Archive | December, 2010

CD review: Mary Hopkin and Morgan Visconti – You Look Familiar

27 Dec

Those were the the days: Mary Hopkin sings her signature song on a very strange choice of set

You Look Familiar: Mary Hopkin shakes off the shreds of nostalgia with a fascinating new album

It’s hard to believe that more than 40 years have passed since a Welsh teenager with a melancholy, angelically crystalline voice and a curtain of blonde hair won a British TV talent show – Opportunity Knocks (how quaint that now seems compared with the global machine that is X Factor today) – and secured a substantial chart career that lasted into the early 1970s.

The name Mary Hopkin will be forever associated with the Paul McCartney-produced “Those Were the Days”, a fatalistic traditional folk song, probably originally from somewhere east of the Urals, which gave her a number one hit. Hopkin was an important early signing for the Beatles’ iconic Apple label.

A blast from the past: Mary Hopkin sings Temma Harbour, produced by Mickie Most, on Top of the Pops in 1970

She went on to work with Mickie Most on a number of hits and represented the United Kingdom in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest. But while she came second with “Knock Knock, Who’s There?”, the experience of singing a song that she has never made a secret of loathing only added to her growing distaste for the manipulation of the music industry – and a lack of influence over her own career that was the lot of most young female singers at the time.

Although she continued recording intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s, much of Hopkin’s subsequent work was within the collaborative security of project bands Sundance and, later, with Peter Skellern and Julian Lloyd Webber, Oasis (long before a pair of Mancunian brothers changed the trajectory of British rock with a group of the same name).

Hopkin seemed bent on putting as much water between her and the days of her greatest commercial success as possible. And although there have been occasional snippets of new work in the intervening years, interviews became rare and accordingly, she acquired a reclusive, increasingly enigmatic reputation – not unlike that of Kate Bush.

Now, she has released a fascinating new album (You Look Familiar) written and produced in partnership with her son Morgan Visconti – and it’s a treat from start to finish, not least because those pristine vocals are utterly undiminished by the years. But it is also a work of real, thought-provoking depth that references Hopkin’s folk roots (“Chime” is the most overtly folk-accented track) and influences as she relates a sequence of rounded, modern stories, from the opening track (“America”) with its tale of the young stowaway heading East to the uneasy warnings of “Eve’s Revenge” and the easy, resigned chug of “Dog Eat Dog” – a catchy pub song.

Intriguingly, many of the arrangements are cradled in infectious, synth-style riffs, beats and echoing overlaid harmonies (some courtesy of daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, a singer in her own right) that often create a retro sense of lush 1980s electronic pop.

But don’t be seduced simply by the sound. Piercing barbs lurk in the lyrics, reminders that Hopkin now has the lifetime of experience that she was only able to hint at as the 18-year old singer of “Those Were the Days”. There is darkness and stinging cynicism, too. I don’t know who she had in mind, writing “Heaven Knows”. But even if her target was personal, the stinging words could equally apply to higher, more public figures and I can think of one or two politicians who would be usefully caught in their firing line.

I love “People Say”, a wise and touching account of an unexpected encounter that could lead to something more, the motherly advice of “Walk Like Me” and the epic, hypnotic forebodings of “Pretenders”. With You Look Familiar, Hopkin has emphatically shaken off the shreds of nostalgia and reminded us of a voice and pedigree that have much to offer in 2011. Don’t leave it so long next time, Mary. We’d like some more – and soon.

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CD Review – Emma Dean: Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret

26 Dec

“Sincerely Fearful”: a track from Emma Dean’s new album, Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret

Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret: a record with huge ambitions

I know it makes me a failure on so many levels as a gay man but I’ve never really understood the Kylie phenomenon. Those Stock, Aitken and Waterman years were anathema to me. And give or take a couple of genuinely interesting floor fillers since then – and the lady’s occasional flirtations with jazz and Nick Cave – I’ve always found that tiny sliver of a voice totally at odds with her diva status and the outrageous production values of her arena tours. For such a small talent, she’s had a spectacular career. But now that she’s post-40 and has successfully battled breast cancer, she has also earned her ‘show-business survivor’ stripes. So good luck to her, I guess.

