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Cry me a Torch Song: the video version – November 2016

30 Nov

Welcome to the first video edition of the Cry Me a Torch Song review, which features the latest albums from Rosie Nimmo (Scrapbook), Petula Clark (From Now On) and Marianne Faithfull (No Exit).

 

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Album review – Frances Ruffelle: I Say Yeh-Yeh

13 Oct

On her own: Frances Ruffelle turns iconoclast – in a good way

I Say Yeh-Yeh: quirky, melancholy and insouciant in equal measure

I Say Yeh-Yeh: quirky, melancholy and insouciant in equal measure

Gamine and quirky one minute, drenched in melancholy despair the next – and with the occasional dash of Rive Gauche insouciance – Frances Ruffelle’s I Say Yeh-Yeh is an album of startling contrasts: part homage to the fragile-voiced yé-yé singers of the 1960s, part tribute to the wrenched-from-the-gut emotional force of that chanteuse réaliste nonpareil Edith Piaf, and part affectionate nod to the part played by Les Misérables in the launch of her stellar stage career.

Throughout, her profound love of Paris shines through with luminous clarity. An air of nostalgia, tempered perhaps with the odd regret, shimmers around the whole project. The moment things threaten to get a bit too Proustian and rose-tinted, an edgy dash of uneasiness undermines you, coaxing you into a darker place. The gritty “Paris Summer”, for example, which features newcomer Rowan John, is a case in point, infused with complex shifts and sinister nuances.

Ruffelle’s “La Foule” is a hubristic risk, but she swerves the dangers of a Piaf pastiche by refocusing on the song as a piece of street life, easy-come and easy-go: a soaring, fleeting experience snatched on an evening breeze rather than the whirling descent into madness suggested by the original. But as befits a true Piaf fan, there are respectful, spare versions of “Non, Je Ne Regrette  Rien” and, most touching of all, the tumultuous “Hymne á l’Amour”.

The quirky comes courtesy of the Cher classic “Bang Bang” and a revitalised Francoise Hardy number, “À Quoi Ca Sert?”, brought up to date with Rufffelle’s own English lyrics. Elsewhere, her French is impeccable, giving the lie to the notion that British singers can’t cope with the francophone demands of the chanson.

The creative partnership behind Les Misérables – Schönberg and Boublil – is saluted with the inclusion of “L’un Vers l’Autre”, a gentle ballad written for Eponine, which didn’t make it into the show, and “On My Own”, the song which became her calling card in the role. This is an iconoclastic take on such a well-loved number but again, the risk pays off as she transforms it into a poignant, swinging pop song.

Ruffelle’s vocals are sublime. And in her quest to evoke the spirit of this eclectic material, she has an exceptional ally in producer Gwyneth Herbert, one of the great musical talents of her generation. Herbert’s arrangements, sprinkled with accordions and clattering tin-pot percussion, are inspired in the way they conjure scene after scene.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the record was made in just three days, recorded on vintage 1960s kit, in a converted East London brothel. You’d expect nothing less from this perfect coupling of idiosyncratic artists.

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.

The tale behind the song: Those Were the Days

1 May

Mary Hopkin: those were the days… of floral prints

It’s Eurovision season again, which is a tenuous hook for introducing an article about “Those Were the Days” – an evergreen hit for Mary Hopkin who, of course, represented the United Kingdom in 1970. Alas, it wasn’t with this number, an old Russian folk song. If it had been, she might have sent Ireland’s Dana packing. Instead, she came second with the rather dismal “Knock Knock, Who’s There?” She’s never made any secret of her dislike of this typical old-school Eurovision ditty.

The following article was from a long-running series called Songscape, which I contributed to the now-defunct Singer magazine for several years. I’ll be posting a selection here during the next few weeks. I note that I referred to Mary’s spasmodic returns to recording. Happily, in the interim, she has been back in the studio – and the album (You Look Familiar) she made with her son, Morgan Visconti, a couple of years ago proved that her golden voice is still in fine fettle.

Those Were the Days

If you like your nostalgia tinged with a dose of world-weariness, “Those Were the Days” is guaranteed to send you into a reverie populated by your own loved and lost, tempered with a dark veneer of experience. It’s a folk survival anthem in a minor key, occasionally betraying its somewhat lugubrious, fatalistic Russian roots before rallying itself for that instantly recognisable, bittersweet refrain that harks back to more carefree times.

The melody of “Those Were the Days” is possibly an ancient Russian folk tune, although some sources claim it was written by a pair of Russian songwriters towards the end of the 19th century. Its early history is traced on Pat Richmond’s fascinating Mary Hopkin website, which includes an audio link to a native interpretation by Rada and Nikolay Volshanivovs.

But the song was probably first heard more widely when it was sung by Maria Schell in the 1958 film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. Around the same time, the great American folk composer and songwriter, Gene Raskin, encountered it and produced the English lyrics we know today.

