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Album Review – Violette: Simple is Beautiful

4 Jul

La Vie en Rose: Violette leaves the bal musette behind

Simple is Beautiful: a heady mix of pop, torch ballads, soul and chansons

Sorbonne and Berklee College of Music graduate Violette harnesses a complex range of influences on her third album, which give the lie to its title Simple is Beautiful. Sometimes the mix is so broad that it’s tricky to pin down a specific style or direction: “All I Need”, for example, juggles rhythms and pace like there’s no tomorrow. That’s no bad thing in an age when the music industry seems more determined than ever to categorise artists in easy-to-market boxes.

Here are power ballads, soul shuffles with a hint of reggae and, for good measure, a dash of Piaf. The award-winning singer /songwriter’s jazz-tinged pop songs, mostly self-penned (with Rich Mendelsson), are deceptively light, and underpinned by catchy beats, urgent guitar riffs and earthy harmonicas. Quirky references and rhyming couplets abound on numbers like “Superwoman”, interspersed with reflections on the contemporary life and concerns of a young woman about town.

Violette has a sweet voice that reflects the discipline of her classical training – thankfully, the modern trend for all things melismatic has passed her by – and is particularly suited to ballads such as the title song and the bonus track “Miss Your Company”,  if a little less robust on the up tempo rock and gospel numbers.  There’s a glorious Streisand-style torch song, “Don’t Make Me Beg”, all soaring strings and building key changes, which might have considerably improved France’s recent Eurovision status, if Violette had been tempted to represent her native country.

She lives in New York these days, but there’s a nod to her roots with a couple of French language tracks: “Insomnie”, a swirling love song with an operatic choral backing, and “La Vie en Rose”, a jazz-flecked interpretation of Piaf’s standard that is more Manhattan supper club than Montmartre bal musette, reflecting Violette’s transatlantic transition. Between them she and Mendelsson have produced another album with great clarity. A fourth is already on the way.

Album review – Mary Hopkin: Spirit

15 Dec

Mary Hopkin reminisces about her childhood in Pontardawe

Spirit: Mary Hopkin explores her early musical influences

If you’re in a contemplative mood and want to create a little corner of peace and tranquillity, you could do a lot worse than to light a few candles and give Mary Hopkin’s Spirit a spin. Reissued on her own label under the guidance of daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, this 1989 album offers an intimate and deeply personal insight into the early influences that coaxed Hopkin into her singing career. So intimate, in fact, that you occasionally feel that you are eavesdropping on private thoughts about her Welsh childhood.

That is the charm of Spirit. In a new note for the album, Hopkin states candidly, “No aspiration to classical accuracy here… just me and my memories.” So classical purists probably need proceed no further. But they’d really be missing the point if they started grumbling. Mary Hopkin is no pop star trying to be an opera star.

Her Introit and Kyrie from Fauré’s Requiem are honest, unfussy interpretations. “One Fine Day” from Madam Butterfly, sung in English, is a clear and touching narrative which eschews the potential for overblown drama and actually allows you to hear the thoughts of the tragic heroine – although there is one slightly tricky moment when the keyboards evoke a Hammond organ at its most tremulous. And there is an ethereal “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana, which confirms the fact that Hopkin always had one of the sweetest voices of any popular female British singer. Mozart’s “Ave Verum-Corpus”, the sentimental parlour song “Sweet and Low” and a soaring “Ave Maria” evoke the childish innocence that must have informed those early performances at chapel or in the school choir.

Two composers’ takes on Pie Jesu are offered. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s – the only contemporary offering – recovers much of the dignity it has lost over the years at the hands of over-hyped juvenile stars, while Hopkin’s crystalline soprano weaves a moving threnody with Fauré’s version. But the highlight of the album is a delightful, folk-ish interpretation of “Jerusalem” that allows you to hear the beauty and strength of Blake’s words in a way that is the antithesis of the hearty tub-thumping treatment it usually receives.

Mary Hopkin lets the words come first

Following the success of her recent release, You Look Familiar, which was written and produced with son Morgan Visconti, Spirit is a touching reminder of the range and depth of Mary Hopkin’s singing talent. It’s great to see her back catalogue being made available while we look forward to the possibilities of new work.

