Archive | June, 2014

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.

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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

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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).