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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”.

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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.

Album review – Anne Marie Almedal: Memory Lane

11 Jun

Winter Song: raises the hairs on the back of your neck (in a good way)

Memory Lane: multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies

Memory Lane: multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies

There are many gorgeous moments in Anne Marie Almedal’s album Memory Lane – the distillation of a host of folk and pop influences into a clean, uncluttered sound that draws equally on the inspiration of the landscape around her home in Kristiansand, which permeates the music and conjures a brooding, unsettled and occasionally restless atmosphere.

Threads of nostalgia are tempered by elemental noises and echoes that give the album an almost metaphysical feel.  The opening track, “Back to Where it Started”, with its soaring hints of Pentangle flute and guitar, is a tale for everyone looking in the rear view mirror, trying to recapture the mysterious moment when a relationship sprang into bloom.

With her British husband and co-writer Nicholas Sillitoe, the Norwegian singer/songwriter has crafted a fresh, contemporary, ambient take on modern folk that completely subverts the increasingly tiresome clichés which abound around Nordic Noir. Sure, there is darkness and unease in her often introspective lyrics, but there is also an acknowledgement – even a celebration – of the cleansing, focusing effect of proper cold, freezing everything in a breath of innocence as it does on one of the standout tracks, “Winter Song”.

If I say that this and the equally beautiful “Scars” remind me of Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow, the comparison is intended entirely as a compliment. They are songs in which the combination of simple yet multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies generated by strings, wind chimes, even a singing bowl, deliver a subtle acoustic blow that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

Lyrically, Almedal draws her inspiration from the relationship between human experience and landscape. It isn’t always an easy one: “And It’s the Loneliness” urges us to look always to the horizon in our effort to keep love alive, “One Day” faces up to the uncertainty of the future. But an underlying optimism lifts even the bleak moments, imbuing them with warmth and quiet calm.

In the company of her own songs, the two covers – of John Martyn’s “May You Never” and Bread’s “If” – seem almost superfluous. Where the latter is concerned, at least Almedal’s assured, fluid voice goes some way to exorcising the horrors of Telly Savalas’s spoken 1975 version, which continues to blight the song for those of us of a certain age.