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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.

Album review – Gwyneth Herbert: The Sea Cabinet

5 Jun

Gwyneth Herbert talks about the genesis of The Sea Cabinet

Haunted and haunting: Gwyneth Herbert's Sea Cabinet is a triumph of eclecticism

Haunted and haunting: Gwyneth Herbert’s Sea Cabinet is a triumph of eclecticism

Haunted and haunting. Poignant and achingly beautiful. Ribald and raunchy.  Evocative and nostalgic. These are just a few of the adjectives that spring to mind as Gwyneth Herbert’s inspired, crowd-funded and self-released new album scatters and spills its contents before the intrigued listener.

The Sea Cabinet started life at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, following Herbert’s artistic residency with Aldeburgh Music. The concert at which she introduced this cycle of sea-inspired songs was absorbing, heralding a work of great promise, albeit still very much in progress and charmingly rough-hewn in places. Almost three years later, that promise has been fully realised.

Herbert’s wide-ranging musical references – sea shanties, Edwardian parlour songs, folk airs and laments, chansons, bluesy bar songs – are impeccable. And she has woven them into a fluent, multi-textured piece from which her eclecticism emerges triumphant and accessible. There isn’t a trace of pretentiousness.  She has laboured over her lyrics, honing and polishing them so that they shimmer across a constantly shifting aural landscape of rhythms and ghostly echoes.

The concept of a solitary woman picking her way along the shore and storing the fruits of her beach-combing in a cabinet, provides a beautifully simple arc for the album. Herbert’s achievement is to populate the memories and ideas inspired by the woman’s discoveries with a cast of characters who spring vividly to life before they are absorbed back into the ebb and flow of diverse melodies.

Mrs Wittering, the owner of the Regal, emerges from the fading gentility of her tea room to take a bow. The petticoat-flashing “Fishguard Ladies” live once more to see off the French fleet. Old salts and soldiers jostle for position. But there is also plenty of underlying darkness and melancholy, not least in the sombre tale of wartime “Alderney”.  In the beguiling “Sweet” and the increasingly belligerent “I Still Hear the Bells” there is also a sense of the personal experiences that brought Herbert to the emotional place which inspired The Sea Cabinet.

She is ably assisted by fellow singer/songwriter Fiona Bevan, who collaborates on “I Still Hear the Bells” and “The King’s Shilling”, by The Rubber Wellies, and by regular band Al Cherry, Sam Burgess and David Price. But it’s Herbert’s own voice, ranging from that of a sweet folk siren to jazz canary and late-night blues singer, which gives the album its momentum.

Snatches of the songs continue  to swirl and soar in the air long after The Sea Cabinet has spun to a stop, not least the “Sea Theme” which opens and closes the set, tempered with field recordings that add pleasingly disturbing frissons of mystery and unease. In its lovingly-produced completeness, this album is a work of art.

Album review – Maika Makovski: Thank You For The Boots

13 May

Language: eccentric and appealing sonic vistas

Than You For The Boots: Maika Makovski harnesses an eclectic bundle of musical influences

Than You For The Boots: Maika Makovski harnesses an eclectic bundle of musical influences

The boots in the title of Maika Makovski’s 2012 album apparently belonged to an old friend and are still going strong more than a decade later – much like the friendship itself. Born in Mallorca of Andalucian and Macedonian parents, Makovski has earned something of a reputation as an underground muse, ploughing her own furrow in the darker recesses of Spanish rock music.

Thank You For The Boots is somewhat quirkier, lighter fare – an exploration of the light and shade of friendship in which she occasionally seems to be channelling Lena Lovich, Emilie Simon, Kate Bush and even Lynsey de Paul, often within the space of a few bars.

From the sonic vistas of the opening track, “Language”, the album strikes an eccentric and frequently appealing attitude. Makovski’s gypsy guitar-tempered rock roots rumble along under some insistent beats, occasionally breaking through, as in the sinister shuffle of “Number” and the disenchanted belligerence of “No News”. But there are also jazzy samba influences (“Vulnerable”) and joyous honky-tonk rhythms (“Cool Cat”) on offer, which makes for an eclectic and occasionally uneven listening experience.

Her lyrics are sparky and articulate, at their most effective on slower, idiosyncratic numbers like the deceptively simple, hypnotic “When the Dust Clears” – a waltzing threnody with moments of spine-tingling beauty – the wistful “Men of Talent, and “Dream”, the final track, which sounds for all the world like an old English folk song.

Makovski contributed words and music to Forests, the Shakespearian odyssey presented to great acclaim last year by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Barcelona Internacional Teatre. As Thank You For The Boots amply demonstrates, she has a rare gift for absorbing and repurposing multiple musical influences.

