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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 Gauthier: Trouble & Love

15 Jul

How You Learn to Live Alone: an electrifying performance from Mary Gauthier

Trouble & Love: powerful narratives and no self-pitying sobs

Trouble & Love: powerful narratives and no self-pitying sobs

Louisiana-born Mary Gauthier has lived more lives than a cat – and they all resonate through her songs with a truth and authenticity that goes way beyond the mainstream tropes of country and western music. This, after all, is a woman who lived among addicts and drag queens as a teenage runaway, fell prey to a spell of drug addiction of her own, and recovered to run her own small chain of Boston restaurants before selling up to become a full-time songwriter.

On her new album, Trouble and Love, Gauthier’s voice wears the scars of experience with hypnotic dignity, slipping in and around the powerful narratives of her songs with an easy musicality that also allows her to give her more trenchant observations a defiant edge. It’s a voice steeped in hard-earned wisdom, with no time for the self-pitying sob. There’s an assured intimacy which hints at the overall themes of the record, the first on her own label, of independence and moving on.

Gauthier says she’s taking back and claiming her power. So while the fatalism of the opening track, “When a Woman Goes Cold” and the notes of betrayal on “False From True” cover some familiar territory, the acceptance of deeds done and accounted for, explored in a number like “Oh Soul”, hints at the redemption and hope that finally gather pace in “Worthy”. Gauthier’s eye is on the horizon. As she later sings, we’re all just “Walking Each Other Home”

Co-produced with Patrick Granado, Trouble and Love grows greater with each listen. Gauthier’s formidable song-writing talents are complemented by contributions from Beth Nielsen Chapman and, on the bittersweet journey of “How You Learn to Live Alone”, the sublime Gretchen Peters. These are formidable partnerships that strike lyrical sparks, epitomising the strength of contemporary song-writing that flows out of Nashville.

Album review – Judith Owen: Ebb & Flow

30 Jun


I’ve Never Been to Texas: Judith Owen gives 1970s themes a contemporary touch

Ebb & Flow: much more than a tribute to the 1970s troubadours

Ebb & Flow: much more than a tribute to the 1970s troubadours

Forty years on, the early 1970s are increasingly seen as a golden age for the singer/songwriter and new generations are discovering the depth and creativity of performers who have long since ascended their own musical Mount Olympus. Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Carly Simon… the list of deities resonates with true greatness and their influence is keenly felt by today’s troubadours.

Listening to Judith Owen’s new album, Ebb & Flow, which is a self-confessed salute to their legacy, it is fascinating to hear just how much that influence reverberates with relevance. The hunger for thoughtful, personal, meaningful lyrics is greater than ever after a prolonged period in which pop’s dependence on production technology and sampling has seemed irreversible.

Owen has enlisted the help of several musicians who were key to the success of some of the totemic albums of the age, including drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. And there’s a poignant, unlisted nod to Carole King to catch the listener out at the end of the record.

But Ebb & Flow is only superficially a retro ‘tribute’ album. Owen has a consummate skill for referencing themes and riffs that evoke a 1970s spirit while remaining fresh and contemporary. Witness her deft handling of that hardy chestnut “In the Summertime”, which strips away the nonsense and becomes a rather touching, nostalgic skip down the memory lanes of youth.

Overall, however, the substance of the album is more than nostalgic. Loss and separation are the leitmotifs, with Owen seeking resolution and acceptance of the pain through graceful lyrics that explore the visceral impact of these experiences. Catharsis triumphs over anguish and agony, although the wounds remain. Nowhere is this crystallised more effectively than in the twin tracks that deal with the loss of her parents: the heart-stopping “I Would Give Anything” and “You are not There Anymore”.

The life of the troubadour provides the meat for songs like “Hey Mister, That’s me up on the Jukebox” and “I’ve Never Been to Texas”. Elsewhere, Owen takes good old-fashioned betrayal as a core theme and teases it into a couple of deceptively low-key, completely lacerating sets of lyrics (“You are not my Friend” and “Some Arrows go in Deep”).

Fluid and fluent, Ebb & Flow envelops you in its multi-tiered exploration of hard-learned lessons, in which realisation is never subsumed by bitterness. It’s a real grower.

