

Many ghosts stalk the rich, fertile landscape evoked with such consummate skill by Ange Hardy on The Lament of the Black Sheep, the follow-up album to last year’s quietly commanding Bare Foot Folk.

If there is nothing to quite match the brooding  Brontё-ness of “The Ghost on the Moor”, the spectres conjured here in songs like “The Foolish Heir” and “The Young Librarian” are testament to Hardy’s imagination as a natural folk-song writer, completely immersed in the gentle evolution of her craft. The album is a carefully integrated collection of moods and lore, constantly shifting and moving on.

Her notable  gift for setting contemporary lyrics to timeless melodies, wreathed in subtle harmonies, means that you are often lulled into a sense of deep, oaky tradition – only to be brought up sharply by 21st-century references; “The Cull”, for example, is a poignant, objective view of the current, highly controversial attempt to stop TB spreading from badgers to cattle.

Like much of Hardy’s material, it is rooted in her West Somerset territory, the very soil of which seems to give rise effortlessly to the characters who populate her tales. Even the black sheep of the title track – a retelling of the nursery rhyme from the pathetic, denuded sheep’s perspective – catches you out with its poignant blend of experience and observation.

While she says The Lament of the Black Sheep is not an overtly autobiographical album, Hardy’s skill is at its most focused in the songs that touch directly on her own life. The title track, for example, was inspired by the innocent bleakness of her son Luke’s interpretation of the rhyme. Family and motherhood loom large as themes.

But the most poignant numbers are “The Daring Lassie” and “The Lost Soul”, both of which reflect on different aspects of her teenage flight from a Somerset care home to a new life in Ireland – each a nod, in its way, to the spirit and survival instincts of a young woman who continues to inform much of Hardy’s work: a ghost of a different kind.

The vision which emerges from this beautifully textured album is that heritage is as much about the soul we carry with us as it is about the physical landscape that we spend our lives roaming across.

Album review – Peggy Seeger: Everything Changes

10 Oct

Everything Changes: a bittersweet mix of memory and loss

Everything Changes: yielding fresh treasure with each new listen

Everything Changes: yielding fresh treasure with each new hearing

Just when you thought that every conceivable nuance and interpretation must have been wrung out of the Titanic long since, along comes Peggy Seeger with “Swim to the Star”, reducing the multifarious myths and facts surrounding the 1912 tragedy to a folk tale of poignant simplicity. And – sorry, Céline – what a breathtakingly intense and human moment it is.

This opening track on Seeger’s new album, Everything Changes, was originally written in response to a BBC commission to mark the disaster’s centenary, and it sets the tone for a remarkable set of contemporary songs, mostly written or co-written by this redoubtable artist and archivist. Fleshed out by her son, producer Calum MacColl, it distills experience into three minutes of near-perfection. Like a subsequent number, the spacious and edgy “Flowers by the Roadside”, it transports the listener into a world of lyrical clarity which is surely the legacy of Seeger’s life’s work in tracing and recording the legacy of 20th century folk music.

Everything Changes is not, as Seeger says, a folk album per se. Yet it reflects the tropes of folk effortlessly, dishing up lore, home truths, tales of death and ageing, and even salutary warnings about drug addiction – “Miss Heroin”, by Rutthy Taubb, is based on a 26-word verse which the writer chanced upon on the back of a toilet door in North Carolina – in thoroughly contemporary settings.

Not that Seeger is a stranger to innovation, as anyone who caught her 2012 collaboration with Broadcaster (Folksploitation) will recall. On that album, her voice had a shaman-like, hypnotic quality. Here, she ranges from girlish delight to seasoned cynicism and gentle wisdom, supported by a band which frames the songs with elegant, spare arrangements.

There is plenty of humour: “Do You Believe in Me?” is a heartfelt antidote to fairy tales and Santa Claus, and “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” a deliciously ironic, sexy take on seduction from the female perspective. But there are also deep veins of darkness: “When Fairy Tales End” considers what really happens in the happily ever after, while “We Watch You Slip Away” is a beautifully expressed observation of a loved-one fading into death. Then there is the quiet acceptance of the title track, with its bittersweet mix of memory and loss. Inspired and inspirational, this is an album which yields fresh treasure with every hearing.