Album review – Nynke: Alter

8 May

How Alter was made: Javier Limón and Nynke at work

Alter: Nynke blends northern and southern cadences to arresting effect

Alter: Nynke blends northern and southern cadences to arresting effect

I don’t know how many Frisian language albums have been released in the last ten years but I suspect that Nynke pretty much has the field to herself at the moment with Alter, a shimmering collection of self-penned songs that draw on many musical influences from beyond Friesland, her birthplace in the northern Netherlands.

Even to a non-speaker (there is a smattering of English to leaven the mix), her lyrics have a runic, poetic quality as they weave in and out of some fascinating rhythms. After a gentle, haunting start, the album comes fully to life with “Nei Hûs”, which announces itself with a Moorish chant before launching into a swirling epic against a backdrop of silvery guitars.  On the next track, “Foarsizzing”, the influences move north with a sprinkling of balalaika-like strings that sound positively Russian.

A hint of flamenco is never far away, and it’s no surprise to discover that Nynke’s collaborator-in-chief here is Javier Limón, head of the Mediterranean music department at  Berklee College of Music in Boston, who has also worked with Estrella Morente and Mariza. The sonic blend of northern and southern cadences is arresting, conjuring vivid geographical images that shift constantly, catching the listener off guard. Just when you think you’ve settled in one scene, Nynke’s pure voice sweeps you off to a new, undiscovered landscape.

The one English-language track, “Awaiting”, hints at the depth and melancholy of its Frisian companions. This isn’t quite Nordic noir but it definitely inhabits the sombre space between Mediterranean fire and inscrutable northern melancholy. On “Eftereach”, Nynke has the audacity to blend more feverish Flamenco guitars with an intoned Frisian poem, and the result washes over you like soothing water with an unexpected, icy kick.

Alter could be the most idiosyncratic album you’ll hear all year. Compare it with the splendours of next week’s Eurovision Song Contest and think how different the competition would be if everyone used it to explore their musical heritage in a similarly inventive way.

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.

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.

Album review – Melinda Ortner: I Wanna Be OK

3 May

Melinda Ortner: “Strangers” from I Wanna Be, and an encounter with a tarantula

 

I Wanna Be OK: edgy beats and strong songwriting

I Wanna Be OK: edgy beats and strong songwriting

Melinda Ortner is deserting her LA home this summer for a prolonged stay in the UK, and she’s  sent her new album – I Wanna Be OK – ahead. It’s an interesting calling card. Edgy beats underline strong melodies, haunting hooks and searching lyrics.

The title track, for example, combines an intimate stream of consciousness with an insistent, almost threatening bass, gathering pace as Ortner ponders the extremes she’ll encounter as she forges a career in the music industry.

The field is pretty crowded with good, inventive female singer/songwriters at the moment. Songs like “Jezebella” are typical of the vibrant, quirky fare they are delivering in a hugely competitive market. More than once I was reminded of Leddra Chapman’s last album, Telling Tales.

But Ortner also has a flair for taking soaring themes that reflect her Californian musical heritage and scuffing them up so they have a darker, more cynical texture. This is how a 21st-century, Indie Cass Elliot might have sounded.

“Caught in the Middle”, “The Beauty in Me” and “Sweet Little Lies” all contain moments of real beauty. Ortner is great at writing seductive intros that lull you into a false sense of security. Then she turns the story on its head with spiky arrangements and lyrics that are confessional and interrogative by turn. “Say Those Things”, with its head-spinning rhythm changes, is a case in point, seeking reassurance in a world of chaos. But she can do calm, too. “Maybe” is a thoughtful, contemplative ballad that’s up there with the best of its kind.

Ortner has already enjoyed some commercial success, contributing tracks to film soundtracks and being named among the top 15 Songwriters of the Year for ASCAP’s Johnny Mercer Project.There’s a bracing, refreshing honesty about her which makes I Wanna Be OK an auspicious debut album, and suggests that an interesting career lies ahead.

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.

EP Review – Anna MacDonald: Paper Flowers

3 Aug

Naj’s Song: never mind the shaky camera work, just listen to Anna MacDonald and the Portobello Orchestra

Paper Flowers: a nightingale sings in George Square?

If a nightingale ever sings in Glasgow’s George Square, I’ll bet it sounds just like Anna MacDonald. Her voice has the same combination of urgency, brilliance and beauty that creeps into your sleep in the early hours and makes you wonder if you’re still dreaming.