Album Review: Anita Skorgan – Adventus (Special Edition)

15 Nov

Is it True? The song that captured the hearts of Radio 2 listeners

Adventus: a Christmas album that evokes and provokes

“Christmas has started,” said Anita Skorgan before launching into a chilled, jazz-inflected version of “Silent Night” which achieved the near-impossible feat of giving you the feeling that you were hearing that familiar carol for the first time. It was the last number of a short set intended to showcase the UK release of a special edition of her recent album, Adventus, delivered in the opulent surroundings of the palm court at the Langham Hotel.

Skorgan’s surprised delight at the growing British interest in her work was as charming as her songs – contemplative, searching threnodies with a non-evangelistic spiritual accent that is a rare antidote to the annual rash of festive standards already descending on us.

It would be patronising to call this Skorgan’s breakthrough when has been a major star in her native Norway for more than 30 years. Yet there’s something very touching and satisfying about a successful, mature artist finding deserved but unexpected acclaim beyond their established market. And for that, she has to thank BBC broadcaster Jeremy Vine, who introduced Skorgan’s showcase and has been playing her songs for a couple of years – and listeners of his Radio 2 lunchtime show, who heard something profoundly appealing in her pure soprano and gentle melodies and wanted to know more about her. That powerful connection was crystallised in the wake of last summer’s atrocities in Oslo and Utøya, when Skorgan sang live on the show, her clear, soaring voice epitomising the dignified grief of her nation.

The Eurovision years: Anita Skorgan sings “Oliver” in Jerusalem, 1979

Anita Skorgan: voice of a nation

In fact, Anita Skorgan is no stranger to international audiences. But in helping to bring her to wider attention, Vine has succeeded where several high-profile Eurovision appearances failed. Readers whose memories stretch back to the late 1970s might recall her stalwart efforts for Norway, which included the excellent “Oliver” in 1979, a duet with her former husband Jahn Teigen and in 1988, songwriting credits for Karoline Krüger’s fifth-placed “For Vår Jord”.

Adventus is actually an updated and largely anglicised version of Julenatt, a 1994 album that sowed the seeds of Skorgan’s hugely popular – and groundbreaking for a pop singer – seasonal tours of traditionally sober Norwegian churches. The first track on the album – the poignant “Is it True” – is the song that captured the hearts of Jeremy Vine’s listeners, and the way she delivered it to an enraptured showcase audience showed exactly why this thoughtful, questioning and deeply personal exploration of hope struck such a chord.

Equally absorbing, “The Miracle in Me” was another performance highlight. With lyrics from the pen of Skorgan’s regular song-writing partner Kari Iveland, it interprets the story of Christ’s birth from Mary’s point of view without a hint of evangelising. Like “Peace”, in which faith bursts from uncertainty with a glorious burst of the saxophone from Tore Brunborg,  and “Come With Me”, these songs are thematic rather than specifically religious.

There are a handful of traditional numbers, including a Norwegian version of “Mary’s Boy Child”, plus Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu”, “Den Fattige Gud” (on which Skorgan is joined by rousing Salvation Army horn orchestra, and the sweet folk song “Et Lite Barn”, all delivered with a vocal clarity thrillingly free of artifice or schmaltz. There’s also a homage to her hero, Johan Sebastian Bach, whose first Prelude she references on “Kyrie Eleison”.

Skorgan’s voice has a beguiling honesty and underlying nordic melancholy. Rather than imposing a particular narrative, she invites you to explore a thought or a feeling with her. The result is an album that is evocative and subtly provocative. Light the candles. Christmas has started indeed.

Kathy Kirby: a Unique and Troubled Star

21 May

Kathy Kirby sings at the NME Poll Winners concert in 1964

Hits, Rarities and Lipgloss: demand for Kathy Kirby's recordings remains high, despite her years away from the spotlight

A star’s longevity is a complex thing, often defying simplistic interpretation based on chart placings, millions of records sold and accumulated decades of success. So how to explain the enduring enigma of Kathy Kirby, whose death at the age of 72 made the headlines, despite the fact that nearly half a century had passed since she was at the peak of her television stardom, and it was four decades since she had made any substantial recordings?

Discovered and mentored by the great band leader Bert Ambrose, Kathy Kirby was groomed in the image of his ideal woman – a kind of late 1950s hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors, with crisply styled peroxide hair and startlingly glossy red lips. Ambrose’s concept was dated even by the time Kirby became a major television star on the strength of her early 1960s appearances in Stars and Garters. But somehow – largely thanks to a winning and cheerful personality that knew instinctively how to reach a television audience beyond the camera and, crucially, a voice of spectacular power and emotional force, which commanded attention whatever she was singing – she transcended the stylistic straightjacket he imposed on her.

