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Album review: Petula Clark – Lost in You

15 Feb

Petula Clark: Crazy, from Jools Holland’s 2012 Hootenanny

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

At 80 – how is that possible? – Petula Clark has made her first English language studio album in 15 years. Lost in You is crisply produced, utterly devoid of sentimentality and resonates with a contemplative, moody and arresting contemporary vibe. There isn’t a whiff of nostalgia. Even a reinvented “Downtown”, stripped back to an almost bleakly acoustic riff, sounds as if it was written only yesterday.

As a record, Lost in You manages to reflect the nuances of a career that for sheer longevity and breadth of achievement puts Clark among the all-time great entertainers. At the same time, it confirms the lingering sense of a complex and enigmatic performer, a woman who would prefer to let her music speak for her than divulge her views about a world beyond the stage that is sometimes profoundly troubling.

I interviewed her once, in her West End dressing room during her successful stint as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It was a trepidatious moment. “Downtown” was number one in the soundtrack of my childhood and I’d been a lifelong fan – always dangerous territory for a journalist meeting a hero. But there were no signs of clay feet. Far from being a grande dame, the friendly yet pensive woman I encountered left a lingering impression of artistic integrity and unfussy professionalism.

“Lyrics are very important to me,” she told me. “When I see a lyric and I say ‘Hey, yes! I know what that means, how it feels. It just flows through, your body is almost like a filter. It’s all filtered through your mind and then it comes out through your mouth. That’s it, you know. That’s the way you feel about something.”

A couple of the covers here  – “Imagine” and “Love Me Tender” – could have languished as record company-requested interludes between her edgy treatments of more 21st-century material, but there is not the slightest hint of a phoned-in vocal. Everything is handled with that distinctive Clark sound: those unique, idiosyncratic vowels, combined with a subtle technique and phrasing that has defined her work at every turn.

“Reflections” is a self-penned, hymn-like paean to little Sally Olwen, the girl who snatched precious moments of childhood in Wales, even while the machinery of show-business was propelling her to child stardom and beyond.

As the prototype 1950s girl singer, she would rescue herself from the cul-de-sac of novelty pop by marrying a Frenchman and discovering the dramatic possibilities of the chanson, absorbing the potent influences of Brel and Piaf. “Next to You” thrums with barely contained emotion – the mark of a great dramatic singer who doesn’t need to resort to melisma or histrionics to make an emotional connection with the story.

Clark reveals another facet of her versatility on the country-tinged “Never Enough”, which she delivers with subtle verve and warmth. The set finishes with a statelier take on romantic relationships: “I Won’t Care”, a big, modern ballad that is the closest thing to formulaic among the twelve tracks.

Cut Copy Me: a lesson in ethereal pop

But overall, the album’s slightly melancholy, troubled atmosphere, established across the first three numbers, is its most fascinating asset. “Cut Copy Me” is a lesson in dreamy, ethereal pop singing without artifice; the title track “Lost in You”, an echoing piano-driven ballad with nifty key changes reminiscent of Clark’s glory chart years with ace songwriters Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent; and best of all, a fascinating version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, which Clark turns into an epic, intelligent exploration of human frailty, dappled with cynicism.

80? The maths say it must be so. But on this evidence, Petula Clark has no intention of being out any time soon. Lost in You is a little triumph.

Album review – North: Mary Dillon

30 Jan

North sampler: introducing a slow burner of an album

North: Mary Dillon's quietly magnificent return

North: Mary Dillon’s quietly magnificent return

Mary Dillon’s return to the music scene, North, is a slow burner of an album which insinuates itself into the listener’s ear with stealth and grace. After a couple of plays, the combination of her gently assured voice and a set of mainly traditional songs dressed in sparkling new arrangements and beautifully restrained accompaniment works its magic.

Haunting is a wizened old chestnut in the reviewer’s vocabulary. But in Dillon’s case, it’s hard to think of a more apposite word. Strains and phrases from these poignant, intensely romantic tales linger in the air long after the album has played out, gentle as a whisper but always insistent on being heard.

The lack of artifice is compelling. Dillon might have been absent from the studio for more than a decade since her days with Déanta, but so steeped is she in an enviable heritage of Irish traditional singing that there is no sense of her searching for her mark. There are no cobwebs to blow away. She hits the ground running with “When a Man’s in Love” and “Ballyronan Maid” (backing vocals supplied by sister Cara).

While the opening track and the equally carefree “The Banks of the Claudy” are laced with wry humour, the accents are generally dark and complex. Witness the tragedy of “John Condon”, the well-received single that heralded the release of this album, in which Dillon unpicks the tale of an under-age soldier’s fate in the First World War with gut-wrenching simplicity.

