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Album review – Ange Hardy: The Lament of the Black Sheep

14 Oct

A natural folk-song writer: Ange Hardy’s album launch gig is full of insights into her craft

The Lament of the Black Sheep: Ange Hardy's rich landscape of song is populated by many ghosts

The Lament of the Black Sheep: Ange Hardy’s rich landscape of song is populated by many ghosts

Many ghosts stalk the rich, fertile landscape evoked with such consummate skill by Ange Hardy on The Lament of the Black Sheep, the follow-up album to last year’s quietly commanding Bare Foot Folk.

If there is nothing to quite match the brooding  Brontё-ness of “The Ghost on the Moor”, the spectres conjured here in songs like “The Foolish Heir” and “The Young Librarian” are testament to Hardy’s imagination as a natural folk-song writer, completely immersed in the gentle evolution of her craft. The album is a carefully integrated collection of moods and lore, constantly shifting and moving on.

Her notable  gift for setting contemporary lyrics to timeless melodies, wreathed in subtle harmonies, means that you are often lulled into a sense of deep, oaky tradition – only to be brought up sharply by 21st-century references; “The Cull”, for example, is a poignant, objective view of the current, highly controversial attempt to stop TB spreading from badgers to cattle.

Like much of Hardy’s material, it is rooted in her West Somerset territory, the very soil of which seems to give rise effortlessly to the characters who populate her tales. Even the black sheep of the title track – a retelling of the nursery rhyme from the pathetic, denuded sheep’s perspective – catches you out with its poignant blend of experience and observation.

While she says The Lament of the Black Sheep is not an overtly autobiographical album, Hardy’s skill is at its most focused in the songs that touch directly on her own life. The title track, for example, was inspired by the innocent bleakness of her son Luke’s interpretation of the rhyme. Family and motherhood loom large as themes.

But the most poignant numbers are “The Daring Lassie” and “The Lost Soul”, both of which reflect on different aspects of her teenage flight from a Somerset care home to a new life in Ireland – each a nod, in its way, to the spirit and survival instincts of a young woman who continues to inform much of Hardy’s work: a ghost of a different kind.

The vision which emerges from this beautifully textured album is that heritage is as much about the soul we carry with us as it is about the physical landscape that we spend our lives roaming across.

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Album review – Sarah-Jane Morris: Bloody Rain

4 Oct

A complicated proposition: Sarah-Jane Morris talks about how Bloody Rain came about

Bloody Rain: a scene-stealing new album from a singer who has always defied easy categorisation

Bloody Rain: a scene-stealing new album from a singer who has always defied easy categorisation

This is shaping up into a golden autumn for the elder stateswomen of rock and popular music across the genres. From Sandie Shaw’s exciting collaboration with Davidge to Marianne Faithfull’s best album in years, from Annie Lennox’s forthcoming dip into the American standards to Betty Buckley’s Ghostlight, from Kate Bush’s extraordinary live performances to Peggy Seeger’s ageless vocals, they are each a testament to their own capacity for reinvention and boundary-pushing in a notoriously youth-obsessed business. And they are producing some of the finest and most interesting work in their already illustrious careers.

To the growing list we must now add Sarah-Jane Morris, who practically steals the show from the lot of them with Bloody Rain, an exhilarating Africa-inspired journey through intimacy and friendship, passion, the political legacy of colonialism, homophobia, industrial exploitation, child-soldiers and the fractures that explode when Western culture impacts on traditional family life.

It sounds like a complicated proposition. But Morris’s song-writing is so adept that the personal and universal perspectives, swept up in a constantly shifting net of beats and lilting melodies, are always clearly defined and accessible – and unflinching.

Given many of the subjects tackled, an underlying anger throbs through numbers like “No Beyonce”, “David Kato” and “Coal train”. Morris’s skill is to keep it subliminal, rendering the shock of the shattering lyric above a seductive rhythm all the more potent.

