Archive | May, 2013

Album Review – Agnetha Fältskog: A

14 May

When You Really Loved Someone: Agnetha returns  in fine voice

 

AgnethaIt’s been great to see Agnetha Fältskog back in the spotlight after nearly a decade of silence. Grace and charm personified, she’s handled the publicity treadmill with style, giving dignified responses to undeserving questions – mainly relentless enquiries about the likelihood of an ABBA reunion – while somehow managing to preserve that sense of still waters running deep, which always marked her out as the serious, complicated member of the Swedish supergroup.

Her return has been greeted with such affection and interest that A could probably have been an album of nursery rhymes and nobody would really have cared. The good news is that the voice, with its compelling mix of brightness and underlying melancholy, has in no way been diminished by the years away from the studio. An occasional lingering huskiness only adds to the frisson which it generates, easily evoking the glories of the great ABBA harmonies and cutting through the arrangements like an old friend in remarkably good shape.

So it’s slightly disappointing that A is overall a serviceable record rather than a truly exciting attempt to build on Fältskog’s considerable legacy and give it a 21st-century polish. Gary Barlow’s 2009 collaboration with Shirley Bassey, The Performance, showed how it is possible to take the combined baggage of an exalted performer’s history and their unique sound, and turn it into something relevant and contemporary, teasing it in unexpected directions without frightening the horses. If only Fältskog’s producers, Jörgen Elofsson and Peter Nordahl, had taken a few similar risks, the results could have been electrifying. The closing track, “I Keep Them On the Floor Beside My Bed”, hints at what might have been, with its vocoder accents and swelling, ABBA-esque chorus.

But too many other numbers play it safe to the point of being anodyne, and the token disco track – “Dance Your Pain Away” – never quite gathers the energy to match the nostalgic exuberance of “Dancing Queen” or the guitar-driven urgency of “Voulez-Vous”. Barlow’s contribution to the album is restricted to a dull, up-beat duet (“I Should’ve Followed You Home”), and a phoned-in vocal.

Elsewhere, there are indeed some magical moments: big, orchestral arrangements, minor key changes, and particularly on the ballads that dominate proceedings, passages when that crystalline voice takes a line into a poignant emotional space and lets it soar. The first single from the album, “When You Really Loved Someone”, “I Was A Flower” and the aforementioned “I Keep Them On the Floor Beside My Bed” (a contender for most mind-boggling song title of the year – it’s a relief to discover that “they” are simply memories) all deliver in spades.

Album review – Maika Makovski: Thank You For The Boots

13 May

Language: eccentric and appealing sonic vistas

Than You For The Boots: Maika Makovski harnesses an eclectic bundle of musical influences

Than You For The Boots: Maika Makovski harnesses an eclectic bundle of musical influences

The boots in the title of Maika Makovski’s 2012 album apparently belonged to an old friend and are still going strong more than a decade later – much like the friendship itself. Born in Mallorca of Andalucian and Macedonian parents, Makovski has earned something of a reputation as an underground muse, ploughing her own furrow in the darker recesses of Spanish rock music.

Thank You For The Boots is somewhat quirkier, lighter fare – an exploration of the light and shade of friendship in which she occasionally seems to be channelling Lena Lovich, Emilie Simon, Kate Bush and even Lynsey de Paul, often within the space of a few bars.

From the sonic vistas of the opening track, “Language”, the album strikes an eccentric and frequently appealing attitude. Makovski’s gypsy guitar-tempered rock roots rumble along under some insistent beats, occasionally breaking through, as in the sinister shuffle of “Number” and the disenchanted belligerence of “No News”. But there are also jazzy samba influences (“Vulnerable”) and joyous honky-tonk rhythms (“Cool Cat”) on offer, which makes for an eclectic and occasionally uneven listening experience.

Her lyrics are sparky and articulate, at their most effective on slower, idiosyncratic numbers like the deceptively simple, hypnotic “When the Dust Clears” – a waltzing threnody with moments of spine-tingling beauty – the wistful “Men of Talent, and “Dream”, the final track, which sounds for all the world like an old English folk song.