Emma Dean is something altogether different: bold, edgy, clearly determined to plough her own creative furrow and to hell with the consequences, and possessed of a raw, outsize talent that will take some steering. And with a new album – Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret – just out, she is in pole position to be Australia’s next big cultural export.
 
This is a record with huge ambitions – epic arrangements (catch those strings on “Sharks”), swooping vocals (that have had some critics reaching yet again for Kate Bush comparisons), lyrics that plunge with vertigo-inducing speed from existential streams of consciousness to the gut punch of rock balladry and the occasional crude verbal laceration.
 
Dean herself says, “It’s [the album] about letting go of all the things I’m normally too afraid and ashamed to speak of and unashamedly airing them in song.” If you have sensitive pretentiousness antennae, they’re probably twitching already. And the album’s concept – Dean spilling the contents of her sub-conscious to the eponymous Dr Dream – is no small hurdle, for a start. But once you get beyond that and start listening to the words, the cascade of characters, dark tales, threats, dangers and sensual motifs, is innovative and promising.
 
It’s a long while since I heard a lyric as challenging as: “Once a thieving scoundrel dared me to steal your underwear. The silk did trickle down your legs to your ankles pink as pigs,” the opening lines to the hymn-like “Thieving Hearts”.
 
Can’t get her out of my head? Well Dean is certainly a bold and refreshing new voice, and there are several tracks I’ll happily have on my iPod. To be honest, I don’t get Kate Bush so much as Sparks (“Sincerely Fearful”) with a dash of  Tori Amos and Berlin cabaret. Dean’s fascinating vocal texture also reminds me very much of Melinda Miel, a performer of dark, bloodstained cabaret material, who captured the imagination of London’s club scene all too briefly in the early 1990s.
 
 
Melinda Miel sings “Delirium’s Mistress”: dark, bloodstained cabaret from the early 1990s
  
Dean has combined idiosyncrasy and a strong, fetishistic visual impact with a promisingly commercial sound, epitomised by one of the best tracks, the anthemic “Thunder”.
 
At the same time, this points to another hurdle: Dr Dream is a character from her alternative cabaret show, and there is sometimes a sense with the album that the listening experience is only giving you half the story. Not all the songs are wholly effective in a pure audio format. So hopefully, she’ll soon be following that well-trodden path to London and we’ll get the chance to see and hear the complete picture.
Meanwhile, if you’re going to be in Australia this summer, you can catch her as Sally Bowles in Zen Zen Xo Physical Theatre’s production of Cabaret in Brisbane.

CD Review – Renée Yoxon: Let’s Call it a Day; plus news of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Girl Talk, Marianne Faithfull and a Sondheim cabaret season

24 Dec

Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!

Wilson, Jungr and Herbert: the new Girl Talk line-up hits London in February

Congratulations to Barb Jungr, whose album The Men I Love has just been named Cabaret CD of the Year by Time Out New York.

Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.

Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.

Horses & High Heels: Marianne Faithfull's new album, out in March

Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.

Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.

Let's Call it a Day: an auspicious debut from Renée Yoxon

Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.

It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.

Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.

Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.

If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.

CD Review – Fragile: Tanja Maritsa

22 Dec

Memory Box: a number from Tanja Maritsa’s previous album, Child in My Heart

Fragile: a little piece of magic

Here’s proof that it’s possible to be gentle, understated, enigmatic and provocative, all at the same time. London-based Tanja Maritsa’s second album, Fragile, insinuates itself into your head and drifts around, underscoring the changing moods of the day. Not in a ghastly, earworm fashion. But in the way her intimate vocals – so soft that they’re almost whispered rather than sung, daringly close to the mic (she has an assured technical confidence) – wrap themselves around you.

Maritsa’s top-class band provide jazz inflections and undertones that shimmer around her voice – James Graydon’s guitar and Richard Cottle (who works regularly with Claire Martin) on the piano deserve special mention for the delicacy of their playing – as she swings her way delicately through Colette Meury’s pristine arrangements. Richard Niles has done a masterful production job, pulling together a diverse range of musical references and nuances in such a way that the shifts in tone, style and tempo never jar.