Don’t be misled by the Joplin-esque fierceness of the cover image, which might suggest the album is a long howl of rage. The range of textures in this most distinctive of voices gives her a wide palate of choices, from the dark, ominous growl that she deploys on “Deeper well” to her eloquent narrative on the human cost of the diamond trade on “Coal train”, to the stark beauty of “On my way to you”. There’s even an impassioned take on “I shall be released” for good measure (apparently, it’s compulsory for everyone to include a Dylan cover when they make a new album – but this ties in seamlessly with the arc of Bloody Rain).

Morris has always been a nomadic singer when it comes to style, eschewing easy categorisation and gracefully side-stepping the legacy of “Don’t leave me this way”, that gloriously excessive, soulful collaboration with The Communards which could so easily have consigned a less-resistant artist to the “eighties singers” pen.

Further evidence of that versatility can be found in the album’s several love songs and tributes to friends and family, grounding its complex themes in the powerful resourcefulness of human relationships. And on the last track, the triumphantly satirical “Men just want to have fun”, with its calypso sway, Morris unleashes a needle-sharp humour to make her point about male attitudes to sexual freedom. This is a “Man smart, woman smarter” for the 21st century, frank and utterly contemporary.

With an exceptional band of musicians and backing singers, including Courtney Pine, the Soweto Gospel Choir, Pee Wee Ellis and Ian Shaw, Morris has created an enthralling work which ultimately soothes having delivered some powerful emotional punches. That’s quite a feat.

Don’t leave me this way: gloriously soulful, but don’t call Sarah-Jane Morris an “eighties singer”

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.

Album review – Kristyna Myles: Pinch Me Quick!

17 Aug

The Paris Match: Myles gives Weller’s classic a cinematic gloss and a touch of Bacharach

Pinch Me Quick! What adult pop should sound like in 2014

Pinch Me Quick! What adult pop should sound like in 2014

Former Radio 5 Live Busker of the Year Kristyna Myles has pulled out all the stops with her debut album, Pinch Me Quick! And with a generous 14 tracks of articulate and soulful pop, it’s a polished piece of work, overseen by Grammy award winning producer Ken Nelson.

Lush strings and horns weave their way through the arrangements, providing a rich setting for Myles’s fluid vocals. Soul influences dominate and are reflected in the ease with which she extemporises the melody, mercifully swerving the kind of melismatic excesses that send X Factor judges into clichéd ecstasy, and focusing on lyrical clarity.

She has co-written many of the tracks with a tasty set of collaborators, including Judie Tzuke and David Goodes (“You’ve Changed” and the bluesy “Big Love” are two of the best songs on the album, edgy and urgent), and Ben Williams (“Uninvited”, “Setback” and the country-tinged “Stay With Me” are subtle, shaded ballads about defiance and the solace of intimacy).

Elsewhere, ”Make it Right” and “Betrayal” are two solo numbers which change the tempo of the album, weaving a thoughtful and impassioned personal thread into the mix. And a couple of songs written with Tamra Keenan –“Just Three Little Worlds” and “I’m Not Going Back” – are earworm anthems equal to anything that we’ve heard from Adele or Emili Sandé so far.

The only non-Myles song is Paul Weller’s “The Paris Match”, a cover of the Style Council classic which has already earned Weller’s praise. Eloquent and fatalistic, it’s a beautiful, cinematic treatment with a touch of Bacharach in the arrangement.

Pinch Me Quick! seems a cheeky title for an album that is actually a multi-faceted exploration of life experiences and emotions – what proper, grown-up pop should sound like in 2014.

Album review: Kate Dimbleby and friends: Love Comes Again

16 Aug

She’s gonna live the life… Kate Dimbleby gives it some of that Mahalia soul

Love Comes Again: fabulously eclectic and not a single bum note

Love Comes Again: fabulously eclectic and not a single bum note

Imagine, if you will, a voice with a light jazzy edge reminiscent of Peggy Lee. Then throw in a dash of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, burnish it with Joan Baez’s molten serenity, and you’ll end up with something like the sound of Kate Dimbleby.

After 20 years  at the mic, of course she’s her own woman and comparisons can be fatuous. First and foremost, she sounds like Kate Dimbleby. But I just wanted to give a sense of the range and texture that she has developed during that time – and offer the suggestion that despite her dynastic moniker, she is one of a considerable band of British female singers who should be much more widely known than they are.