As so often in the annals of show business, Kathy Kirby’s life eventually came to mirror the more dramatic lyrics of some of her songs. This, combined with the unique qualities of her voice, dusted her with an almost mythical fascination, long after her active career had waned.

Ambrose had given Kirby her first break as a teenager, employing her on a short contract as a vocalist for his dance band after she had persuaded him to let her sing for him at the Palais de Danse in Ilford when she was just 16, in 1954. She spent the next few years paying her dues on the club circuit, singing with Ambrose on and off, and gaining valuable show-business experience. But it was not until he became her manager and took control of her recording and television career that things really took off, culminating in hit singles and albums for Decca, and some hugely popular television series. Their relationship soon developed privately and they would be together until his death in 1971, an arrangement that would have disastrous consequences for Kirby.

Kathy Kirby’s repertoire, tightly controlled by Ambrose, was heavily standards-based. Her most enduring hit was an up-tempo cover version of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”, and most of her television performances favoured the American song book and show tunes rather than the pop and soul songs that fuelled the careers of her contemporaries – Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Cilla Black and Petula Clark. Her look, too, was at odds with their fashionable styles, which would come to define the swinging 60s. And yet she carved a niche for herself in a competitive market, winning an NME Award for the best female singer of 1964 and singing “I Belong” with characteristic brio for the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. She was defeated only by the mighty combination of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s yé-yé compositions and the nubile France Gall, who took the trophy for Luxemburg.

I Belong: Kathy Kirby’s performance at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest

There’s no doubt that Kirby could – and should – have had a much more versatile and long-lasting career. But Ambrose’s artistic and financial control were absolute. Occasionally she tried to persuade him to try something new. She begged him to let her record “You’re My World”, a typically extravagant 1960s Latin ballad that would have suited her vocal range and majesty down to the ground. He refused, the song went to Cilla Black, and she took it to the top of the charts. Not only were Kirby’s sharp musical instincts constantly repressed but when Ambrose died, she discovered how badly he had mismanaged – and misspent – her hard-earned fortune (she was for a while the UK’s highest-paid female television star).

Rudderless and naïve, and at the mercy of her own increasingly brittle temperament, Kathy Kirby soon found herself marooned at the edge of the spotlight. If she’d had the steely, worldly-wise verve of a Shirley Bassey or the common touch of a Cilla Black, and the backup of an astute manager, she might have been able to reinvent herself for the 1970s. As it was, for her, that decade imploded into tabloid notoriety, bankruptcy, mental health problems and a difficult reputation which made work difficult to come by.

Secret Love: Kathy Kirby sings her greatest hit in 1982 – a rare, late appearance that shows she’d lost none of her vocal power

Kirby did come back, several times. As late as 1983, she was making occasional television appearances and singing in nightclubs. Then she turned her back on the business, retreating to her flat in West London. Living quietly, she unwittingly added to her own status as a reclusive enigma. Occasionally a newspaper article would ask, “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” but the lady herself preferred to keep quiet on the matter.

Then, in 2005, a biography (Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss) written by her friend and manager James Harman appeared, generating new interest in her career and recordings. And in 2009, she made a DVD documentary with Harman – Kathy Kirby: My Story – giving her first live interview in decades. Some people were upset by her appearance – she was clearly not in the best of health, and perhaps they resented the changes that had taken place since she was last in the public eye. In fact, her lucid comments, her refusal to cast blame elsewhere for any of her troubles – she loved Bert Ambrose, she said, despite everything – and her gratitude for what she still considered to have been a career of high achievement (which indeed it was), proved a fitting and dignified valediction.

Among her considerable vocal talents, Kathy Kirby was a superb torch singer. You only need to hear her versions of “Body and Soul” or “The Man I Love” to understand the extent of her skill. Her large voice sometimes seemed too grand an instrument to be constrained by small rooms and venues, but given a classic number her phrasing and lyrical clarity were second to none and she was equally capable of great subtlety and an urgent emotional truth. We should have heard a great deal more from her.