Dillon points out that the songs are all linked in some way with the North of Ireland and the musical influence of her homeland on her style and technique is clear. But like all fine singers, she instinctively highlights their universality. She approaches them from a subtle, modern perspective, steering them away from melodrama and the visceral influence of experience to a more intimate, contemplative place.

The devastating tale at the heart of “The Month of January” becomes a monologue of almost chilling rage as the voice of the wronged girl grows in certainty and she grimly forecasts the fading charms of her feckless lover. The traditional lament, “Ard Tí Chuain”, sung a cappella, ends abruptly, leaving the listener almost suspended in its aching beauty.

The sense of trepidation and foreboding that hovers around Dillon’s own composition, “The Boatman”, is one of the North’s strongest themes. Nothing is certain. Everything could be taken at any time. “Edward on Lough Erne Shore”, underscored by Neil Martin’s sympathetic string arrangement and resonant cello playing, epitomises the album’s thoughtful passage along the narrow divide between hope and despair. A quietly magnificent album.

Album Review – Christine Tobin: Sailing to Byzantium

29 Jul

So Far Away: not Yeats but Carole King, from Christine Tobin’s previous album Tapestry Unravelled

Sailing to Byzantium: Christine Tobin rescues Yeats from memories of academic overload

The rich source material for Christine Tobin’s latest album positively encourages metaphor, so here goes. Sailing to Byzantium is a vibrant, irresistible lake. There’s nothing to be gained from standing suspiciously on its shore.  Take a deep breath, plunge in, and let the water draw you down into a musical world of burnished colours, intriguing shades, spine-chilling dangers and soothing sub-aquatic glades.

Tobin’s audacity in setting 13 of W. B. Yeats’s poems to fluid and spacious jazz arrangements pays off on every level.  The poet’s characteristic themes of memory, time and place, unattainable love, the artist’s lot, and mythology shine through, heightened but never unnecessarily embellished by some brilliant ensemble playing.

Tobin isn’t the first composer to set Yeats to music. Herbert Hughes, for example, wrote a rollicking tune for “Down by the Sally Gardens”, most recently recorded by Clare Teal for her album, Hey Ho. But Sailing to Byzantium is on a much more ambitious scale. And how Tobin pulls it off.

It would be invidious to single out any band member; plaudits to Liam Noble (piano), Phil Robson (guitar), Gareth Lockrane (flute), Kate Shortt (cello) and Dave Whitford (double bass). With their support, Tobin’s warm timbre wraps itself around the shimmering imagery of Yeats’s verse, taking it into a new and very different space while staying true to the original work.

Like Tobin, I studied Yeats at school, and was so absorbed by the texture and subjects of his poetry that I later seized the opportunity to immerse myself in it at university. Analytical overload was inevitable and it’s been many years since I revisited the glories of poems such as “Long-legged Fly” and “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Tobin’s inspired handling of the material has sent me scurrying to the bookshelf and reaching out for a familiar, yellowing volume as if it was an old friend.

From the sparkling Joni Mitchell-ish  guitar intro to the opening track, “When You are Old” to the elegiac tones of actor Gabriel Byrne (who taught at Tobin at school in Dublin) reading “The White Birds” to the backdrop of rising waves and Tobin’s wordless, keening chant, Sailing to Byzantium commands attention. The production is fresh and crisp.

There is turbulent beauty, not least in the cacophonous climax to “The Second Coming”. Characters spring to life, greatly assisted by the sparkling arrangements. “The Song of Wondering Aengus” and “The Fisherman” – that paean to a simple, idealised reader – bristle with energy. Some of the songs are haunted and haunting in equal measure:  ghosts gather and whisper as “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz” conjures a room populated by lost friends, to exquisitely poignant effect, building to the sinister revelation of knowledge that’s come too late. An artistic triumph, brimming with integrity.

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

31 Jan

Hello Cruel World: damaged goods make for a fine album of sanguine songs

Hello Cruel World: Gretchen Peters shows you the dark side - and how to survive it

What a trying year Gretchen Peters had in 2010. Worldly and personal challenges hurled themselves at her from every direction. Man-made disaster in the Gulf of Mexico devastated the shore around the Florida bolthole where she writes her songs. Her adopted hometown of Nashville was stricken by catastrophic floods. And one of her oldest friends committed suicide. On the bright side, she married her pianist Barry Walsh after a 20-year relationship; and her child revealed that he was transgender – a shared journey that she says she found inspiring and disorienting in equal parts.