Raskin and his wife, Francesca, kept it in their repertoire and when they appeared at the Blue Lamp club in London in the mid-1960s, Paul McCartney heard it and stored it in his memory bank. A couple of years later, he retrieved it and suggested it as the debut single for his protegée, the Opportunity Knocks winner and new Apple signing, Mary Hopkin.

Armed with a voice as pure and true as anything that has graced the charts in the decades since, and a plangent arrangement that featured various strings – including a Hungarian version of the dulcimer – and a boys’ choir, Hopkin scored a huge international hit and secured her own place in pop history.

On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Hopkin, a vision of youthful innocence with her unspoilt folk-singer’s soprano, was hardly a convincing prospect for lyrics imbued with the hard-learned lessons of life and the wages of experience. But somehow, she got to the truth at the heart of the words and made them her own. The recording, as evocative today as ever, never leaves you doubting that the lonely woman she sees in her reflection is really herself.

Both Hopkin and Sandie Shaw recorded “Those Were the Days” in a number of different languages for the international market, singing phonetically in the custom of the time.

Shaw’s Italian, French, German and Spanish efforts have recently resurfaced, nicely packaged, on a series of compilation CDs. Unfortunately, they trade the subtleties of the Hopkin arrangement for the brassy oom-pahs that tended to characterise so many of her records. Despite her valiant efforts, she always seems to come second to the band.

When Hopkin recorded the song, perhaps she was already anticipating how quickly life in the mainstream recording industry would stale. To the regret of her contemporary fans, and plenty who have discovered her since, Hopkin turned her back on a commercial career after a couple of albums. She has made only spasmodic returns to public performance, always on her own musical terms.

Those Were the Days, Dolly-style

How touching it is, then, to hear a familiar voice among the harmonies for the title track on Dolly Parton’s album, Those Were the Days. Parton, an immensely likeable, serious musician, almost claims the song for her own. But she had her people call Mary’s people, and Hopkin’s tones – remarkably undiminished by the years – shimmer through the proceedings in delightful memory of times past.

Three of the best

Mary Hopkin, Postcard, EMI

The 1968 worldwide hit is still fresh and arresting after all these years. A concert version is also available on Live at the Royal Festival Hall 1972, released on CD by Mary Hopkin Music.

Dolly Parton, Those Were the Days, EMI

One of the highlights of a jewel-studded album from an artist who, beneath the wigs and the front, just keeps on getting better. Hopkin guests on the harmonies.

Sandie Shaw, Pourvu que ca Dure, EMI

Interesting collection of Shaw’s French language recordings, including “Le Temps des Fleurs” (“Those Were the Days”). She races the band all the way to the finishing line.

Album review: Petula Clark – Lost in You

15 Feb

Petula Clark: Crazy, from Jools Holland’s 2012 Hootenanny

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

At 80 – how is that possible? – Petula Clark has made her first English language studio album in 15 years. Lost in You is crisply produced, utterly devoid of sentimentality and resonates with a contemplative, moody and arresting contemporary vibe. There isn’t a whiff of nostalgia. Even a reinvented “Downtown”, stripped back to an almost bleakly acoustic riff, sounds as if it was written only yesterday.

As a record, Lost in You manages to reflect the nuances of a career that for sheer longevity and breadth of achievement puts Clark among the all-time great entertainers. At the same time, it confirms the lingering sense of a complex and enigmatic performer, a woman who would prefer to let her music speak for her than divulge her views about a world beyond the stage that is sometimes profoundly troubling.

I interviewed her once, in her West End dressing room during her successful stint as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It was a trepidatious moment. “Downtown” was number one in the soundtrack of my childhood and I’d been a lifelong fan – always dangerous territory for a journalist meeting a hero. But there were no signs of clay feet. Far from being a grande dame, the friendly yet pensive woman I encountered left a lingering impression of artistic integrity and unfussy professionalism.

“Lyrics are very important to me,” she told me. “When I see a lyric and I say ‘Hey, yes! I know what that means, how it feels. It just flows through, your body is almost like a filter. It’s all filtered through your mind and then it comes out through your mouth. That’s it, you know. That’s the way you feel about something.”

A couple of the covers here  – “Imagine” and “Love Me Tender” – could have languished as record company-requested interludes between her edgy treatments of more 21st-century material, but there is not the slightest hint of a phoned-in vocal. Everything is handled with that distinctive Clark sound: those unique, idiosyncratic vowels, combined with a subtle technique and phrasing that has defined her work at every turn.

“Reflections” is a self-penned, hymn-like paean to little Sally Olwen, the girl who snatched precious moments of childhood in Wales, even while the machinery of show-business was propelling her to child stardom and beyond.