I tried to interview her occasionally over the years, sending letters via Equity and Decca without a great deal of hope. Then one afternoon in the mid-1990s, the phone rang and a familiar, breathy, slightly off-centre voice started speaking to me in the third person about a note received for Miss Kirby from Mr Piers. Miss Kirby, said the voice, was not giving interviews at the moment but would pass the letter to her musical director who would let Mr Piers know when anything changed. As tends to happen on such occasions, I was too nonplussed to press the singer – for it was obviously the lady herself – any further and meekly thanked her for calling. Caller-ID allowed me to take a note of the number, which I kept for posterity but never had the courage to ring. Now, it’s too late. But I was delighted that the BBC bulletins made room for news of the death of this unique and quintessentially troubled star.

Album Review: Miriam Waks – Waksing Lyrical

10 May

O gente da minha terra: Miriam Waks in fadista mode

Waksing Lyrical is an elegant, sophisticated debut album from Sydney’s Miriam Waks. Light jazz inflections mingle in an intimate, lounge-inspired atmosphere as she tours an eclectic  set of standards, chansons and a couple of quaint, unexpected choices.

Why Suffer: Miriam Waks collaborates with Coptic Soldier

There’s no doubt Waks can deliver a genuinely contemporary sound when she has to. Check out her collaboration with Coptic Soldier on “Why Suffer” for evidence. So when I say that in some ways, the overall effect of Waksing Lyrical is disarmingly old-fashioned, I mean it in the most complimentary way: her diction is perfect, regardless of the language she’s singing in (and her linguistic skills are nicely showcased). You get every word, which is rare in an age of overwhelming production values. And there is an air of traditional, pared-back simplicity about the whole project that is utterly refreshing.

Kerrie Biddell has done a discreet job on the mixing desk, leaving plenty of air around Waks and her accomplished trio – pianist Michael Bartolemi, Ben Waples on double bass and drummer James Waples (they’re joined by her uncle, Nathan, on cello for “La Vie en Rose”).

Waksing Lyrical: an elegant debut for the Sydney singer

Waks has a lilting soprano voice that really tugs the heartstrings on the ballads. But she also throws in some earthy grit and nuanced comedy on more lived-in numbers like “Peel me a Grape”, “Black Coffee”, “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and the suitably torchy “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s”, phrasing with confidence and clarity. She attacks “There’s Gotta be Something Better Than This” with restrained bravado.

The Portuguese and Spanish numbers – “Chega de Saudade” and “Veinte Años”, in particular throb with dignified emotion, and she has a sweet, wistful approach to “La Vie en Rose”. Further proof of her stylistic range is provided by the Sephardic song, “Si Veriash”, on which she reveals real vocal ease and flexibility.

As I’m writing this Eurovision 2011 is fast approaching, so the presence of “Al di La” rates a special mention. Although Betty Curtis failed to win the 1961 contest for Italy with this stately, sentimental ballad, it became a signature song for Connie Francis. Dated it might be but here, dusted off and polished up by Waks, it gleams afresh, full of yearning and regret for what might have been.

Al di La: Betty Curtis sings at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961

CD review: Mary Hopkin and Morgan Visconti – You Look Familiar

27 Dec

Those were the the days: Mary Hopkin sings her signature song on a very strange choice of set

You Look Familiar: Mary Hopkin shakes off the shreds of nostalgia with a fascinating new album

It’s hard to believe that more than 40 years have passed since a Welsh teenager with a melancholy, angelically crystalline voice and a curtain of blonde hair won a British TV talent show – Opportunity Knocks (how quaint that now seems compared with the global machine that is X Factor today) – and secured a substantial chart career that lasted into the early 1970s.

The name Mary Hopkin will be forever associated with the Paul McCartney-produced “Those Were the Days”, a fatalistic traditional folk song, probably originally from somewhere east of the Urals, which gave her a number one hit. Hopkin was an important early signing for the Beatles’ iconic Apple label.

A blast from the past: Mary Hopkin sings Temma Harbour, produced by Mickie Most, on Top of the Pops in 1970

She went on to work with Mickie Most on a number of hits and represented the United Kingdom in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest. But while she came second with “Knock Knock, Who’s There?”, the experience of singing a song that she has never made a secret of loathing only added to her growing distaste for the manipulation of the music industry – and a lack of influence over her own career that was the lot of most young female singers at the time.

Although she continued recording intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s, much of Hopkin’s subsequent work was within the collaborative security of project bands Sundance and, later, with Peter Skellern and Julian Lloyd Webber, Oasis (long before a pair of Mancunian brothers changed the trajectory of British rock with a group of the same name).

