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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: 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 – Mary Carrick: Let’s Fly

3 Jul


Dance me to the End of Love: just one of Carrick’s clever song choices

Let's Fly: Mary Carrick's voice is reminiscent of great torch singers from the past

Let’s Fly: Mary Carrick’s voice is reminiscent of great torch singers from the past

You don’t hear too many voices like Mary Carrick’s in popular music these days, beyond the boundaries of operetta or traditional musical theatre. Her clear, mellifluous soprano might not quite have the resonance of, say, Audra McDonald’s, but it is pleasingly elegant and molten – and all the more refreshing for its lyrical clarity in an age when diction in singing doesn’t always seem to be a priority.

In her technique, Carrick harks back to the intimate, low-key drama of the great Helen Morgan and her sister torch singers of the 1920s and 1930s.

At first glance, Let’s Fly looks like another album of standards. And in a crowded market, your instinctive response is to ask, what’s different about this one? The answer lies in Carrick’s clever song choices.

The old-school standards – “Come Rain or Come Shine”, a mash-up of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, and Cole Porter’s “So in Love” are deftly handled to be sure, but they are mainly the cornerstones of a record which celebrates more contemporary song-writing talents. And the contrast is fascinating.

The album opens with the delicious fatalism of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Time”, and takes in Jason Robert Brown (“Stars and the Moon”) and Stephen Schwartz (the sublime “Meadowlark”) – all holding their own alongside the masters of the American songbook.

Carrick really nails her singing colours to the mast at the heart of the set with two numbers. The first, an impassioned take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” confirms that wistful ballad as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. The second, a sizzling interpretation of Barry Manilow’s “Man Wanted”, is a reminder that he, too, is one of the finest songwriters of our time.

The final number, an echoing, sweeping version of Craig Carnelia’s “Flight” is a moving and inspirational note on which to end.

It takes a singer with Carrick’s vision and a passion for story-telling to weave songs like this into compelling and unexpected combinations. And she succeeds with the help of a fine band – three of whom, pianists J.Gawf, Todd Brooks and Eric Andries, also take credit for the pristine arrangements.

Album review – Barb Jungr: Hard Rain

9 May

The making of Hard Rain: Barb Jungr explains her passion for the songs of Dylan and Cohen

Hard Rain: confirms Barb Jungr as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours

Hard Rain: confirms Barb Jungr as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours

If Barb Jungr’s Hard Rain was a coin, one side would be dark-as-pitch bleak and the other would shimmer with uplifting golden sunshine. Few singers have her ability to interweave the extremes of life experience – often during the course of a single number – and make you smile even as a song line delivers a sobering emotional punch. And the effect has never been more powerful than on this sparkling new album – the first on her own label, Krystalyn Records – which finds her at the very peak of her vocal form.

The liberation of independence has given this Dylan/Cohen set a new, bold edge. Jungr’s voice has never sounded better, and Simon Wallace’s spacious, atmospheric arrangements give her a generous rein to explore the turbulent, brooding undercurrents of these formidable lyrics. Teasing rhythms and splashes of flute seduce the listener so that even a hardy annual like “Blowin’ in the Wind” shimmers with the discovery of new surprises.

“Who by Fire” becomes an understated, unsettling meditation, while “First We Take Manhattan” – Cohen’s subversive retort to the traditional American songbook – nails Jungr’s own stance as a singer equally at home in New York’s plush cabaret world and the earthier territory of the European chanson réaliste.

There’s an underlying fierceness in her interpretations that exploits the tension between Cohen’s philosophical, introspective lyrics and the more overtly political grit of Dylan’s songs. The devastating conversational narrative that defines “1000 Kisses Deep”, for example, is a fascinating companion for Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Chimes of Freedom”.

With Hard Rain, Jungr has confirmed her status as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours. Her gift for rendering them accessible to a wider audience – and I write as someone who would run a mile rather than sit down and listen to Bob Dylan snarl his way through one of his own numbers – gives them fresh contemporary relevance as songs for our times.

She has earned her place at the top table of influential singers, and it is bewildering that an appearance on the only popular music programme on British terrestrial television continues to elude her. If Hard Rain doesn’t earn her a place in the line-up for the current series of Later…  With Jools Holland, someone is missing a vital link.

Album review – Barb Jungr: Stockport to Memphis

23 Dec

River: Barb Jungr and the Northampton and Derngate Community Choir raise the roof for Christmas

Stockport to Memphis: some of Barb Jungr's finest work to date

Stockport to Memphis: some of Barb Jungr’s finest work to date

Substrata of autobiography, moments caught in time and the inherited trove of familial memories lurk beneath the polished surface of Barb Jungr’s new album, Stockport to Memphis. The occasional jagged shard among the softer elements hints at pockets of darkness to counter the exuberance of the title track, a foot-stomping anthem in which she tips a knowing wink at the young woman who sought – and found – escape from small, northern-town blues in music way back when.

So far, so pleasingly typical. Jungr’s ability to juxtapose bittersweet nostalgia with something bleaker is her stock in trade, giving depth and often an ominous power to her re-imaginings of seminal numbers from the great modern songbook. Heroes including Dylan (“Lay Lady Lay”), Joni Mitchell (an aching version of “River” which, reinforced with a choral backing, has been released as a Christmas single), Neil Young (“Old Man”) and Tom Waits (“Way Down in the Hole”) are represented with skill and style.

But the big news here is that Jungr has connected with the muse, and in partnership with regular accompanist and producer Simon Wallace, found space to exercise her song-writing muscles.