Album review – Claudia Brücken: Where else…

5 Oct

Nevermind: Literate lyrics over a throbbing techno-beat

Where else... the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken's shines in a new set of self-penned songs

Where else… the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken’s voice shines in a new set of self-penned songs

It’s nearly 30 years since the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken’s voice first came to wider attention as one of the main elements of Propaganda’s punchy, cinematic brand of electronica. Three decades on, the German singer’s third solo album Where Else… acknowledges the ongoing significance of electronic music in her career – not least in the throbbing beats of “Nevermind” and “Letting go”, overlayed with literate, earworm lyrics – while drawing subtly on a broader range of influences.

Apart from a pristine version of Nick Drake’s “Day is done”, all the tracks are written by Brücken and the album’s producer John Owen Williams, who has established a strong track record for getting the best out of his female collaborators in the studio (he was also the force behind Petula Clark’s recent success, Lost in You).

Their well-crafted songs are built around strong journey-like narratives which tell tales of shattered trust, reconnection, and optimism rising from adversity, reflecting Brücken’s decision to move away from the synth bank and try out the guitar – an instrument she learned to play during the making of the album – as the central plank of her song-writing. “Walk right in” shimmers with echoes of English folk, while “How do I know” and the funky, guitar-driven “Moon song” are each, in their own way, invitations to intimacy.

The combination of a sharp, contemporary musicality and her preference for story-telling, which also reflects a lifelong admiration for great European artists like Piaf, Dietrich and potent American singer- poets such as Patti Smith and Lou Reed, is fascinating.

Beautifully integrated, delicate layers of sound cradle and support Brücken’s lucid vocals as she explores the complex territory of the troubadour and the chanteuse réaliste. Williams’s skill is such that hints of Velvet Underground darkness blend easily with Abba-esque riffs, creating a bittersweet world in which the emotional climate is never settled for long.

Duel: Brücken’s 1980s stint with Propaganda remains a key influence on her music

Album review – Sarah-Jane Morris: Bloody Rain

4 Oct

A complicated proposition: Sarah-Jane Morris talks about how Bloody Rain came about

Bloody Rain: a scene-stealing new album from a singer who has always defied easy categorisation

Bloody Rain: a scene-stealing new album from a singer who has always defied easy categorisation

This is shaping up into a golden autumn for the elder stateswomen of rock and popular music across the genres. From Sandie Shaw’s exciting collaboration with Davidge to Marianne Faithfull’s best album in years, from Annie Lennox’s forthcoming dip into the American standards to Betty Buckley’s Ghostlight, from Kate Bush’s extraordinary live performances to Peggy Seeger’s ageless vocals, they are each a testament to their own capacity for reinvention and boundary-pushing in a notoriously youth-obsessed business. And they are producing some of the finest and most interesting work in their already illustrious careers.

To the growing list we must now add Sarah-Jane Morris, who practically steals the show from the lot of them with Bloody Rain, an exhilarating Africa-inspired journey through intimacy and friendship, passion, the political legacy of colonialism, homophobia, industrial exploitation, child-soldiers and the fractures that explode when Western culture impacts on traditional family life.

It sounds like a complicated proposition. But Morris’s song-writing is so adept that the personal and universal perspectives, swept up in a constantly shifting net of beats and lilting melodies, are always clearly defined and accessible – and unflinching.

Given many of the subjects tackled, an underlying anger throbs through numbers like “No Beyonce”, “David Kato” and “Coal train”. Morris’s skill is to keep it subliminal, rendering the shock of the shattering lyric above a seductive rhythm all the more potent.

Don’t be misled by the Joplin-esque fierceness of the cover image, which might suggest the album is a long howl of rage. The range of textures in this most distinctive of voices gives her a wide palate of choices, from the dark, ominous growl that she deploys on “Deeper well” to her eloquent narrative on the human cost of the diamond trade on “Coal train”, to the stark beauty of “On my way to you”. There’s even an impassioned take on “I shall be released” for good measure (apparently, it’s compulsory for everyone to include a Dylan cover when they make a new album – but this ties in seamlessly with the arc of Bloody Rain).