Album Review – Fiona Bevan: Talk to Strangers

22 Jun


Fiona Bevan explains how Talk to Strangers is a reflection of her life

Talk to Strangers: timeless themes explored through eclectic forms and styles

Talk to Strangers: timeless themes explored through eclectic forms and styles

 

Given her pedigree as a songwriter and in-demand collaborator on a wide range of musical projects, it seems extraordinary that we are only now hailing Fiona Bevan’s debut album, Talk to Strangers.

The co-writer – with Ed Sheeran – of One Direction’s “Little Things”, Bevan also made a notable contribution to Gwyneth Herbert’s treasurable The Sea Cabinet song cycle. Like Herbert, she is a unique talent, capable of harnessing styles, riffs, hooks and melodies and spinning them into complete, multi-tiered and utterly absorbing stories.

The lyrics of these songs are scintillating. Bevan’s voice, with its flexibility and that helium shimmer at the top, is the perfect vehicle, treating them with a pop sensibility that seduces you, allowing the darker streaks and uncertainties to sneak up on you and pull you deep into the narrative labyrinth.

Don’t be fooled by the quick tempo of the opening tracks, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Slo Mo Tiger Glo”. Sinister underlying forces soon emerge, piercing the guitar-driven ballads with doubts and questions, not least in the pent-up rage of the “The Machine” and the pure sadness of “Dial D for Denial” – a break-up number that pitches torch-song lyrics against an up-beat melody to heart-wrenching effect.

The airy, wistful beauty of “Monsoon Sundance” provides some respite before things take another detour into the complex landscape of “Exorcist”, where jealousy eventually finds resolution, and the thoughtful title track – a cry for the power of human communication.

These are timeless themes, rendered in eclectic forms and styles that acknowledge Bevan’s cinematic and literary influences, while remaining proudly independent and resistant to categorisation.  The epic feel of the closing number – “Last Days of Decadence”, partly a response to the last financial crash – would resonate in any decade of the last 100 years.

Talk to Strangers is an ambitious piece of work. Bevan paints big, bold musical pictures. The joy of repeated listening lies in discovering the depth and detail which lie just beneath the surface.

Album review – Silje Leirvik: Endless Serenade

12 Feb

Silver & Gold: the throbbing undertow of Silje Leirvik’s songs would grace the soundtrack of any psychodrama

Endless Serenade: epic songs which offer more than a clichéd view of Scandivian bleakness

Endless Serenade: epic songs which offer more than a clichéd view of Scandinavian bleakness

The huge British appetite for Nordic Noir TV has tended to distract attention from another, more subtle cultural invasion: the rise of the Scandinavian singer/songwriter. Or, more specifically, the rise of the female Scandinavian singer/songwriter.

The throbbing undertow of Norwegian Silje Leirvik’s new album Endless Serenade would grace the soundtrack of any psychodrama, Scandic or otherwise. But there is much more to this rich collection of epic songs than inscrutable bleakness. Complex in theme and structure, they navigate shifting moods, ideas that morph tantalisingly in new directions just when you think you have them in your grasp.

With producer Rhys Marsh, Leirvik has experimented with tape delay machines, which gives a grainy, textured quality to the electro backing, peppered with pedal steel guitar. Her voice dances and soars above the almost industrial pulse of the reverb (shades of Sweden’s Anna von Hausswolff) as she steers a fascinating course between symphonic ballads (“Glass of Water”), folk-tinged stories (“Leah’s Song”) and sophisticated pop (the single “Silver & Gold”).

Like her compatriot, Anne Marie Almedal, Leirvik is too sophisticated a musician to be filed neatly under a generic label of Northern melancholy. Her lyrics are less rooted in landscape but there are edginess and dark moments of contemplation aplenty, balanced by passages of ethereal beauty and revelation when she discovers fresh truths about the opaque nature of love (“And Then Love Came” and the gently ironic, gritty “Serenade”).

All of the tracks are sung in English, with the exception of “Snø”, a lush ballad with a sweeping, cinematic feel which builds to a muted crescendo on a flute-and-drum backing. Leirvik’s vocals reach a compelling peak in her native language but they are glorious throughout, never more so than in the gentle, flowing “The Last Dance”.

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.

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.