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Album review – Claudia Brücken: Where else…

5 Oct

Nevermind: Literate lyrics over a throbbing techno-beat

Where else... the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken's shines in a new set of self-penned songs

Where else… the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken’s voice shines in a new set of self-penned songs

It’s nearly 30 years since the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken’s voice first came to wider attention as one of the main elements of Propaganda’s punchy, cinematic brand of electronica. Three decades on, the German singer’s third solo album Where Else… acknowledges the ongoing significance of electronic music in her career – not least in the throbbing beats of “Nevermind” and “Letting go”, overlayed with literate, earworm lyrics – while drawing subtly on a broader range of influences.

Apart from a pristine version of Nick Drake’s “Day is done”, all the tracks are written by Brücken and the album’s producer John Owen Williams, who has established a strong track record for getting the best out of his female collaborators in the studio (he was also the force behind Petula Clark’s recent success, Lost in You).

Their well-crafted songs are built around strong journey-like narratives which tell tales of shattered trust, reconnection, and optimism rising from adversity, reflecting Brücken’s decision to move away from the synth bank and try out the guitar – an instrument she learned to play during the making of the album – as the central plank of her song-writing. “Walk right in” shimmers with echoes of English folk, while “How do I know” and the funky, guitar-driven “Moon song” are each, in their own way, invitations to intimacy.

The combination of a sharp, contemporary musicality and her preference for story-telling, which also reflects a lifelong admiration for great European artists like Piaf, Dietrich and potent American singer- poets such as Patti Smith and Lou Reed, is fascinating.

Beautifully integrated, delicate layers of sound cradle and support Brücken’s lucid vocals as she explores the complex territory of the troubadour and the chanteuse réaliste. Williams’s skill is such that hints of Velvet Underground darkness blend easily with Abba-esque riffs, creating a bittersweet world in which the emotional climate is never settled for long.

Duel: Brücken’s 1980s stint with Propaganda remains a key influence on her music

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CD Review – Jessica Lee Morgan: I Am Not

12 Feb

Jessica Lee Morgan: “Your Girl” – mixed by Morgan Visconti

I Am Not: don't be fooled by the sweetness and light - it isn't always what it seems

“My mamma always said, ‘Keep your powder dry’,” sings Jessica Lee Morgan in “I Wanna Be Famous”, one of the standout tracks on her debut album, I Am Not. And she pretty much did as she was told for years. Which makes sense, considering mamma is Mary Hopkin, that fine singer with a healthy contempt for the more fatuous aspects of the music industry, whose advice would probably be worth its weight in gold to any young woman who thinks X Factor is the fast track to success.

As things turn out, it’s rather a pity Jessica kept us waiting to appreciate her vocal and song-writing talents for such a long time. As she explains on her web site, despite growing up steeped in music (dad is the legendary producer Tony Visconti) and writing her own songs since she was four, she spent the first part of her life rebelling – ultimately to no avail – against following in the parental footsteps. So this record has been a very long time in the gestation. And it’s full of good stuff that marks her out as an idiosyncratic force, capable of drawing on decades of musical influences to create songs that veer from plangent folk to the insistent beats of state-of-the-art electronica – exemplified by two contrasting versions of the tender “Your Girl”.

The songs on the album span her passage from teenaged belligerence – some of which, pleasingly, she retains throughout – to introspective 30-plus maturity. It is, like her mother’s well-received new record (You Look Familiar, co-written and produced with Jessica’s brother Morgan Visconti) a family affair. Mary comes through, pristine as ever, on several of the backing vocals, melding highly effectively with her daughter’s lower, more resonant timbre in a way that brings to mind the recent collaboration between Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson. Tony and Morgan Visconti share arrangement, co-production and mixing duties. But Jessica, who also plays piano and guitar, is always in the driving seat.

Things kick off with a country-rock ballad, “Texas Angel”, setting the tone for the tales to come, full of crystal clear imagery, smooth-flowing harmonies and a very eloquent style. But just when you think you’ve got the measure of her, she shatters the mould and moves on to something completely different. There is a real lyrical edge to many of these tracks that repays the attentive listener. The sweetness and light is rarely what it seems.