Morris has always been a nomadic singer when it comes to style, eschewing easy categorisation and gracefully side-stepping the legacy of “Don’t leave me this way”, that gloriously excessive, soulful collaboration with The Communards which could so easily have consigned a less-resistant artist to the “eighties singers” pen.

Further evidence of that versatility can be found in the album’s several love songs and tributes to friends and family, grounding its complex themes in the powerful resourcefulness of human relationships. And on the last track, the triumphantly satirical “Men just want to have fun”, with its calypso sway, Morris unleashes a needle-sharp humour to make her point about male attitudes to sexual freedom. This is a “Man smart, woman smarter” for the 21st century, frank and utterly contemporary.

With an exceptional band of musicians and backing singers, including Courtney Pine, the Soweto Gospel Choir, Pee Wee Ellis and Ian Shaw, Morris has created an enthralling work which ultimately soothes having delivered some powerful emotional punches. That’s quite a feat.

Don’t leave me this way: gloriously soulful, but don’t call Sarah-Jane Morris an “eighties singer”

Album review – Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London

25 Sep

Falling Back: imperious pop from Marianne Faithfull, with a little help from Anna Calvi (Later… with Jools Holland)

Give My Love to London: a tricky long-term relationship inspires a Marianne Faithfull masterpiece

Give My Love to London: a tricky long-term relationship inspires a Marianne Faithfull masterpiece

Marianne Faithfull’s relationship with London has always been complicated. So it’s no surprise that the title of her staggeringly good new album is laced with irony. Give My Love to London is no billet doux of rapprochement to a city that has been responsible for a fair few of her battle scars over the years.

But as it ranges freely across the landscape of experience, the record – a truly majestic piece of art – balances moments of bleakly dispassionate observation and cold rage with flashes of compassion, tenderness and dizzying joy so effectively that it is impossible to escape a poignant underlying sense of conflicted affection.

Like so many artists before her, Faithfull has discovered in London an infinitely versatile metaphor for the betraying or exalted lover, the progress of an affair, the drug addict, or a society in crisis. But making the metaphor work so fluently is another matter, and her considerable achievement here is to render her subject with such fresh and resolutely contemporary inflections.  In the title track, the city morphs from a moonlit playground to a rioting conflagration. This ambivalence is displaced by fragile hope in the moving Roger Waters composition, “Sparrows will sing”.

Faithfull’s collaborations with songwriters including Anna Calvi (“Falling Back”, a richly anthemic, imperious pop song), Nick Cave (the poignantly fragile “Deep Water”) and Patrick Leonard (the ferocious “Mother Wolf”) give the album its assured foundations. Cave has also contributed a mini classic in “Late Victorian Holocaust”, a psycho-geographical tale of child heroin addicts; almost 50 years after her introspective, faltering treatment of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street”, Faithfull is back on familiar territory, older and a whole lot wiser  And there are lovely interpretations of the Everlys’ “The Price of Love” and the wry Leonard Cohen/Patrick Leonard ballad, “Going Home”.

The musical shifts are as eclectic as the songs. Grand, baroque walls of guitar-driven rock give way to blues riffs, folk tropes, classical pianos and harps. That the album gels so perfectly is due in part to the production (take a bow Rob Ellis and Dimitri Tikovoi), and Flood’s mixes, which brilliantly define Faithfull’s vocals so that whether she is declaiming and intoning like a great 21st-century diseuse or singing in that scarred contralto, she is always a match for a band that plays up a storm.

But perhaps more than anything, Give My Love to London is a triumph for Faithfull’s own artistic conviction and self-confidence, which seem to have peaked just as she celebrates 50 years in the music business.

Faithfull has made it clear that she has no intention of coming home from the Parisian eyrie where she now lives. But as she concludes in a stark, beyond-despair reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s  “I get along without you very well” – here, a torch-song to the city she has just dissected so eloquently – there is a bond that will always be able to reassert itself with the stabbing precision of a stiletto blade. And in Faithfull’s case, like the irritating piece of sand that leads to the creation of a pearl, it has provided the inspiration for a masterpiece.

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