Hopkin seemed bent on putting as much water between her and the days of her greatest commercial success as possible. And although there have been occasional snippets of new work in the intervening years, interviews became rare and accordingly, she acquired a reclusive, increasingly enigmatic reputation – not unlike that of Kate Bush.

Now, she has released a fascinating new album (You Look Familiar) written and produced in partnership with her son Morgan Visconti – and it’s a treat from start to finish, not least because those pristine vocals are utterly undiminished by the years. But it is also a work of real, thought-provoking depth that references Hopkin’s folk roots (“Chime” is the most overtly folk-accented track) and influences as she relates a sequence of rounded, modern stories, from the opening track (“America”) with its tale of the young stowaway heading East to the uneasy warnings of “Eve’s Revenge” and the easy, resigned chug of “Dog Eat Dog” – a catchy pub song.

Intriguingly, many of the arrangements are cradled in infectious, synth-style riffs, beats and echoing overlaid harmonies (some courtesy of daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, a singer in her own right) that often create a retro sense of lush 1980s electronic pop.

But don’t be seduced simply by the sound. Piercing barbs lurk in the lyrics, reminders that Hopkin now has the lifetime of experience that she was only able to hint at as the 18-year old singer of “Those Were the Days”. There is darkness and stinging cynicism, too. I don’t know who she had in mind, writing “Heaven Knows”. But even if her target was personal, the stinging words could equally apply to higher, more public figures and I can think of one or two politicians who would be usefully caught in their firing line.

I love “People Say”, a wise and touching account of an unexpected encounter that could lead to something more, the motherly advice of “Walk Like Me” and the epic, hypnotic forebodings of “Pretenders”. With You Look Familiar, Hopkin has emphatically shaken off the shreds of nostalgia and reminded us of a voice and pedigree that have much to offer in 2011. Don’t leave it so long next time, Mary. We’d like some more – and soon.

EP Review: Someday – Maini Sorri

30 Sep

Maini Sorri’s biographical video for her participation in I’m a Hollywood Star features clips from several songs featured on Someday

Someday: deceptively simple lyrics combine with melancholic undertones to generate an ABBA-esque frisson

Not everyone can take a quirky little ditty and make it credible. It takes sincerity, a deal of musical sensibility and a belief in the ultimate message of a song that is probably greater than the sum of its parts. Maini Sorri seems to have the ability in spades. How about this for a couplet?

“Truth is you were selfish and a phoney.

I shouldn’t have trusted you and your baloney.”

It’s one of my favourite snippets from her new EP Someday, a small collection of five songs that frequently reveal a melancholy undercurrent beneath their whimsical lyrics and well-crafted melodies. Does that sound reminiscent of a certain other Scandinavian outfit? I’m not suggesting that there are huge similarities between Sorri’s work and the nuances of Benny and Bjorn’s finest numbers. But in the deceptive simplicity of lyrics that can sound banal, even childlike, at the first hearing before they work their way under your skin, and the layered arrangements, guitar-driven and piano-based, with their minor accents, it’s impossible not to detect a hint of ABBA’s mastery of the accessible pop tune with the dark back story.  And it’s no surprise that she cites Agnetha Faltskog as one of her main singing influences.

Sorri is a Finn who lives mainly in Sweden and is gifted with a pure, crystalline voice that easily covers the ground between pop and the more mainstream reaches of modern folk. Her accent – more shades of that ABBA-like appeal – gives these songs an air of innocence, a lack of guile, that surely belies her all-round musical strengths. She knows exactly what she’s doing and the sound she wants to achieve, and the result is a modest little box of jewels, from the catchy, twinkling intro of the title track (don’t be fooled, it soon gets elemental and philosophical, and has its eye on the great hereafter) to the gently contemptuous “I Shouldn’t Have Trusted You” (source of the baloney reference) and the sadly defiant “I Am Leaving”, which is also offered in Finnish as “Lahden Yksin”.

My first thought on playing “Someday” was that it has a certain Eurovision quality – in a good way. I don’t know if Sorri has tried her luck yet in the Finnish or Swedish selection processes for the contest, but reading her thoughtful and intelligent blog posts on the subject, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has ambitions in that direction. With a growing following – not just in Europe but also in the US and Canada – this could be a prime time for her to make that particular move.