As the prototype 1950s girl singer, she would rescue herself from the cul-de-sac of novelty pop by marrying a Frenchman and discovering the dramatic possibilities of the chanson, absorbing the potent influences of Brel and Piaf. “Next to You” thrums with barely contained emotion – the mark of a great dramatic singer who doesn’t need to resort to melisma or histrionics to make an emotional connection with the story.

Clark reveals another facet of her versatility on the country-tinged “Never Enough”, which she delivers with subtle verve and warmth. The set finishes with a statelier take on romantic relationships: “I Won’t Care”, a big, modern ballad that is the closest thing to formulaic among the twelve tracks.

Cut Copy Me: a lesson in ethereal pop

But overall, the album’s slightly melancholy, troubled atmosphere, established across the first three numbers, is its most fascinating asset. “Cut Copy Me” is a lesson in dreamy, ethereal pop singing without artifice; the title track “Lost in You”, an echoing piano-driven ballad with nifty key changes reminiscent of Clark’s glory chart years with ace songwriters Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent; and best of all, a fascinating version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, which Clark turns into an epic, intelligent exploration of human frailty, dappled with cynicism.

80? The maths say it must be so. But on this evidence, Petula Clark has no intention of being out any time soon. Lost in You is a little triumph.

Box set review: Goin’ Back – the Definitive Dusty Springfield

13 Dec

Losing You: Dusty Springfield in her prime, with a typically big ballad

Goin' Back - The Definitive Dusty Springfield: expensive and comprehensive, with timeless hits

It’s nearly 13 years since Dusty Springfield died, yet hardly a day goes by without her voice cropping up somewhere. She’s frequently playing on the jukebox, providing a soundtrack for the latest instalment of sturm und drang in the Queen Vic or the Rover’s Return. Fittingly, she’ll often be followed by an Adele track.

It’s been a long wait but finally, in Adele, we have a British singer who is Springfield’s equal when it comes to a vocal capacity for conveying epic desolation and emotional complexity that will find and unpick the sub-text in the least promising lyrics. In a short space of time, she and the late Amy Winehouse established themselves as genuine successors to Springfield’s brand of soulful, palpable heartache, where others have flattered merely to deceive: torch singers for our times.

Goin’ Back: the definitive Dusty Springfield is a major 92-track compilation of the singer’s work and the first box set since The Legend of Dusty Springfield (released by Philips in 1994 on the back of a late flourish in her career, but with a portentously funereal design) and the posthumous, equally sombre Simply… Dusty (Mercury, 2000).

This time the theme is pink. Very pink. And the four CDs, which focus on the hits, the singer’s extensive legacy of live BBC recordings, a loosely-linked collection of film songs and show tunes, and the obligatory rarities (the most valuable part of the offering for die-hard Dusty fans), are joined by three DVDs of performances from a career that spanned more than 40 years.

The box set also includes Paul Howes’ book, The Complete Dusty Springfield, and a separate volume based on an essay by Springfield’s great friend and manager Vicki Wickham, with contributions from numerous pop and rock luminaries including Burt Bacharach and Carole King – the two songwriters whose work probably shaped the Springfield sound more than any others.

Howes, who has curated this collection, deserves special mention. His sterling work as editor of the Dusty Springfield Bulletin created a formidable archive of material and it is thanks to him that, over the years, many rare recordings have seen the light of day. The package feels comprehensive, authoritative and well produced by people who have taken their responsibility to a great artist very seriously. And with the exception of the Lana Sisters, every stage of Springfield’s career is represented, from the quintessential 1960s numbers to the soft rock of her final work (“Wherever Would I Be”, a duet with Daryl Hall) and her last recording, a short version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” which graced a television commercial and is a poignant reminder that when she chose to indulge them, she had a jazz singer’s instincts for interpreting the standards – another parallel with Amy Winehouse.

That said, it’s a mightily sumptuous and expensive set, clearly targeted at aficionados rather than the idly curious or the Dusty Springfield novice. And the trouble with any substantial compilation is the ratio of ‘new’ material to the old and familiar. Without the hits, it would hardly be definitive, but it’s difficult to imagine that any Dusty fan of substance won’t already have stacks of them in abundance. In producer Tris Penna’s remixes of “Goin’ Back” and “The Look of Love” (he returned to the original master tapes), there is a laudable attempt to bring something fresh to the table. But ultimately, these spacey, ambient versions lack the booming, lush sound that constituted so much of Dusty’s appeal.

Which really leaves the rest of the rarities as the most compelling attraction. And this is a mixed bag of alternate takes, obscure ballads (including the delightful “Summer Love” and an aching “Goodbye”) and some intriguing live performances that date back to the Springfields’ heyday – most of which sound as if they were grabbed by someone holding an unsteady mic with a noisy old reel-to-reel recorder under the table in a nightclub. You certainly get the atmosphere but when you’ve heard them once, you probably won’t be keeping them on shuffle. The hits, however, are ageless.