“I Wanna Be Famous” is an acerbically ironic comment on the fast-track promises of celebrity culture, all the more effective because it has such an ear-worm of a riff and would fill the dance floor in a second, calling the listener’s double bluff. In a just world it would be a mega hit.

Morgan is at her best on these electronica-dusted tracks, her voice cutting the swirling, atmospheric, retro arrangements like a knife through fine butter. “Leave the Light On” is another multi-layered beauty, echoing and poignant in its hope that things will come right in the end. “Just A Song”, a riposte to somebody’s accusation that singing cover versions was a sell-out, knocks all the pretence out of the song writer’s art.

“Whatcha Do” has a distinct R&B feel – think Mariah Carey or Beyoncé without all that infernal melisma. And on “Here it All Comes Again”, a pull-yourself-together-and-go-and-get-it, guitar-driven ballad, co-written with Hopkin, Morgan reveals a tougher vocal sound at the eleventh hour. Talent will out. There’s no need to keep that powder dry any more.

CD Review – Renée Yoxon: Let’s Call it a Day; plus news of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Girl Talk, Marianne Faithfull and a Sondheim cabaret season

24 Dec

Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!

Wilson, Jungr and Herbert: the new Girl Talk line-up hits London in February

Congratulations to Barb Jungr, whose album The Men I Love has just been named Cabaret CD of the Year by Time Out New York.

Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.

Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.

Horses & High Heels: Marianne Faithfull's new album, out in March

Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.

Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.

Let's Call it a Day: an auspicious debut from Renée Yoxon

Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.

It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.

Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.

Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.

If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.

CD Review: Emilie Simon, The Big Machine

11 Jul

Rainbow: a track from Emilie Simon’s new album, The Big Machine

The Big Machine: a new musical vision of an iconic city

A few weeks ago I berated PRs who use the “New Kate Bush” tag to try and snatch a bit of space for the latest quirky singer in a niche that, despite the heralding of numerous would-bes, has only ever really been occupied by one talent. Here, for one night only, I’ll eat my words.

Emilie Simon, a French electro-pop singer and composer (or “sonic auteur” according to the slightly pretentious blurb) with a strong track record in her home country, is already a cult figure in her adopted hometown of New York. Her new album, The Big Machine, a conceptual tribute to the city, is about to hit the UK on a tide of gathering interest. And it doesn’t take more than a couple of spins for the aptness of the Bush comparison to make itself abundantly clear.

At times, the extraordinary swoops and intervals of Simon’s vocals are so reminiscent of Bush’s early work, the timbre so similar, that for a second, it’s like being transported back 30 years to a time when the idiosyncratic masterpieces of the UK’s most singular female singer-songwriter carved such a significant path through contemporary pop. But the comparison works – and is a tribute to both women – because once the frisson has passed, it’s quite clear that Simon is a formidable and unique talent in her own right.

Not for her the metaphysical expeditions across the inner landscape of Bush’s child-woman, with their obscure literary and philosophical references. Simon’s lyrics are emphatically 21st-centry urban, rooted in accomplished, synthesised beats.

She’s a one-woman electro-band, a pioneer of “The Arm” – a rather startling, customised sleeve that gives her complete control over her musical gadgets and voice manipulation technology and which, in live performance, allows her to replicate the complex, symphonic qualities of her recordings.

Brick by brick this Brooklyn resident constructs a musical picture of an iconic city that obviously has her firmly in its grasp. Simon’s is a different kind of skyline, far removed from the art deco canyons or concrete jungle conjured by the likes of Gershwin and Bernstein.

Emilie Simon: one-woman electro-band

The album is full of arresting juxtapositions: the near cacophony of the urgent brassy intro to “Rainbow” setting up the first appearance of Simon’s deceptively girlish voice; the retro electronica – almost Thompson Twin-like – of the hypnotic “Dreamland”; the brilliant, glittering vocals of “Nothing to do With You” (the most Bush-like of all the tracks, and for me, the album’s standout number, along with “Closer”); the brooding promise of adventure in “Chinatown”.

Moods shift in the flicker of a neon light as Simon subtlely works the technology to give her voice a new resonance. It’s great to hear a genuinely different sound cutting through the increasingly homogenised legions of young female singer songwriters.