The six self-penned songs (which also include a number written with her former Sticky Moments singing partner Michael Parker) provide an intriguing counterpoint to the cornerstones of the modern standards. “Sunset to Break Your Heart” is further evidence of  Jungr’s particular way with a break-up song: that characteristic mixture of searing desolation and the cynicism of the survivor. But there is joyful optimism, too, in the promise of “New Life “ and – my highlight of the album – “Urban Fox”, a beautiful and evocative jazz-tinged ode to that maligned creature. Without question, some of her finest work to date.

Barb Jungr will be touring extensively throughout 2013. On January 12th she will be at the Quay Theatre in Sudbury, Suffolk.

Album Review: Livia Devereux – Night Winds Whisper

24 Dec

Devereux sings “You’ve Changed” at the Metropolitan Room: no victim, she

Night Winds Whisper: Livia Devereux on audacious form

Fascinating beats and rhythms underscore Livia Devereux’s audacious perspective on some mighty standards on her album, Night Winds Whisper. And she pulls it off with verve and the backing of a band that is as tight as a drum. The leitmotif is jazz but here is a singer who is quite happy to stray across the boundaries into pop and blues; nothing seems to hold any fear for her.

From the opening track – an up tempo, on-the-nail version of “Walkin’ After Midnight”, which takes the song a million miles from Patsy Cline’s definitive and ominous vibrato-laden country classic and turns it into a defiant challenge – to a whipped-up “Come Rain or Come Shine”,  Devereux displays an unnerving command of a rich range of material. And with that nerve comes an assurance that many singers at the peak of their game would envy.

I can’t remember hearing another version of the great, urgent Bernsten/Sondheim ballad “Tonight” that threw away the rule book with such style and transformed it into a swinging celebration of romance and anticipation.

Devereux hits the mark on each of these taught, sharply arranged tracks with similar accuracy. And just when she’s turned your expectations on their head, she dims the spot and fires up the torch, assisted on several numbers by Jisoo Ok on the cello, who adds real depth to songs such as “Welcome to My Love” and “Never Let Me Go”.

“I Don’t Hurt Anymore” becomes a thrilling anthem of survival, although there are so many layers at work in Devereux’s interpretation that the ifs and maybes ripple beneath the waves, always threatening to break the surface. Those ripples finally erupt on “Never Let Me Go” and a sweeping version of “You’ve Changed”, which in Robin Petre’s arrangement starts by evoking Gershwin and rises to a resiliant, ‘I’ve had enough’ climax. Devereux does torch songs with aplomb, but also with attitude. No victim, she.

Album Review: Lisa Kirchner – Something to Sing About

14 Dec

Rewarding and scintillating: Listen to three tracks from Something to Sing About

Something to Sing About: a cornucopia of musical genres under the art song umbrella

Tragedy, broken hearts, mortality and violence lie beneath the surface of Lisa Kirchner’s scintillating album, Something to Sing About, like bloodstained rocks. As her vocals spin and gyrate through a cycle of songs that draws on the work of the finest American composers, she covers the range of human experience from girlish hopefulness to world-weary heaviness, exposing these underlying dangers in startling moments of dissonance, shifts in meter and rhythm, and unsettling musical intervals. And all with a lightness of touch that belies the essential darkness of much of the material. These are lullabies with cruel truths at their heart.

Kirchner, the daughter of composer Leon and a doyenne of New York’s cabaret scene, has some pedigree. She has personal associations with many of the composers and songwriters represented in this rich collection, who include her father (“Lily” is one of the most poignant tracks), William Schimmel (who plays accordion on many of the numbers), Charles Ives, Wynton Marsalis, David Del Tredici and, of course, Aaron Copeland. As she explains in her excellent notes, Kirchner met Copeland when she was just eight. His music features large, culminating in a beautiful, gentle, jazz-infused take on his arrangement of “Long Time Ago”, which hangs shimmering in the air at the end of the album.

The result of this inspiring network of connections is a tapestry of musical genres brought together under the umbrella of the art song, revealing the scope of influences on quintessentially American composers whose work often reflects a European heritage in such innovative ways.

It’s impossible, for example, to escape the Brechtian cabaret nuances of Schimmel’s pastiche, “Suicide in C Minor” (the bleak tale of a gangster’s moll); or the chanson flavour of a Ned Rorem melody that provides the setting for Robert Hillyer’s poetic take on the romantic possibilities of Paris, “Early One Morning”. The chanson also informs Kirchner’s own composition, “Crazy Love, Crazy Heart”. Even Lewis Carroll gets a look-in. His ode to Alice Pleasance Liddell finds new life underpinned by Del Tredici’s dreamlike music in “Acrostic Song”. Kirchner herself has written many of the lyrics for the album, most notably for a new version of Paul Chihara’s theme to the Sidney Lumet film, Prince of the City – a gritty paean to betrayal.

Something to Sing About is an impressionistic experience, a sequence of constantly shifting musical tableaux that blur the edges and trace intriguing connections between urban 20th century America, smoky jazz bars, Medieval Europe, Shakespearian England (courtesy of two of Stanley Silverman’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival songs), and even burlesque and casinos. It’s an endlessly inventive proposition, delivered with a streak of humour that leavens the ever-present threats and terrors with quirky songs such as Samuel Barber’s “Under the Willow Tree” and William Bolcom’s “Night Make My Day” or a masterpiece of eccentricity, Silverman’s “Photograph Song”.

At the album’s heart lies Kirchner’s intense knowledge of her material, combined with an ability to render it accessible. While the listener needs to be on their mettle, they never feel part of an academic exercise. Her musicians include pianists Joel Fan and Xavier Davis, saxophonist Sherman Irby, guitarists Ron Jackson and Vicente Archer, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Willie Jones III. Between them, they create a warm, richly textured sound that cradles Kirchner’s voice as it veers from velvety reassurance to acerbic rasp. Rewarding and fascinating stuff.