Makovski contributed words and music to Forests, the Shakespearian odyssey presented to great acclaim last year by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Barcelona Internacional Teatre. As Thank You For The Boots amply demonstrates, she has a rare gift for absorbing and repurposing multiple musical influences.

Album review – Nynke: Alter

8 May

How Alter was made: Javier Limón and Nynke at work

Alter: Nynke blends northern and southern cadences to arresting effect

Alter: Nynke blends northern and southern cadences to arresting effect

I don’t know how many Frisian language albums have been released in the last ten years but I suspect that Nynke pretty much has the field to herself at the moment with Alter, a shimmering collection of self-penned songs that draw on many musical influences from beyond Friesland, her birthplace in the northern Netherlands.

Even to a non-speaker (there is a smattering of English to leaven the mix), her lyrics have a runic, poetic quality as they weave in and out of some fascinating rhythms. After a gentle, haunting start, the album comes fully to life with “Nei Hûs”, which announces itself with a Moorish chant before launching into a swirling epic against a backdrop of silvery guitars.  On the next track, “Foarsizzing”, the influences move north with a sprinkling of balalaika-like strings that sound positively Russian.

A hint of flamenco is never far away, and it’s no surprise to discover that Nynke’s collaborator-in-chief here is Javier Limón, head of the Mediterranean music department at  Berklee College of Music in Boston, who has also worked with Estrella Morente and Mariza. The sonic blend of northern and southern cadences is arresting, conjuring vivid geographical images that shift constantly, catching the listener off guard. Just when you think you’ve settled in one scene, Nynke’s pure voice sweeps you off to a new, undiscovered landscape.

The one English-language track, “Awaiting”, hints at the depth and melancholy of its Frisian companions. This isn’t quite Nordic noir but it definitely inhabits the sombre space between Mediterranean fire and inscrutable northern melancholy. On “Eftereach”, Nynke has the audacity to blend more feverish Flamenco guitars with an intoned Frisian poem, and the result washes over you like soothing water with an unexpected, icy kick.

Alter could be the most idiosyncratic album you’ll hear all year. Compare it with the splendours of next week’s Eurovision Song Contest and think how different the competition would be if everyone used it to explore their musical heritage in a similarly inventive way.

Album review – Karen Ruimy: Come With Me

8 May

Whisper: Karen Ruimy sets out on a voyage of discovery with a nearly-power ballad

Come With Me: North African beats meet flamenco and chanson in a hypnotic mash-up

Come With Me: North African beats meet flamenco and chanson in a hypnotic mash-up

Polyglot Karen Ruimy’s debut album, Come With Me, is so full of colliding influences that the more you listen to it, the harder it is to pin down exactly what sound she is striving for.  It’s a head-spinning mash-up of flamenco, chanson, trance and Arabic styles. But whether she’s singing in Arabic, French, Spanish or English, the overall effect is oddly compelling and soothing, evoking the chill-out fringes of Mediterranean club land one minute, sweeping desert vistas the next.

This is a sound the Israeli singer Ofra Haza pioneered in the late 1980s, fusing world music with strong electronic and pop rhythms. Joining forces with Youth and Justin Adams, Ruimy has given it a fresh gloss, writing mystical, meditative lyrics and setting them against an impressively international range of musical textures . “Come With Me” and “Fragile” have already been big club hits with their insistent, soaring hooks and contrapuntal beats.

Ruimy was born in Morocco, growing up there and in France. So when things quieten down on “Les Oiseaux” and “Mojave Moon”, it’s no surprise that she can also work the more conventional chanson style of influences such as Michel Berger and Véronique Sanson, delivering silky, meandering ballads with an understated assurance.

Towards the end of the album, this almost takes her into power ballad territory with “Traveller” and “Whisper”, although her chops aren’t robust enough to launch them fully into the stratosphere. Atmospheric, dreamy musing is more her comfort zone as she builds her vocal around hypnotic North African patterns with Flamenco notes,  as in “Sangré” and the chugging, trance-like title track.