Songwriters of lesser skill might have walked into all the melodramatic traps sprung by such a discomfiting and extended period of life experience, and turned them into a self-indulgent misery fest, shot through with the well-worn leitmotif of the stoic survivor. Not so Peters. “The grain of sand becomes the pearl,” she sings on the title track of her album Hello Cruel World, setting the scene for an unflinching but ultimately hopeful response to her recent ride on the Big Dipper of life.

There’s no hint of smiling bravely through the tears here. Instead, Peters’ lyrics roll with the punches as she picks her way through the wreckage of “Natural Disaster”, the sanguine home truths of “Dark Angel” and a meditation on the testing of faith, “Saint Francis”. Some tracks enter mesmerising art-song territory: the starkly beautiful “The Matador” with its heart-breaking accordion (courtesy of Peters’ husband Barry Walsh); and “Woman on the Wheel”, which takes an old fairground attraction as a metaphor for the listener’s insidious fears.

Peters further proves herself a past mistress in the art of darkness with the glorious “Five Minutes”, a country-tinged torch song that quietly shows how the lingering power of an eternal passion will always manage to disrupt the most mundane, workaday life. “Camille” follows in similar vein, its muted trumpet intro (from Vinnie Giesielski – Peters has surrounded herself with some serious musical talent) heralding a bleak tale of the other woman that is expertly wreathed in whisky vapours and midnight smoke. And “Idlewild” is a throat-catching child’s-eye vision of parental dislocation (and an interesting comparison with Mary Black’s recent take on a similar theme, “The Night Was Dark and Deep”).

It sounds like strong meat for a casual listen but Peters’ essential optimism and resilience mean that even in its bleakest moments, Hello Cruel World offers much more than a fix of suffering for those who tend to roam across shadier emotional plains. Redemption, a tad weary and accepting of the trials that have gone before, comes with the gentle “Little World”, which seizes gratefully on the familiar comforts of home.

This is Peters’ sixth solo album. And thanks to the gimlet-eyed take on life that informs her lyrics, a voice that sings the story straight, and arrangements that imbue the songs with a stark, poignant beauty, it’s an absorbing transformation of adversity into art.

Album review: Galia Arad – Ooh La Baby

23 Jan

“Better Than Bonnie”: a song for the other woman, with a sneaky dash of Britney Spears

Ooh La Baby: Suzanne Vega meets Marianne Faithfull in the singular new talent of Galia Arad

Concept albums are springing up everywhere. Hot on the heels of Kate Bush’s extended meditation on the white stuff (50 Words for Snow), we have Ooh La Baby, the tale of a fractious love affair with a feckless Irishman told from the perspective of New York-based singer/songwriter Galia Arad.

The genre is where the similarity begins and ends. These two artists occupy completely different territory. But there is one moment – “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”, the duet with Elton John – when Bush’s otherwise largely existential take on the mysterious power of snow chimes with Arad’s earthy, melancholy exploration of the frustrations of an all-consuming passion. Ooh La Baby is a glittering stream of such moments, brought vividly to life in Arad’s wry lyrics and delivered with a voice of deceptive purity and innocence.

Arad is interesting company as she mines a rich seam of rock and roll, blues and folk influences and comes up with a highly individualistic formula of her own – mix the whimsical intensity of a Suzanne Vega with the occasional mordant observation from a Marianne Faithfull and you’ll arrive at something approaching the bittersweet musical spirit of this witty new voice.

One of the standout tracks is the upbeat song of the other woman, “Better than Bonnie”, with its triumphant sideways raid on Britney Spears’s signature song “Oops!… I Did it Again”. Equally good are the slow, gentle ballads like “You’re Always There”, the shuffling “Something Sweet” and the contemplative “Will I Be Loved (By You)”, which edges hesitantly into earshot on the tail of a moving fiddle solo (“Dad’s Intro”).

Moods shift in the blink of an eye, reflecting the emotional ebb and flow of the affair from high intensity to bleak disillusionment. Lyrical beauty is lascerated now and then by moments of Faithfull-esque rage and frustration – nowhere more acerbically than on “Don’t Go”, a prolonged sigh of exasperation and desire.

Less obviously engaging is the input of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan (on the lilting “Four Leaf Lover Boy” and a foul-mouthed intro to the vicious slugfest “Full of Sh*t”), which is a pity because – perhaps a consequence of the recent annual blast of Christmas evergreen, “Fairy Tale of New York”, a poignant reminder of his glory days – I expected more than the trashed sound of his spoken vocals actually delivers.

The album is beautifully produced by Tommy Faragher, whose track record includes work with Dusty Springfield, Taylor Dayne and Al Green. He’s certainly given Galia Arad the space she and her guitar need to untangle this complex narrative. And there’s enough evidence here to herald the arrival of a compelling new talent.