That’s the curse of a recording industry that is still dominated by a few big labels, a handful of over-powerful executives, and relentlessly compartmentalised marketing. But Dimbleby says that during the course of putting her new album – Love Comes Again – together, she quickly realised that she doesn’t make records or perform for the money. 

Thankfully, this hasn’t precluded previous success; she has been widely acclaimed for her interpretations of Peggy Lee and Dory Previn songs, in particular. But there is a sense of liberation in an eclectic set of tracks that embraces Simon and Garfunkel, Mahalia Jackson, Rupert Holmes, The Divine Comedy, Cab Calloway and that doyenne of renegade singer/songwriters Kirsty MacColl, without striking a single bum note.

This is an album of sparkling quality, presented by Dimbleby ‘and friends’ who include Malcolm Edmonstone on a defiant version of Jackson’s “I’m Gonna Live the Life I sing About in my Song”, and The London Quartet on the sparklingly humorous “Everybody Eats When They Come to my House”- a number that rings with Lee-like inflections.

Love Comes Again is a celebration of great song-writing, selected by a singer who is completely at ease with the material. The mood shifts eloquently from regretful shades of blue (“Hello Always Ends in Goodbye”) to that poignant plea for compassion, “Be Not Too Hard”, and on to the gloriously swelling cynicism of MacColl’s “England 2 Columbia 0”. In Dimbleby’s hands, this tango ballad becomes a triumphant anti-torch song.  The penultimate track, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, is not the carol but a rich, complex look at the human condition with music by Dimbleby herself. Fabulous.

Album review – Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell: We’re Just Passing Through

7 Jul

Just passing through? Let’s hope not. Robbins and Campbell are a partnership to be reckoned with

 

We're Just Passing Through: Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell make a formidable song-writing team

We’re Just Passing Through: Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell make a formidable song-writing team

Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell have teamed up to write We’re Just Passing Through, an album of songs inspired by travel, transient experiences and above all, the ruffled texture of human relationships. And despite a sanguine undercurrent which acknowledges that life has a habit of kicking back, it adds up to a charming and often joyful listen.

Campbell’s musical credentials are probably less well-known than his journalism and broadcasting work, and his song-writing skills will be a revelation to anyone who isn’t aware of the swing album he wrote for Mark Moraghan in 2009. Robbins, on the other hand, is a singer and songwriter of wide repute, although she is perhaps most fondly regarded for her gloriously accurate voice work on Spitting Image and Eurotrash. Between them, they’ve forged a creative partnership that on the evidence of this album could run for some time.

The musical range is eclectic, swinging – literally – from country-tinged folk (“Tell My heart”, Campbell’s sole vocal contribution, modest and whimsical; the man can sing, too) to bluesy jazz (“The Imposter in my Heart” and “Too Late for Love”) and a bit of guitar-driven rock (Robbins and Ray Brown sing the heck out of the up tempo “Parallel Lives”).

But the show-stoppers are some big ballads, which allow Robbins the chance to let fly with a voice that really gives the album its signature sound.

Ray Brown, who sings the Gerry Rafferty-esque title track, and Logan Wilson, who gets the slave-to-love swing number “Don’t Start me on Her”, both make significant contributions.

Yet it’s Robbins whose voice lingers once the record has stopped spinning. As anyone familiar with her last album, Soho Nights, will confirm, she handles tender-hearted anthems with an instinctive assurance and authority. “And Then I Loved You” and the late-night meandering piano ballad, “Something Wonderful and New” are mature, realistic observations of those touching moments of affirmation in new and seasoned relationships. But the stand-out song is the final track, “I Am Gone”, a grand, literate power ballad about the end of an affair, dripping with stately regret.

Readers with long memories might recall that Robbins has Eurovision form, having come third for the UK in the 1980 competition as part of the group, Prima Donna, with the pop song “Love Enough for Two”.

“I Am Gone”, in contrast, has a nostalgic feel that recalls some of those classy numbers delivered with conviction, usually by a female artist, in the years before the contest fell prey to spectacle. As a song-writing team, Robbins and Campbell are happily unfettered by any notions of cool, and long may that continue.

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.