The tale behind the song: The Winner Takes It All

3 May

ABBA: The Winner Takes it All, back in the day when blue eye shadow was the answer to all ills

Continuing the seasonal Eurovision theme, here’s another of my Songscape articles, first published in 2006. ABBA continue to be the most famous Eurovision winners, 39 years – and yes, it does only seem like yesterday – since they stormed to victory in Brighton with “Waterloo”. Of their many subsequent anthemic ballads, “The Winner Takes it All” is probably the most poignant and enduring, due in no small part to Agnetha Fältskog’s beautiful vocal work. As she prepares to release an eagerly-awaited new album, A, here’s what I had to say about one of her hallmark numbers from the past.

The Winner Takes It All

The arrival of Mamma Mia in the West End in 2000 was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was a long overdue celebration of the song writing skills of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, demonstrating once and for all that ABBA’s success had been based on far more than 1970s glam and throwaway pop. On the other, it paved the way for a steady slew of shows similarly – and not particularly subtly – manufactured around the hits of other groups and singers.

But let’s accentuate the positive. ABBA’s songs were revealed in all their glory as beautifully constructed and deceptively simple tales of the different phases of love, written through the ebb and flow of the relationships between the two couples who comprised one of the most successful groups in pop history. And none more so than the searingly poignant 1980 number “The Winner Takes it All,” written at the height of their success when, ironically, both couples had already come adrift.

The song tells the story of a jilted woman, taking a sad, clear-eyed look back at a love affair now over, and casting doubt on her ex’s new relationship. Like so many ABBA songs, the melody at first seems almost elementary and even repetitive, rather like a familiar nursery rhyme. But it builds in cycles across four verses, climaxing in the third before returning to the initial air of melancholy resignation for the finale. Swedish in its sensibilities to the last, the song conceals any sense of reproach in the matter-of-factness of the lyrics. Events speak for themselves, but they speak volumes.

Agnetha Fältskog was the lead singer on the original version, and she later recalled the bittersweet irony of being in the studio and singing a number containing such apparently biographical references, alongside her former husband. Björn has always insisted that the song shouldn’t be taken as a literal exploration of their separation, but the accompanying video, with Agnetha acting her melancholy part to the full, only reinforced the atmosphere of private sorrow that informs the lyrics. “It was quite a while afterwards before I realised that we’d made a small masterpiece,” she said.

Agnetha today: back on top form with “When You Really Love Someone”

The ABBA signature sound – those intricate close harmonies between the two female singers, their distinctive individual timbres merging in a way that couldn’t be replicated with all the technology at hand in the modern recording studio – comes into its own in the chorus, helping to build the layers of experience in the story.

This might be one of the reasons why ABBA songs have been slow to find their way into the repertoires of other singers. They are tricky to master convincingly – which probably explains why they seldom turn up on television talent shows.

And yet the opportunity to explore the possibilities of lyrical interpretation should make songs like “The Winner Takes it All” a rich source of material, certainly for any singer looking for something more than the chance to render a karaoke version.

In Mamma Mia, of course, the songs are transplanted to suit a spurious storyline, and become the property of a different kind of singer. In the original cast recording it falls to Siobhan McCarthy to take on “The Winner Takes it All,” and prove that it is quite possible to reinvent such a quintessential ABBA number on your own terms. Without making it overly theatrical, she preserves the simple integrity of the lyric whilst injecting a note of strident anger that Agnetha. The song becomes a warning as much as a narrative.

Most recently, soprano Anne Sofie von Otter included the song on her wonderfully articulate and absorbing Ulvaeus/Andersson album, I Let the Music Speak. As you might expect, there is a sense of returning to Swedish introspection, but with the harmonies stripped utterly away, its Spartan quality becomes a powerful vehicle for the experience at the heart of the song.

Three of the Best

ABBA, ABBA Gold, 2004 compilation, Universal

Agnetha’s pure, searingly honest voice is at its best for a quintessential ABBA performance, including those unique harmonies with Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Its bleakness can still break your heart.

Original London Cast, Mamma Mia, 2000, Polydor

Siobhan McCarthy injects a soaring streak of venom as the song becomes part of the West End musical that started a never-ending trend.

Anne Sofie von Otter, I Let the Music speak, 2006, Deutsche Grammophon

An austere and thought-provoking version of “The Winner Takes it All” is one of the gems of what is effectively an Ulvaeus/Andersson song cycle.

Album review – Jain Wells: To Be Real

3 May

Out of the Fog: Jain Wells is ready for whatever life has to throw at her

To Be Real: Jain Wells looks life square in the eye

To Be Real: Jain Wells looks life square in the eye

Working with producer Greg Fitzgerald, Jain Wells has come up with an echoing, ambient sound that gives her debut album an ethereal, other-worldly quality.

But there’s nothing airy-fairy about her lyrics, which are thoughtful, eloquent musings on love, loss, moving on and taking the positive from every event and encounter.

If that sounds ominously didactic, To Be Real is far from being an extended homily on the human condition. Canada-born and now living in London, Wells has a PhD in Transpersonal Psychology but she wears her years as a therapist lightly.

Many of these songs are candid, very personal responses to accumulated experience, and even when the material gets dark (check out the underlying sadness of “Holiday”, a study of betrayal), it is lifted and carried away from the abyss by some sparkling, beat-driven arrangements.

“Look into the Mirror” epitomises Wells’ look-life-square-in-the-eye attitude. “Tonight” embraces similar themes: live for the present and be guided by your own inner truth. “Out of the Fog” finds her emerging from crisis, cleansed and ready for new emotional experiences.

Her imagery is complex but always looking upwards and forwards rather than trading on negative legacies. It makes her company less anguished than most of the female singer/songwriters currently dominating the charts.

Wells has an interesting vocal timbre, reminiscent of Carly Simon, which commands attention without ever sounding forced or strident. It suits the individuality of her material as she exhorts the listener to question themselves and take responsibility for the answers they find inside.

Album review – Melinda Ortner: I Wanna Be OK

3 May

Melinda Ortner: “Strangers” from I Wanna Be, and an encounter with a tarantula

 

I Wanna Be OK: edgy beats and strong songwriting

I Wanna Be OK: edgy beats and strong songwriting

Melinda Ortner is deserting her LA home this summer for a prolonged stay in the UK, and she’s  sent her new album – I Wanna Be OK – ahead. It’s an interesting calling card. Edgy beats underline strong melodies, haunting hooks and searching lyrics.

The title track, for example, combines an intimate stream of consciousness with an insistent, almost threatening bass, gathering pace as Ortner ponders the extremes she’ll encounter as she forges a career in the music industry.

The field is pretty crowded with good, inventive female singer/songwriters at the moment. Songs like “Jezebella” are typical of the vibrant, quirky fare they are delivering in a hugely competitive market. More than once I was reminded of Leddra Chapman’s last album, Telling Tales.

But Ortner also has a flair for taking soaring themes that reflect her Californian musical heritage and scuffing them up so they have a darker, more cynical texture. This is how a 21st-century, Indie Cass Elliot might have sounded.

“Caught in the Middle”, “The Beauty in Me” and “Sweet Little Lies” all contain moments of real beauty. Ortner is great at writing seductive intros that lull you into a false sense of security. Then she turns the story on its head with spiky arrangements and lyrics that are confessional and interrogative by turn. “Say Those Things”, with its head-spinning rhythm changes, is a case in point, seeking reassurance in a world of chaos. But she can do calm, too. “Maybe” is a thoughtful, contemplative ballad that’s up there with the best of its kind.

Ortner has already enjoyed some commercial success, contributing tracks to film soundtracks and being named among the top 15 Songwriters of the Year for ASCAP’s Johnny Mercer Project.There’s a bracing, refreshing honesty about her which makes I Wanna Be OK an auspicious debut album, and suggests that an interesting career lies ahead.