Album Review: Mary Black – Stories From the Steeples

19 Jan

“Marguerite and the Gambler”: story-singing at its best

Stories from the Steeples: a masterpiece from Mary Black

What a fine singer Ireland’s Mary Black is. Unfussy, gimmick-free and capable of switching from confessional intimacy to assured declaration in the space of a phrase, she always puts the song’s story first. The effect can be breathtaking, catching out the listener with a vocal catch or a sung-through line that will break your heart or make you laugh out loud, depending on the lyric.

In years to come, Black’s new album Stories from the Steeples (her first new set since 2005) might well come to be seen as her masterpiece – and considering the quality of her work throughout the last quarter of a century, that would be some achievement. Few singers would have the ability to pull together such a disparate collection of songs – modern folk numbers, soft Celtic rock ballads and a delightful bonus track, the pastiche chanson “Fifi the Flea”- and weave them so effectively into the cohesive whole of this record, which ranges across a rugged emotional landscape, full of troughs and challenging heights.

The thrilling story-song “Marguerite and the Gambler”, the troubadour’s jaunty, evocative signature tune “Mountains to the Sea” (written by Shane Howard and Neil Murray, and featuring an unexpectedly sedate and subtle duet between Black and Imelda May), and the joyous, shambling “Walking With My Love” (on which Black is joined by Finbar Furey) provide the album’s top notes. But the listener is never lulled into a false sense of security. There are shades of darkness in many of Black’s interpretations: the bleak, calm-after-the-storm assessment of a relationship’s uncertain future (“Faith in Fate”); the searing anti-war song “All the Fine Young Men”; and the measured reassurance of “Steady Breathing”, a song written by Chris While to comfort his ill sister.

Janis Ian puts in a welcome appearance on “Lighthouse Light”, contributing guitar and vocals to a simple, foot-tapping meditation on distant threats and prayed-for safety.  “Wizard of Oz” is a touching summation of the longed-for qualities that provide the narrative of the much-loved children’s story, turning them into a mature exploration of the chasm between hope and realistic expectation. And “One True Place” makes a sweet case for some kind of afterlife.

For me, though, the standout track is “The Night Was Dark and Deep”, which evokes a universal experience of childhood that echoes into adulthood, with its lingering traces of vulnerability and the realisation that despite our parents’ best efforts to conceal trouble, an insight into their unhappiness is a rite of passage for everybody.

Black has produced the album with Billy Robinson and throughout, she has the support of a driving, vibrant band led by Bill Shanley and Pat Crowley. Stories From the Steeples is a majestic piece of work that yields new treasure with each listening.

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.

Box set review: Goin’ Back – the Definitive Dusty Springfield

13 Dec

Losing You: Dusty Springfield in her prime, with a typically big ballad

Goin' Back - The Definitive Dusty Springfield: expensive and comprehensive, with timeless hits

It’s nearly 13 years since Dusty Springfield died, yet hardly a day goes by without her voice cropping up somewhere. She’s frequently playing on the jukebox, providing a soundtrack for the latest instalment of sturm und drang in the Queen Vic or the Rover’s Return. Fittingly, she’ll often be followed by an Adele track.

It’s been a long wait but finally, in Adele, we have a British singer who is Springfield’s equal when it comes to a vocal capacity for conveying epic desolation and emotional complexity that will find and unpick the sub-text in the least promising lyrics. In a short space of time, she and the late Amy Winehouse established themselves as genuine successors to Springfield’s brand of soulful, palpable heartache, where others have flattered merely to deceive: torch singers for our times.

Goin’ Back: the definitive Dusty Springfield is a major 92-track compilation of the singer’s work and the first box set since The Legend of Dusty Springfield (released by Philips in 1994 on the back of a late flourish in her career, but with a portentously funereal design) and the posthumous, equally sombre Simply… Dusty (Mercury, 2000).

This time the theme is pink. Very pink. And the four CDs, which focus on the hits, the singer’s extensive legacy of live BBC recordings, a loosely-linked collection of film songs and show tunes, and the obligatory rarities (the most valuable part of the offering for die-hard Dusty fans), are joined by three DVDs of performances from a career that spanned more than 40 years.

The box set also includes Paul Howes’ book, The Complete Dusty Springfield, and a separate volume based on an essay by Springfield’s great friend and manager Vicki Wickham, with contributions from numerous pop and rock luminaries including Burt Bacharach and Carole King – the two songwriters whose work probably shaped the Springfield sound more than any others.

