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Cry Me A Torch Song: the Video Version – May 2017

6 Jun

The May 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Gill Manly (Everything Must Change & Going Home – Live at Hood’s Lounge: “A supreme gift for assured, unfussy interpretation… the seamlessness of her phrasing is exceptional. ”), Hannah Aldridge (Gold Rush: “Country rock numbers fuelled in turn by rage, disappointment and dangerous collisions – emotional and physical – as well as defiance and survival”), Jessica Lee Morgan (Around the Block: “A restlessness and a sense of moving on which lend the album a compelling edge – the singer taking control of the journey”), and Eithne Ní Uallacháin (Bilingua: “The sheer quality of Eithne’s voice transcends time and the sadness felt by the listener”).

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”).

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: 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 – Anita Wardell: The Road

11 Feb

“But Not For Me”: Anita Wardell in recital with Ed Cherry (not on The Road)

The Road: Anita Wardell's lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

The Road: Anita Wardell’s lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

For every Jamie Cullum there are a dozen highly talented British jazz singers who beaver away on the circuit to the delight of the cognoscenti, making critically acclaimed albums and commanding the respect of their peers without the benefit of a profile that might bring a wider audience to hear them.

Anita Wardell is a case in point. With a career dating back to the 1990s, she has enjoyed more than two decades of success. Last year, she was pronounced Best Jazz Vocalist at the British Jazz Awards, leading a shortlist that indicated the sheer depth of talent in this diverse field (Claire Martin, Liane Carroll, Val Wiseman and Clare Teal).

She has earned an international reputation for the scat-singing which has become her trademark, as well as the sensitivity with which she handles ballads and standards, discovering fresh nuances in familiar lines with the lightness and flexibility of her touch. She is one of the most innovative performers on the scene, but she could probably stroll through the Soho heartland of London jazz unrecognised.

Perhaps she’s happy with that. But given the quality of her recent album The Road, it seems a crime that her name isn’t more widely known beyond the glass walls of the jazz world. And I say that as someone who isn’t the greatest fan of scatting. But only a tin ear could fail to appreciate her musicality and subtlety in this department – by no means the only skill on show on this exciting record.

Belying the rather bleak and wintry scene on the album’s cover, The Road ripples like a sophisticated summer evening, particularly in Wardell’s nimble treatment of “Frevo em Maceio” and “Voca e eu”, both redolent of warm Brazilian nights, and her distinctive handling of an old favourite, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”.

A Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays mash-up  of “Travels” and “The Road”, with Wardell’s own lyrics, sets the scene for a journey across some nicely-chosen terrain, which includes a sensuous “You’re My Thrill”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” and a thrilling take on “Without a Song”.

The highlight of the album is “With Every Breath I Take”, which Wardell turns into an elegant, thoughtful torch song. The way she holds the note on the word ‘break’ is a lesson in the virtue of restraint over grandstanding vocal gymnastics.

Album review – Kaz Simmons: Signs

8 Feb

For the Love of the Big L: Signs is a scintillating love letter to London

Signs: 'quirky' is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

Signs: ‘quirky’ is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

There are two stars of the show vying for top honours on Kaz Simmons’s new album Signs. The first is the singer/songwriter’s deceptively girlish voice, which weaves its way through this cycle of city tales with all the variety and flexibility of a seasoned jazz artist. The second is London itself, which emerges as an irresistible influence on her writing and is effectively the central character in a concept album that is far too mature in its themes and textures to be categorised with a glib ‘quirky’ label.

Simmons has raided the rich canyons of psychedelia for a sound that is also flecked with jazz, folk and show-tune references. The result is a constantly shifting musical landscape that evokes the sweeping pomp of symphonic prog rock one minute, a 1960s Marianne-Faithfull-Fitzrovia vibe the next. There’s even a hint of Sondheim when a slightly sinister organ undercuts a few bars of “London Loves” and briefly conjures Sweeney Todd.

This eclectic mixture might have overwhelmed the ambitions of a less assured musician. But Simmons has more than a decade’s experience as a session guitarist behind her, and this has clearly fuelled her dextrous ability to build unexpected bridges between different styles and techniques.

Take “I Know You”, which spreads like a pool of sunshine from its initial introspective folk idiom to an almost cinematic pan across the London skyline, encapsulating the frustratingly thin line between loneliness and a sense of belonging that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the British capital.

Similar tropes weave their way through “Your Love” and “For the Love of the Big L”, in which Simmons could equally well be singing about her intrinsically flawed relationship with the city as about an unreliable lover.  “We’re friendly people, honestly…” she insists, as her poetic lyrics pick their way through the complicated litter of urban humanity.

Occasionally, as on “London Loves” or the title track, people emerge from the cityscape – a parade of paramours with varying eye colours, each one more feckless than the last, and out-of-sync couples.

She has surrounded herself with a vibrant and sympathetic band, including guitarist Martin Kolarides, Will Bartlett (who is responsible for that edgy organ), drummer Tim Giles and Riaan Vosloo on bass.

The only cover is a sweetly melancholy take on the Pee Wee King pop classic “You Belong to Me”, which is calming balm after the frenetic, always-rewarding drama of the previous eight songs.

Signs is an album to have ringing in your headphones next time you set out for a stroll around the big L. Any other city might do at a pinch, but it is essentially a scintillating love letter to a place that exasperates and enthrals this singular talent (and anyone else who knows it) in equal measure.