Maritsa keeps your expectations on their toes. The lilting opening track, “Live for Today”, promises a retro, 1950s nightclub experience, full of simple optimism, which is revisited later on in “No More the Blues”. But don’t be fooled, because there is plenty of food for the soul’s darker side to come, not least in Maritsa’s treatment of Sting’s “Fragile” – the title track and one of two imported numbers (the others are all from Maritsa’s pen) – and the poignant “Fading Grace” and “Always With You”. Loss, renewal and moving on are constant themes. The final ballad, “Fading Grace”, is a poignant acceptance of grief and lost innocence, its emotional impact only heightened by the spare delivery.

There are hints of chanson in “Won’t You Dance” and “In Love Again”, jazz-tinged folk in “On the Other Side of the World”, and bossa nova in the Astor Piazzolla number “Libertango”, but every time you think you’ve identified a specific style, Maritsa spins you on to a new perspective in her subtle, irresistible way. Fragile is a thoughtful, beautifully conceived little piece of magic.

CD Review – Lea DeLaria: Be a Santa

21 Dec

Lea DeLaria: a cat isn’t just for Christmas…

Lea DeLaria: a one-woman melting pot of serious musicianship and showbiz

What makes a great Christmas album? For me, it’s a performer’s ability to bring something new to those familiar songs and carols, with a dash of wit and intelligence – and even mischief. I want something that has a shelf-life which easily overflows the frantic couple of weeks leading up to the day itself, and that I’ll be quite happy to listen to on its merits well into January without the ennui setting in.

So while I’m sure Mariah Carey’s multitude of fans have been thrilled by the melismatic orgy that is Merry Christmas II You, it won’t be agitating my CD player this year or next. And although I’ve been a diehard Annie Lennox fan since her Tourists days – when there weren’t that many of us around – it pains me to say that the earnest intensity of her Christmas Cornucopia had me turning down the volume in irritation, until I was left in silence, watching the snow drift in the darkness through the window.

Be a Santa: one of the best jazz flavoured Christmas albums from a female singer since Cleo Laine's Christmas at the Stables

Then Lea DeLaria’s Be a Santa arrived, and promptly joined that small, select set of Christmas albums on my shelf that I’ll start reaching for every November in search of something to make the winter solstice swing.

Be a Santa is steeped in DeLaria’s trademark vocal dexterity. With her musical partner in crime Janette Mason, she’s taken a host of favourites and whipped them up into a jazzy triumph of verve and invention. She’s all whisky-and-honey tones for a bluesy, brazen take on Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, tears the house down with a rip-roaring “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – the band, incidentally, is dazzling throughout – then puts her own thoughtful, close-to-the-mic stamp on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that takes you a million miles away from Judy Garland’s trembling vibrato. It’s a rare moment of intimate calm in an album that is otherwise delivered at a fair old lick.

DeLaria doesn’t put a foot wrong as she gets her tongue around some quick-fire lyrics (“The Man With the Bag”) without ever sacrificing clarity. That’s singing of the highest quality. And even when there aren’t words – witness the exuberant scatting on “White Christmas” – you forget you’re listening to songs that should have a strictly seasonal appeal and revel in one of the finest, most fluid voices on the scene. There is novelty, too. DeLaria and Mason have included one of their own compositions – “A Modern Christmas Tale” – which manages to combine a nostalgic, retro melody with allusions to all the angst-inducing banalities of getting ready for the big day in 2010.

When I last interviewed DeLaria, I called her a one-woman melting pot of serious musicianship and showbiz. The integrity of the music is incredibly important to her, she told me, but so is what happens between the songs, and the desire to give a good show on stage is paramount.

“There’s a language to jazz and the numbers, structures and harmonics are all built into it,” she said. “Do I have a talent? It seems to be. If you’d asked me five years ago, I don’t know whether I’d have said that. But having put out three records and worked with the people I’ve worked with, I am ready to say that yes, I do.”

