Archive | February, 2011

CD Review – Jessica Lee Morgan: I Am Not

12 Feb

Jessica Lee Morgan: “Your Girl” – mixed by Morgan Visconti

I Am Not: don't be fooled by the sweetness and light - it isn't always what it seems

“My mamma always said, ‘Keep your powder dry’,” sings Jessica Lee Morgan in “I Wanna Be Famous”, one of the standout tracks on her debut album, I Am Not. And she pretty much did as she was told for years. Which makes sense, considering mamma is Mary Hopkin, that fine singer with a healthy contempt for the more fatuous aspects of the music industry, whose advice would probably be worth its weight in gold to any young woman who thinks X Factor is the fast track to success.

As things turn out, it’s rather a pity Jessica kept us waiting to appreciate her vocal and song-writing talents for such a long time. As she explains on her web site, despite growing up steeped in music (dad is the legendary producer Tony Visconti) and writing her own songs since she was four, she spent the first part of her life rebelling – ultimately to no avail – against following in the parental footsteps. So this record has been a very long time in the gestation. And it’s full of good stuff that marks her out as an idiosyncratic force, capable of drawing on decades of musical influences to create songs that veer from plangent folk to the insistent beats of state-of-the-art electronica – exemplified by two contrasting versions of the tender “Your Girl”.

The songs on the album span her passage from teenaged belligerence – some of which, pleasingly, she retains throughout – to introspective 30-plus maturity. It is, like her mother’s well-received new record (You Look Familiar, co-written and produced with Jessica’s brother Morgan Visconti) a family affair. Mary comes through, pristine as ever, on several of the backing vocals, melding highly effectively with her daughter’s lower, more resonant timbre in a way that brings to mind the recent collaboration between Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson. Tony and Morgan Visconti share arrangement, co-production and mixing duties. But Jessica, who also plays piano and guitar, is always in the driving seat.

Things kick off with a country-rock ballad, “Texas Angel”, setting the tone for the tales to come, full of crystal clear imagery, smooth-flowing harmonies and a very eloquent style. But just when you think you’ve got the measure of her, she shatters the mould and moves on to something completely different. There is a real lyrical edge to many of these tracks that repays the attentive listener. The sweetness and light is rarely what it seems.

“I Wanna Be Famous” is an acerbically ironic comment on the fast-track promises of celebrity culture, all the more effective because it has such an ear-worm of a riff and would fill the dance floor in a second, calling the listener’s double bluff. In a just world it would be a mega hit.

Morgan is at her best on these electronica-dusted tracks, her voice cutting the swirling, atmospheric, retro arrangements like a knife through fine butter. “Leave the Light On” is another multi-layered beauty, echoing and poignant in its hope that things will come right in the end. “Just A Song”, a riposte to somebody’s accusation that singing cover versions was a sell-out, knocks all the pretence out of the song writer’s art.

“Whatcha Do” has a distinct R&B feel – think Mariah Carey or Beyoncé without all that infernal melisma. And on “Here it All Comes Again”, a pull-yourself-together-and-go-and-get-it, guitar-driven ballad, co-written with Hopkin, Morgan reveals a tougher vocal sound at the eleventh hour. Talent will out. There’s no need to keep that powder dry any more.

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CD Review – Rosie Doonan: Pot of Gold

12 Feb

“Fall for Me”: an urgent demand is the leitmotif of the opening track

Pot of Gold: folk tales full of complex musical influences

Somewhere on the scale between the husky purity of a young Joni Mitchell and Jacqui McShee’s ethereal clarity comes the voice of Yorkshirewoman Rosie Doonan, insightful and humane, restlessly exploring the vagaries of human relationships through lyrics that are as articulate as they are personal.

Doonan’s new album, Pot of Gold, is like a series of encounters with characters and experiences that always leave their mark – more often the bruise of an emotional clout than the ghost of a lingering kiss, but always provocative and empathetic. From the deceptively upbeat, guitar-driven urgency of “Fall For Me” to the ominous, on-the-edge strumming of “Darker Side of You”, Doonan presents a warts-and-all yet compassionate vision of the relentless cycle of meetings, fallings and break-ups that constitute life.

The single “Lay Your Love” epitomises Doonan’s realistic attitude and intelligence as a lyricist. It might be a break-up song, but the back story isn’t all bad and the relationship is meaningful enough to deserve one last send-off. Lines are drawn in the sand, experiences noted and assimilated, hindsight acknowledged, inevitabilities accepted and understood (“Into the Fire”).

These are folk tales, full of complex musical influences that hint at Doonan’s personal heritage (her father was a uilean piper with Hedgehog Pie) – “Wind That Shakes the Barley”, with its yearning strings, slow marching drums and harmonica, is the most traditional song on the album – while embracing a host of other styles and techniques. “Victor”, for example, comes on like a sentimental Edwardian parlour song with modern nuances.

“Winter Song”, reminiscent of a top quality Judie Tzuke number, is a touching, delicate paean to the comfort of turning back to a love that, despite everything, is still all that matters on a cold, snowy night. “Lady Blue” might be a tribute to Joni Mitchell herself, while the album’s title track has a winning jaunty gait and energy that is equal to anything that’s come so far from the pen of Amy McDonald.

Female singer/songwriters are hot currency at the moment and with this album, her second as a solo artist, Doonan has well and truly staked her claim to a place among the front-runners.

Rosie Doonan is on tour in March at the following venues: 11th – with the Snap Dragons at Wem Town Hall (Shropshire); 12th – with the Snap Dragons at The Brindley, Runcorn; 17th – with the Snap Dragons at Cumberland Arms, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; 19th – Shaw Theatre, Leeds; 20th – The Boardwalk, Sheffield; 23rd – with the Snap Dragons at The Biddulph Arms, Stoke-on-Trent; 25th – Trowbridge Arc Theatre (Shropshire); 26th – with the Snap Dragons at The Beehive, Swindon.