Howes, who has curated this collection, deserves special mention. His sterling work as editor of the Dusty Springfield Bulletin created a formidable archive of material and it is thanks to him that, over the years, many rare recordings have seen the light of day. The package feels comprehensive, authoritative and well produced by people who have taken their responsibility to a great artist very seriously. And with the exception of the Lana Sisters, every stage of Springfield’s career is represented, from the quintessential 1960s numbers to the soft rock of her final work (“Wherever Would I Be”, a duet with Daryl Hall) and her last recording, a short version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” which graced a television commercial and is a poignant reminder that when she chose to indulge them, she had a jazz singer’s instincts for interpreting the standards – another parallel with Amy Winehouse.

That said, it’s a mightily sumptuous and expensive set, clearly targeted at aficionados rather than the idly curious or the Dusty Springfield novice. And the trouble with any substantial compilation is the ratio of ‘new’ material to the old and familiar. Without the hits, it would hardly be definitive, but it’s difficult to imagine that any Dusty fan of substance won’t already have stacks of them in abundance. In producer Tris Penna’s remixes of “Goin’ Back” and “The Look of Love” (he returned to the original master tapes), there is a laudable attempt to bring something fresh to the table. But ultimately, these spacey, ambient versions lack the booming, lush sound that constituted so much of Dusty’s appeal.

Which really leaves the rest of the rarities as the most compelling attraction. And this is a mixed bag of alternate takes, obscure ballads (including the delightful “Summer Love” and an aching “Goodbye”) and some intriguing live performances that date back to the Springfields’ heyday – most of which sound as if they were grabbed by someone holding an unsteady mic with a noisy old reel-to-reel recorder under the table in a nightclub. You certainly get the atmosphere but when you’ve heard them once, you probably won’t be keeping them on shuffle. The hits, however, are ageless.

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.

Album review – Margie Nelson: Hungry Girl

9 Oct

“Lost Mind” isn’t on the album but this live performance shows a fine jazz singer at work

Hungry Girl: time for Margie Nelson to set her sights further afield

There’s a lot of competition out there when it comes to albums based on the American standards. But still they keep on coming, filling your CD shelves and playlists until you’re awash in a hundred interpretations of “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Cry Me a River”. Some of them are very good, of course. But every so often, one turns up and delivers something so fresh and scintillating that it knocks everything else off the player. Hungry Girl from Californian Margie Nelson, a self-styled ‘late bloomer’ has just that effect.

Where has she been hiding, this mistress of deft phrasing, with her ear for the sardonic underbelly of a lyric, and her ability to balance comedy with moments of unadorned melancholy? In and around Santa Barbara for the last 15 years, according to her biographical notes, paying her dues in showcases, workshops and jazz clubs. It’s high time she started to set her sights further afield, because vocalists with this kind of talent deserve a much wider audience.

Hungry Girl should help. For a start, it contains by far and away the best version – with all due respect to Ms Streisand – I’ve ever heard of the Johnny Mandel/Alan and Marilyn Bergman classic “Where do you Start?” All sense of melodrama is banished. Nelson picks her way with arresting honesty through the bittersweet break-up lyrics, unravelling the bleakness as they shift from helpless uncertainty to self-realisation, ultimately finding a nugget of comfort in acknowledging the eternal hold of the departing lover. It becomes an epic tale, told with unflinching clarity. She’s great with a couple of other torch numbers – a lilting “If You Never Come to Me” and a late-night, bluesy “Don’t Go to Strangers” both stand out – revealing the intuitive gift of the best narrative singers.

Margie Nelson sings with the Montecito Jazz Project at the Environmental Defense Center's "TGIF" Benefit in Santa Barbara

There’s a dash of Julie Wilson’s artful story-telling (“I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart”) and Julie London’s laconic irony (“An Occasional Man”), as well as hints of the phrasing of the great jazz singers – Anita O’Day (Nelson’s heroine), Carmen McRae (listen to Nelson swing on “How Come?”) and Rosemary Clooney. In a nod to the technique of such illustrious forebears, when she declares “I Need Ya (Like I Need a Hole in the Head)”, not a single word of those acerbic-yet-resigned lyrics is wasted. But whatever her influences, Nelson is very much her own mistress – assured, putting a relaxed, timeless spin on such standards as “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, a swerving, slowed-down “The Best is Yet to Come” and a nicely contemporary “Be Cool”, as well her irresistible and articulate take on the title track.

She is greatly assisted by a top-flight band that includes her producer, drummer Kevin Winard, Christian Jacob and Quinn Johnson sharing keyboard duties, Kevin Axt on bass, saxophonist Matt Catingub and guitarist Stephen Geyer. The arrangements simply swing out from the speakers.