Now, she’s put out four records, and Be a Santa is prime evidence of a vocalist in her prime – and probably the best jazz-flavoured album from a female singer since Cleo Laine’s Christmas at the Stables. The wit is all in the interpretation and if there’s just one thing missing, it’s a risqué, festive “Dirty Martini” moment. If you want to know what I mean, check out Play it Cool, and enjoy. Or just make do with DeLaria’s Egg Nog recipe, included in the liner notes.

CD Review – Signe Tollefsen

1 Dec

Signe Tollefsen sings You, Me & The Brewers. Folk at its noirest

I’ve just been reading Richard Metzger’s fascinating analysis of torch singing on the exciting and eclectic Dangerous Minds blog, in which he gives a generous assessment of the Art of the Torch Singer. Thank you, Richard. Metzger draws particular attention to male artists who have specialised in the genre and his post is well worth a visit. It’s already attracted some interesting comments about singers who should be included in the genre. You’ll find plenty of other connected, music-related material on the site as well. And now, here’s some folk noir for these dark winter days…

Signe Tollefsen's eponymous album. Think dark, then darker still.

You know how the idea of a crisp, snowy December twilight will occasionally work its way into your mind on a steamy summer day, shocking you with a pang of longing to sip whisky in the halo of a flickering log fire while everything hibernates in the shadows beyond?

That’s the effect Signe Tollefsen had on me as I spun her eponymous offering for the first time just a few months ago: perverse, edgy, hankering for the kind of emotional workout that only comes with alcohol-soaked, troubled and troubling relationships. Yikes.

This is folk noir, apparently. And it’s as dark and compelling as anything you’ll find this side of Brel. Tollefsen spins brilliant, diamond-hard images against a gently loping undercurrent of guitar – lots and lots of guitar (some of it of the steel-pedal variety, which in the right hands is always good for conjuring a sense of knives twisting in wounded souls) – banjo, accordion, wailing fiddles and dulcimer. Misery has rarely sounded this inviting.

Dutch-American and an Amsterdam resident, Tollefsen is a born troubadour with a sound as capable of evoking solitary journeys across interminable plains as it is of hypnotic story-telling in the intimacy of a cellar bar.

A cool musicality is revealed in this work (she studied classical singing at the Royal Northern College of Music in her teens) as she plays with rhythms that showcase her bleakly sensual lyrics. “Mama tell me why can’t I sing… Mama let me wallow in my pain,” she sings with uncompromising purity. “I am an art, deprived of a king,” she laments at the receding figure of a dead lover. Vulnerability is exposed. Characters spring to life, doomed unions are played out in a voice of considerable range and, despite the essential gloom of the material, sweetness. ‘The other woman’ is regularly referenced, and themes of duplicity and infidelity creep insidiously into the picture.

And Tollefsen has created a sound that’s very much her own, too. Occasionally, I found myself reminded of Joni Mitchell or the steel-eyed clarity of June Tabor. More prosaically, there is a rather shouty outburst in “History Class” that will certainly appeal to lovers of the full-throated Florence Welch approach to singing. But for the most part, vocally, she keeps her own counsel.

As for the songs, each one is a complete story, told by turns viscerally, through a sequence of potent sensual images, or through a more conventional narrative. I love the opening track, “It Smells of You”, about how the essence of a departed lover hangs around long after the physical presence is gone; the ominous sense of entrapment in “Hooked (You Spit in my Whiskey)”; and the gritty emotional bargaining at the heart of “Up to No Good”. And any lyric that contains the line “I wake up to the smell of gin and regret” (the song has the rather unpromising title, “It Was Ooo”) will always get my undivided attention. Tollefsen sounds like she’s been there. I’ve certainly been there. Haven’t we all? And wouldn’t we all go back for more?

Now those December nights have closed in, the fire is flickering and I’m ready for a bit of heavy catharsis, and Signe Tollefsen is at the top of my playlist. Just thinking about it gives me a chill. Oh go on, then. Pass the bottle, dammit.