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Cry Me a Torch Song: the Video Version – March 2017

2 Apr

The March 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Edana Minghella (All or Nothing: “References that unique phrasing and tone without ever resorting to mere imitation”), Kate Dimbleby (Songbirds: “Completely refreshing and absorbing in these clamorous, noisy times”), Helene Greenwood (Exquisitely Hopeless: “Spacious, dreamy arrangements give way to incantations and spectral echoes”) and Julie KcKee (Light on the Ledge: “Story-songs bathed in nostalgia, yet bracingly contemporary”).

Cry Me a Torch Song: the Video Version – February 2017

9 Feb

The February 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Mari Wilson (Pop Deluxe: “Elegant phrasing… classic songs reimagined”), Barb Jungr (Shelter From the Storm: “”Prescient… her best yet”), Sarah Moule (Songs From the Floating World: “Astringent… moments of contemplation”) and Sarah Darling (Dream Country: “Not just another country album…”)

Cry Me a Torch Song – the Video Version: December 2016

22 Dec

Welcome to the December 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Katie Melua (In Winter: “Real moments of choral beauty”), Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater (Findings: “Exemplary musicianship”) and Joan Ellison (Symphonic Gershwin: “She doesn’t just blow off the dust – she gets inside the raw material and inhabits it”)

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).

 

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 – The Unthanks: Mount the Air

4 Apr

Mount the Air: the single version of the epic track from the mighty new Unthanks album

Mount the Air: a triumphant progress of elegiac songwriting

Mount the Air: a triumphant progress of elegiac songwriting

From the first note, it is clear that Mount the Air, the long-awaited new album from The Unthanks, is more than a mere collection of songs.

It’s a lot to do with the honest, unfussy vocals of Rachel and Becky Unthank, which are the calm at the centre of each vividly rendered folk tale. It’s partly due to Tom Arthurs’ insistent, mournful trumpet, which is one of the driving forces in this immersive listening experience. And Niopha Keegan’s mesmerising fiddle. And the layers of sound that build beneath elemental lyrics without once overwhelming the compelling stories as they unravel.

In fact, there soon comes a point at which you stop analysing what makes Mount the Air such a quietly majestic piece of art, awash with inspired musical references and nuances, and just let it happen to you.

Not bad for a record that’s taken two years to make, was crafted in a home-spun studio in an old granary, and is released on the band’s own RabbleRouser label – The Unthanks having stoutly resisted overtures from major names  clamouring to represent them.

The extraordinary result is an important album, which shimmers on the cusp between drama and documentary – like a classic Ken Loach film.  It is rooted in the environment of The Unthanks’ Northumbrian heritage but equally, reaches out across a far wider musical landscape to embrace Blue Note jazz accents, lullabies, cinema soundtracks, Balkan beats and world music influences. And it’s a testament to the collaborative song-writing skills of the five-strong band.

From the title track to “Madam”, a bleak tale of faded beauty and betrayal, to the harmonic glories of “Magpie” – a perfect earworm for a long train journey punctuated by sightings of that troublesome bird – and the bittersweet cadences of “Foundling”, navigating the delicate line between hope and despair, the album’s elegiac progress is a triumphant blend of atmosphere and emotion.

Numbers like “Hawthorn”, “Flutter” and “Waiting” combine the ancient feel of classic folk songs with a contemporary resonance that marks The Unthanks as a vital, innovative presence on the British music scene.  Essential listening.

Rachel and Becky Unthank at the London launch of Mount the Air

Album review – Serpentyne: Myths and Muses

19 Mar

Valkyries: Maggie Beth-Sand and Serpentyne take on Wagner and win

Myths & Muses: a glorious whirl of epic tales, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms

Myths and Muses: a glorious whirl of epic tales, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms

Here’s a thought for the dullards in charge of the UK’s annual Eurovision efforts. Why not ask Serpentyne to sing for us next year? I have no idea what the self-styled ‘Medieval-World-Folk-Rock’ band would feel about that. But I do know that the rousing fusion of their beats and the Game of Thrones vibe of their spectacular act is more in tune with broader European musical tastes than anything we’ve entered in the last two decades.

Their new album, Myths and Muses, is a rampaging set of epic tales told through the lead vocals of Maggie Beth-Sand, so evocative of great British female folk singers, from Sandy Denny to Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.

What sets her apart is a robust musicality that allows her voice to hold its own in some pretty fierce arrangements, where it becomes as much an instrument as Mark Powell’s guitar, cittern and hurdy-gurdy, or the mandolin, didgeridoo and tin whistle that contribute to the variety of sounds. In this, she is equally reminiscent of the more esoteric voices of world music – Norwegian Sami throat singer Mari Boine, for example, or Greece’s Mariza Koch (who actually did Eurovision service, accompanied by a bouzouki, back in 1976!)

Back and forth we are swept, from the fiery story of Boudicca and the Iceni uprising against the Roman occupation of ancient Britain, to the legendary library of Alexandria, and on to an account of the Valkyries that elbows Wagner aside. There’s a Breton dance (“Douce Dame Jolie”), and several traditional English folk songs including “A Rosebud in June”, not forgetting Henry VIII’s convivial testament to “Pastyme with Good Company”.

Comparisons with Steeleye Span are inevitable, particularly with the inclusion of the Span staple “Gaudete”. But Sand and Powell have mixed in their own arrangements, introduced new melodies and lyrics, and with the other versatile players of the band they bring a wide-ranging set of new influences and idiosyncrasies to the feast. There is a ferocity in their playing which binds electronics, choral settings and swirling strings into a glorious whirl, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms.