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Album review – Mary Hopkin: Painting by Numbers

7 Feb

Gold and Silver: a delicate and hypnotic threnody

Mary HopkinSomewhere in a parallel universe, Mary Hopkin presides as an insightful grande dame of British popular music, afforded her due as a fine singer and an astute, thoughtful songwriter.

In reality, of course, she has long-since eschewed such a high-profile path, preferring to maintain a low-key presence in the industry, taking a gently cynical stand against some of its more outrageous manifestations, and popping her head above the parapet on Twitter from time to time.

Thankfully, however, there is still new music coming from the Hopkin household, and that lovely, expressive voice – with the extra shades and textures of maturity – continues to captivate.

Following on the heels of You Look Familiar (her 2010 collaboration with son Morgan Visconti) and the contemplative Spirit, her latest album – Painting by Numbers – is an intimate set of mainly home-made recordings featuring just Hopkin and her guitar, with occasional guest musicians adding some harmonic depth at the mixing stage.

As she explains in her sleeve notes, most of them have been lifted from DAT copies and even a worn cassette (the gorgeous “Incurable Romantic”), the master tapes having vanished long since. Polishing is kept to a minimum. A handful have been mixed and engineered in the studio, a few harmonies added here and there, but always without sacrificing the sense of a spontaneous take, complete with its slight hisses and clicks.

Painting by Numbers emerges as a sweet, thoughtful, honest work of integrity, showcasing Hopkin’s distinctive, effortlessly wistful voice and making it seem impossible that more than 40 years have passed since “Those Were the Days” made her a household name.

The essential melancholy of that signature song, with its undertow of life-lessons learned the hard way, found the perfect vehicle in Hopkin’s timbre, and it unravels further through these ten numbers, from the title track, through the touching reassurance of “Fair-weather Friends” (mixed by Alan Britton, who has also added some rich, steely guitars, and featuring Hopkin’s own backing vocals mixed by Visconti), to the poignant “Love, Long Distance”.

Part timeless folk melody, part meditation on love’s ability to survive the passing of time, the Visconti-mixed “Gold and Silver” is the standout track on the album, a delicate and hypnotic threnody that hangs tantalisingly in the air before it dies away.

There are other delights. “Improvisation” is a wordless chant which works its way under your skin, “Fresh out of Favours” a world-weary emotional stock-take, “Die for you” a reminder of the power of constancy,  and “Teardrops” a cautionary look in the mirror. Rounding things off, “Love Belongs Right Here” perfectly captures the lump-in-the-throat moment of parting, and is one of several moments when the album’s bittersweet quality gives your heartstrings an unexpected tug.

Studio interventions aside, you are left with the overriding sense of a singer at peace with her art and content to let it speak for her, plainly and simply.

Album review – Lucy Ward: Single Flame

7 Feb

The Last Pirouette: exhilarating dance of death

Single Flame: auspicious, deep and full of complex nuances

Single Flame: auspicious, deep and full of complex nuances

When Lucy Ward name-checks Melanie Safka and Bob Dylan in the opening track of her brooding, portentous album Single Flame, she is giving notice of the high standards she has set herself as a singer/songwriter – and signalling to her listener that the voyage they’re embarking on won’t always be comfortable.

It is testament to her skill that as she leads them into ever darker and murkier waters, the lyrics underpin her swirling, haunting melodies like seams of black diamonds, redolent with hard truths and acerbic observations, and she never compromises her intentions.

From “I Cannot Say I Will Not Speak” onwards, Ward proves she is right up there with artists like Ange Hardy, and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, who have brought a new kind of gritty realism to modern British folk music, utterly contemporary – and often devastating – in their themes of protest and injustice but equally true to the rich heritage of traditional story-telling.

There is a doom-laden quality to many of her songs that is never less than satisfying and is often bleakly tender, not least in the album’s masterpiece, “The Last Pirouette”. Here, the fading beauty of a washed-up prima ballerina becomes a metaphor for the end of the world. By rights, it should put you on your own suicide watch. Instead, it soars in exhilarating three-time, echoing in the vaults of the ceiling like a universal dance of death.

Other songs cover similarly traumatic terrain: “The Consequence” explores the chilling, seeping imprint left by domestic violence; “For the Dead Men” is a multi-layered exploration of the relationship between campaigners, the victims of injustice and the bystanders who do nothing – all dead, either in the cause or morally, through their inaction; “Rites of Man” is a shimmering eulogy to nature, the ultimate casualty of human folly.

Indeed, folly – of humanity, of war, or of the individual (check out “Icarus”, a sorry tale of desertion) – is one of Ward’s grandest themes. As we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, numbers like “Shellback” (Ward’s first composition) and the upbeat “Marching Through the Green Grass” (an adaptation of an Appalachian folk song) assume a heart-catching resonance.

But if all this sounds forbiddingly apocalyptic, the depth and beauty of the writing also generates shafts of hope that pierce the blackness. “Velvet Sky” is an anthemic explosion of colour and optimism.

With producer and occasional co-writer Stu Hanna, Ward has created the glorious, almost symphonic equivalent of a diorama in which characters spring to life and move against the backdrop of her assured musicality. This is an auspicious piece of work, which reveals more depth and nuance with each play.

Album review – Sara Syms: Fade to Blue

21 Dec

Dance on my Grave: Sara Syms offers a bleakly lilting invitation

Fade to Blue: Sara Syms is honest, thoughtful musical company

Fade to Blue: Sara Syms is honest, thoughtful musical company

With Fade to Blue, Chicago-born Sara Syms has produced a debut album steeped in Americana. It’s a heady mix of blues-tinged roots, with dashes of bluegrass and jazz, which reflects the diversity of her influences, including Patty Griffin, but is also an emphatic statement of musical independence.

From the storming “Devil Came Around”, through the bleakly lilting “Dance on My Grave”, to the lyrical sensuality of the title track and the irresistible hook of “Waves Crashing”, Syms and her song-writing partner Lynn Verlayne have crafted a rich aural patchwork of numbers.

Each song draws on the insight of experience and explores the many complexities and shades of relationships. These are not the laments of the romantic victim so much as a quest for affirmation and clarity, acknowledging that when it comes to love, nothing is ever simply black and white. Sometimes, as Syms sings in “Free”, you just have to borrow a silver lining.

“Someday” and “Gypsy Dreams” are two songs about longing from different angles, the first bittersweet and hopeful, the second hinting at the exotic distractions of a romance based on fantasy. “One Last Hit” is a suite of fables about the destructive power of addiction, while the sad, poignant beauty of “To Be in Love” explores what we’re missing if we don’t live in the moment.

Fade to Blue is an assured debut album, and an intimate take on universal themes. Syms is thoughtful, honest and touching musical company – never more so than on the final track, with its uncluttered realisation that “All We Have is Now”.

Album review – Ange Hardy: Barefoot Folk

21 Dec

Forlorn Land: Ange Hardy’s 10-part harmony rings with relevance

Barefoot Folk: so timeless, its Facebook references catch you unawares

Barefoot Folk: so timeless, its Facebook references catch you unawares

It is a measure of Ange Hardy’s immersion in the art of folk-song writing that even the references in her social media-inspired number “Crafty Father John” are rendered timeless. Only as the song’s last strains fade do you do a double-take and catch yourself wondering if they really had Facebook in the ancient days from which it surely dates.

Hardy’s acoustic album, Bare Foot Folk, is some achievement. Each number is a testament to her gift for telling complete, emotionally engaging stories through lyrics crafted with careful economy and plangent melodies that resonate with traditional cadences, without a single hint of parody.

Her references are the experiences of a life that, as the biographical note on her website implies, has had its stormy times. She scatters them across a landscape of those meadows and glades that she says she sees in her mind’s eye when she’s listening to traditional folk music, and distils them into little jewels of song. Motherhood, loss, broken hearts, faith and the artist’s quest for recognition emerge as the strongest themes.

“Forlorn Land” rings with timely relevance as we prepare to mark the centenary of the Great War in an age blighted by new violence and uncertainty around the world. The ten-part harmony, with its intrinsic lament, is gorgeous. There’s a gritted-teeth lullaby (“Stop Your Crying Son”) that will strike a chord with any new parent and, among several tales of romance and separation, “It Can’t be So” and “The Old Maiden” command attention with their gleaming clarity.

The standout track, however, is “The Ghost on the Moors”, a brooding study of the artist’s essential loneliness and frustration. It’s a struggle that Somerset-based Hardy clearly understands. But with this, her second album, she has signalled her own very real presence in the diverse world of modern British folk music.

Album review – Anna von Hausswolff: Ceremony

10 Sep

Mountains Crave: futuristic and industrial sounds give way to glittering beauty

Ceremony: epic and sepulchral with moments of scintillating beauty

Ceremony: epic and sepulchral with moments of scintillating beauty

The brooding sound of an organ echoing in cavernous cathedral vaults creates an ominous bass line which rumbles constantly beneath Anna von Hausswolff’s new album Ceremony.

Epic and sepulchral, the Swedish singer/composer’s aural landscape is pierced by futuristic, industrial sounds that suggest a tumultuous clash between life and death, and between the ancient and the present.  So far, so Nico. ABBA, this certainly isn’t.

But time and again, just when you’re on the verge of being sucked into an abyss of existential bleakness, von Hausswolff chucks a curved ball of glittering beauty that sends you rushing skywards. The arpeggios that announce the “Epitaph of Daniel” come tumbling out of the darkness like spinning hoops of light, for example.

As the tracks unfold, from the opening instrumental “Epitaph of Theodor”, through the anthemic rock references of “Deathbed”, to the soaring glory of “Red Sun” and the scintillating clarity of “Liturgy of Light” and “Harmonica”, reminders of the grave are constant.

But von Hausswolff is an intrepid musical explorer, unraveling her own perceptions of mortality – not least in the penultimate track, devastatingly entitled “Funeral  For My Future Children” – and the possibilities of rebirth. Her music erupts from the elemental clashes generated by her questions. “Mountains Crave” is a throbbing testament to the might of nature.

With its absorbing, intricate melodies, Ceremony is often overwhelming in its intensity. It rises above the listener like a vast granite rock face. Tracing the threads of gold that run through it demands commitment, but there are plenty of rewards to be discovered in these musical and poetic meditations if you’re prepared to surrender to such a visceral listening experience.

Album Review – Agnetha Fältskog: A

14 May

When You Really Loved Someone: Agnetha returns  in fine voice

 

AgnethaIt’s been great to see Agnetha Fältskog back in the spotlight after nearly a decade of silence. Grace and charm personified, she’s handled the publicity treadmill with style, giving dignified responses to undeserving questions – mainly relentless enquiries about the likelihood of an ABBA reunion – while somehow managing to preserve that sense of still waters running deep, which always marked her out as the serious, complicated member of the Swedish supergroup.

Her return has been greeted with such affection and interest that A could probably have been an album of nursery rhymes and nobody would really have cared. The good news is that the voice, with its compelling mix of brightness and underlying melancholy, has in no way been diminished by the years away from the studio. An occasional lingering huskiness only adds to the frisson which it generates, easily evoking the glories of the great ABBA harmonies and cutting through the arrangements like an old friend in remarkably good shape.

So it’s slightly disappointing that A is overall a serviceable record rather than a truly exciting attempt to build on Fältskog’s considerable legacy and give it a 21st-century polish. Gary Barlow’s 2009 collaboration with Shirley Bassey, The Performance, showed how it is possible to take the combined baggage of an exalted performer’s history and their unique sound, and turn it into something relevant and contemporary, teasing it in unexpected directions without frightening the horses. If only Fältskog’s producers, Jörgen Elofsson and Peter Nordahl, had taken a few similar risks, the results could have been electrifying. The closing track, “I Keep Them On the Floor Beside My Bed”, hints at what might have been, with its vocoder accents and swelling, ABBA-esque chorus.

But too many other numbers play it safe to the point of being anodyne, and the token disco track – “Dance Your Pain Away” – never quite gathers the energy to match the nostalgic exuberance of “Dancing Queen” or the guitar-driven urgency of “Voulez-Vous”. Barlow’s contribution to the album is restricted to a dull, up-beat duet (“I Should’ve Followed You Home”), and a phoned-in vocal.

Elsewhere, there are indeed some magical moments: big, orchestral arrangements, minor key changes, and particularly on the ballads that dominate proceedings, passages when that crystalline voice takes a line into a poignant emotional space and lets it soar. The first single from the album, “When You Really Loved Someone”, “I Was A Flower” and the aforementioned “I Keep Them On the Floor Beside My Bed” (a contender for most mind-boggling song title of the year – it’s a relief to discover that “they” are simply memories) all deliver in spades.

Album review – Karen Ruimy: Come With Me

8 May

Whisper: Karen Ruimy sets out on a voyage of discovery with a nearly-power ballad

Come With Me: North African beats meet flamenco and chanson in a hypnotic mash-up

Come With Me: North African beats meet flamenco and chanson in a hypnotic mash-up

Polyglot Karen Ruimy’s debut album, Come With Me, is so full of colliding influences that the more you listen to it, the harder it is to pin down exactly what sound she is striving for.  It’s a head-spinning mash-up of flamenco, chanson, trance and Arabic styles. But whether she’s singing in Arabic, French, Spanish or English, the overall effect is oddly compelling and soothing, evoking the chill-out fringes of Mediterranean club land one minute, sweeping desert vistas the next.

This is a sound the Israeli singer Ofra Haza pioneered in the late 1980s, fusing world music with strong electronic and pop rhythms. Joining forces with Youth and Justin Adams, Ruimy has given it a fresh gloss, writing mystical, meditative lyrics and setting them against an impressively international range of musical textures . “Come With Me” and “Fragile” have already been big club hits with their insistent, soaring hooks and contrapuntal beats.

Ruimy was born in Morocco, growing up there and in France. So when things quieten down on “Les Oiseaux” and “Mojave Moon”, it’s no surprise that she can also work the more conventional chanson style of influences such as Michel Berger and Véronique Sanson, delivering silky, meandering ballads with an understated assurance.

Towards the end of the album, this almost takes her into power ballad territory with “Traveller” and “Whisper”, although her chops aren’t robust enough to launch them fully into the stratosphere. Atmospheric, dreamy musing is more her comfort zone as she builds her vocal around hypnotic North African patterns with Flamenco notes,  as in “Sangré” and the chugging, trance-like title track.

The tale behind the song: The Winner Takes It All

3 May

ABBA: The Winner Takes it All, back in the day when blue eye shadow was the answer to all ills

Continuing the seasonal Eurovision theme, here’s another of my Songscape articles, first published in 2006. ABBA continue to be the most famous Eurovision winners, 39 years – and yes, it does only seem like yesterday – since they stormed to victory in Brighton with “Waterloo”. Of their many subsequent anthemic ballads, “The Winner Takes it All” is probably the most poignant and enduring, due in no small part to Agnetha Fältskog’s beautiful vocal work. As she prepares to release an eagerly-awaited new album, A, here’s what I had to say about one of her hallmark numbers from the past.

The Winner Takes It All

The arrival of Mamma Mia in the West End in 2000 was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was a long overdue celebration of the song writing skills of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, demonstrating once and for all that ABBA’s success had been based on far more than 1970s glam and throwaway pop. On the other, it paved the way for a steady slew of shows similarly – and not particularly subtly – manufactured around the hits of other groups and singers.

But let’s accentuate the positive. ABBA’s songs were revealed in all their glory as beautifully constructed and deceptively simple tales of the different phases of love, written through the ebb and flow of the relationships between the two couples who comprised one of the most successful groups in pop history. And none more so than the searingly poignant 1980 number “The Winner Takes it All,” written at the height of their success when, ironically, both couples had already come adrift.

The song tells the story of a jilted woman, taking a sad, clear-eyed look back at a love affair now over, and casting doubt on her ex’s new relationship. Like so many ABBA songs, the melody at first seems almost elementary and even repetitive, rather like a familiar nursery rhyme. But it builds in cycles across four verses, climaxing in the third before returning to the initial air of melancholy resignation for the finale. Swedish in its sensibilities to the last, the song conceals any sense of reproach in the matter-of-factness of the lyrics. Events speak for themselves, but they speak volumes.

Agnetha Fältskog was the lead singer on the original version, and she later recalled the bittersweet irony of being in the studio and singing a number containing such apparently biographical references, alongside her former husband. Björn has always insisted that the song shouldn’t be taken as a literal exploration of their separation, but the accompanying video, with Agnetha acting her melancholy part to the full, only reinforced the atmosphere of private sorrow that informs the lyrics. “It was quite a while afterwards before I realised that we’d made a small masterpiece,” she said.

Agnetha today: back on top form with “When You Really Love Someone”

The ABBA signature sound – those intricate close harmonies between the two female singers, their distinctive individual timbres merging in a way that couldn’t be replicated with all the technology at hand in the modern recording studio – comes into its own in the chorus, helping to build the layers of experience in the story.

This might be one of the reasons why ABBA songs have been slow to find their way into the repertoires of other singers. They are tricky to master convincingly – which probably explains why they seldom turn up on television talent shows.

And yet the opportunity to explore the possibilities of lyrical interpretation should make songs like “The Winner Takes it All” a rich source of material, certainly for any singer looking for something more than the chance to render a karaoke version.

In Mamma Mia, of course, the songs are transplanted to suit a spurious storyline, and become the property of a different kind of singer. In the original cast recording it falls to Siobhan McCarthy to take on “The Winner Takes it All,” and prove that it is quite possible to reinvent such a quintessential ABBA number on your own terms. Without making it overly theatrical, she preserves the simple integrity of the lyric whilst injecting a note of strident anger that Agnetha. The song becomes a warning as much as a narrative.

Most recently, soprano Anne Sofie von Otter included the song on her wonderfully articulate and absorbing Ulvaeus/Andersson album, I Let the Music Speak. As you might expect, there is a sense of returning to Swedish introspection, but with the harmonies stripped utterly away, its Spartan quality becomes a powerful vehicle for the experience at the heart of the song.

Three of the Best

ABBA, ABBA Gold, 2004 compilation, Universal

Agnetha’s pure, searingly honest voice is at its best for a quintessential ABBA performance, including those unique harmonies with Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Its bleakness can still break your heart.

Original London Cast, Mamma Mia, 2000, Polydor

Siobhan McCarthy injects a soaring streak of venom as the song becomes part of the West End musical that started a never-ending trend.

Anne Sofie von Otter, I Let the Music speak, 2006, Deutsche Grammophon

An austere and thought-provoking version of “The Winner Takes it All” is one of the gems of what is effectively an Ulvaeus/Andersson song cycle.

Album review – Jain Wells: To Be Real

3 May

Out of the Fog: Jain Wells is ready for whatever life has to throw at her

To Be Real: Jain Wells looks life square in the eye

To Be Real: Jain Wells looks life square in the eye

Working with producer Greg Fitzgerald, Jain Wells has come up with an echoing, ambient sound that gives her debut album an ethereal, other-worldly quality.

But there’s nothing airy-fairy about her lyrics, which are thoughtful, eloquent musings on love, loss, moving on and taking the positive from every event and encounter.

If that sounds ominously didactic, To Be Real is far from being an extended homily on the human condition. Canada-born and now living in London, Wells has a PhD in Transpersonal Psychology but she wears her years as a therapist lightly.

Many of these songs are candid, very personal responses to accumulated experience, and even when the material gets dark (check out the underlying sadness of “Holiday”, a study of betrayal), it is lifted and carried away from the abyss by some sparkling, beat-driven arrangements.

“Look into the Mirror” epitomises Wells’ look-life-square-in-the-eye attitude. “Tonight” embraces similar themes: live for the present and be guided by your own inner truth. “Out of the Fog” finds her emerging from crisis, cleansed and ready for new emotional experiences.

Her imagery is complex but always looking upwards and forwards rather than trading on negative legacies. It makes her company less anguished than most of the female singer/songwriters currently dominating the charts.

Wells has an interesting vocal timbre, reminiscent of Carly Simon, which commands attention without ever sounding forced or strident. It suits the individuality of her material as she exhorts the listener to question themselves and take responsibility for the answers they find inside.

The tale behind the song: Those Were the Days

1 May

Mary Hopkin: those were the days… of floral prints

It’s Eurovision season again, which is a tenuous hook for introducing an article about “Those Were the Days” – an evergreen hit for Mary Hopkin who, of course, represented the United Kingdom in 1970. Alas, it wasn’t with this number, an old Russian folk song. If it had been, she might have sent Ireland’s Dana packing. Instead, she came second with the rather dismal “Knock Knock, Who’s There?” She’s never made any secret of her dislike of this typical old-school Eurovision ditty.

The following article was from a long-running series called Songscape, which I contributed to the now-defunct Singer magazine for several years. I’ll be posting a selection here during the next few weeks. I note that I referred to Mary’s spasmodic returns to recording. Happily, in the interim, she has been back in the studio – and the album (You Look Familiar) she made with her son, Morgan Visconti, a couple of years ago proved that her golden voice is still in fine fettle.

Those Were the Days

If you like your nostalgia tinged with a dose of world-weariness, “Those Were the Days” is guaranteed to send you into a reverie populated by your own loved and lost, tempered with a dark veneer of experience. It’s a folk survival anthem in a minor key, occasionally betraying its somewhat lugubrious, fatalistic Russian roots before rallying itself for that instantly recognisable, bittersweet refrain that harks back to more carefree times.

The melody of “Those Were the Days” is possibly an ancient Russian folk tune, although some sources claim it was written by a pair of Russian songwriters towards the end of the 19th century. Its early history is traced on Pat Richmond’s fascinating Mary Hopkin website, which includes an audio link to a native interpretation by Rada and Nikolay Volshanivovs.

But the song was probably first heard more widely when it was sung by Maria Schell in the 1958 film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. Around the same time, the great American folk composer and songwriter, Gene Raskin, encountered it and produced the English lyrics we know today.

Raskin and his wife, Francesca, kept it in their repertoire and when they appeared at the Blue Lamp club in London in the mid-1960s, Paul McCartney heard it and stored it in his memory bank. A couple of years later, he retrieved it and suggested it as the debut single for his protegée, the Opportunity Knocks winner and new Apple signing, Mary Hopkin.

Armed with a voice as pure and true as anything that has graced the charts in the decades since, and a plangent arrangement that featured various strings – including a Hungarian version of the dulcimer – and a boys’ choir, Hopkin scored a huge international hit and secured her own place in pop history.

On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Hopkin, a vision of youthful innocence with her unspoilt folk-singer’s soprano, was hardly a convincing prospect for lyrics imbued with the hard-learned lessons of life and the wages of experience. But somehow, she got to the truth at the heart of the words and made them her own. The recording, as evocative today as ever, never leaves you doubting that the lonely woman she sees in her reflection is really herself.

Both Hopkin and Sandie Shaw recorded “Those Were the Days” in a number of different languages for the international market, singing phonetically in the custom of the time.

Shaw’s Italian, French, German and Spanish efforts have recently resurfaced, nicely packaged, on a series of compilation CDs. Unfortunately, they trade the subtleties of the Hopkin arrangement for the brassy oom-pahs that tended to characterise so many of her records. Despite her valiant efforts, she always seems to come second to the band.

When Hopkin recorded the song, perhaps she was already anticipating how quickly life in the mainstream recording industry would stale. To the regret of her contemporary fans, and plenty who have discovered her since, Hopkin turned her back on a commercial career after a couple of albums. She has made only spasmodic returns to public performance, always on her own musical terms.

Those Were the Days, Dolly-style

How touching it is, then, to hear a familiar voice among the harmonies for the title track on Dolly Parton’s album, Those Were the Days. Parton, an immensely likeable, serious musician, almost claims the song for her own. But she had her people call Mary’s people, and Hopkin’s tones – remarkably undiminished by the years – shimmer through the proceedings in delightful memory of times past.

Three of the best

Mary Hopkin, Postcard, EMI

The 1968 worldwide hit is still fresh and arresting after all these years. A concert version is also available on Live at the Royal Festival Hall 1972, released on CD by Mary Hopkin Music.

Dolly Parton, Those Were the Days, EMI

One of the highlights of a jewel-studded album from an artist who, beneath the wigs and the front, just keeps on getting better. Hopkin guests on the harmonies.

Sandie Shaw, Pourvu que ca Dure, EMI

Interesting collection of Shaw’s French language recordings, including “Le Temps des Fleurs” (“Those Were the Days”). She races the band all the way to the finishing line.