On the epic “Matty Groves”, one of the standout tracks on her second EP Paper Flowers, it soars and shimmers as if ricocheting off the majestic buildings and echoes into the distant night like a siren call to another world. This traditional folk song is a sad and violent tale that builds on a simple melodic hook. In MacDonald’s feverish version, she seems to meld the bitter rivalry of the street fight with doomed love and murder in a mixture of urban imagery and pastoral folklore.

MacDonald is a gifted songwriter, too. Her ballads – the title track, the atmospheric “Glasgow Rain” and “Naj’s Song” – complement another traditional number, “Banks of Inverurie”, as sweet, melancholy paeans to hearts broken against the gritty background of a city that is clearly a major influence on her work. The texture is an arresting weave of Scottish and Gaelic traditions, with a dash of English folk. A full album would be welcome, and soon.

These are heady days for the female Scottish troubadour. That other notable MacDonald, Amy, already on to her third album, has helped to open a door into mainstream pop music for what seems like an army of young women, each with their own blend of traditional and modern musical tastes. Where Amy favours fierce, guitar-driven narratives in the manner of her breakthrough hit “This is the Life”, Anna is deceptively gentle and contemplative, that angelic voice telling quietly bleak truths about the realities of waning love and loneliness. There is plenty of room for them both.

Album Review – Broadcaster featuring Peggy Seeger: Folksploitation

5 Jul

First Time Ever: Peggy Seeger’s shamen-like vocal takes a classic to another place

Folksploitation: Seeger’s voice rises triumphant above the vocoder treatment

The Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield. Morrissey and Sandie Shaw. The Bee Gees and Dionne Warwick. Jack White and Loretta Lynn. The KLF and Tammy Wynette. There’s a great tradition in pop music of collaboration between iconic female singers and contemporary singer/songwriter producers that brings their work and back stories to the attention of a new generation.

Note that I don’t use the word ‘rescue’, although in the case of Dusty Springfield, the timely approach of the Pet Shop Boys with “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” led directly to a welcome late career revival. I hesitate, too, to use the much-abused word ‘Diva’, although these women had earned such a status in the historical arc of pop long before any second flourishing opened up new territory for them.

I would certainly hesitate to call Peggy Seeger a ‘Diva’, although if anything, she merits the title in her sphere even more than any of the women mentioned above.  She is a touchstone for folk singers and songwriters of any age. While she herself has dipped in and out of the music business, always having plenty of other fish to fry as an activist and archivist, her songs, her musicianship and that timeless, multi-textured voice have made her a constant influence on her peers and subsequent generations.

Her long partnership – personal and artistic – with Ewan MacColl, which began when she came to the UK in the 1950s, and their prodigious body of work embracing traditional folk songs and new material, made her in many eyes the founding mother of the modern folk revival.

And it would be patently ridiculous to call her extraordinary new collaboration with experimental dance music pioneer Broadcaster a ‘rescue’. New York-born Seeger has long since returned to live in the UK after several years back in her homeland, and at the age of 77 is still singing and touring (albeit avoiding long flights these days) with great zest and verve. But Folksploitation has already ignited a whole new wave of interest in the woman whose voice cuts like the chant of a shamen across Broadcaster’s edgy techno beats with all the wisdom of the ages. It’s an utterly absorbing and frequently exhilarating experience.

Peggy Seeger today: still pushing the boundaries (photograph: Dale Herbert)

Seeger embraces the world of dubs and samples as if to the manner born. And it’s hard to resist the woman for whom Ewan MacColl wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” when she consents to such a radical reworking. Here, as “First Time Ever”, its arrival is signalled by a Numanesque burst of electronica, before fragments of one of the great modern standards build into a remarkable collage that rescues it from the desert of a thousand hotel lobbies and sends it on a completely different trajectory.

The album goes way beyond mere sampling. The compelling beat that underpins the bleak “Little White Grains” is a fascinating juxtaposition, hooking you in even as you’re floored by the grimness of the lyrics. And in the midst of all these new sounds, you never forget that Seeger’s work has always been lyric- (and specifically, story-) centred. As those lyrics often concern timeless themes – drug addiction, violence, abusive relationships – they have a contemporary resonance that’s a perfect match for this hustling, urban treatment.  The narrative lines of “Bad, Bad Girl” and “Welcome to the Neighbourhood” are driven by Broadcaster’s insistent riffs, with Seeger’s voice given the full vocoder treatment, from which it emerges astringent and triumphant.

Despite the essential darkness of much of the material, Folksploitation is a thrilling, hypnotic experiment which Seeger’s die-hard fans will probably approach with trepidation. But ultimately, it’s a surprising triumph for this redoubtable singer’s capacity to push the boundaries and make her listeners think again. So yes, let’s add Broadcaster and Peggy Seeger to that list.