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Album review – Frances Ruffelle: I Say Yeh-Yeh

13 Oct

On her own: Frances Ruffelle turns iconoclast – in a good way

I Say Yeh-Yeh: quirky, melancholy and insouciant in equal measure

I Say Yeh-Yeh: quirky, melancholy and insouciant in equal measure

Gamine and quirky one minute, drenched in melancholy despair the next – and with the occasional dash of Rive Gauche insouciance – Frances Ruffelle’s I Say Yeh-Yeh is an album of startling contrasts: part homage to the fragile-voiced yé-yé singers of the 1960s, part tribute to the wrenched-from-the-gut emotional force of that chanteuse réaliste nonpareil Edith Piaf, and part affectionate nod to the part played by Les Misérables in the launch of her stellar stage career.

Throughout, her profound love of Paris shines through with luminous clarity. An air of nostalgia, tempered perhaps with the odd regret, shimmers around the whole project. The moment things threaten to get a bit too Proustian and rose-tinted, an edgy dash of uneasiness undermines you, coaxing you into a darker place. The gritty “Paris Summer”, for example, which features newcomer Rowan John, is a case in point, infused with complex shifts and sinister nuances.

Ruffelle’s “La Foule” is a hubristic risk, but she swerves the dangers of a Piaf pastiche by refocusing on the song as a piece of street life, easy-come and easy-go: a soaring, fleeting experience snatched on an evening breeze rather than the whirling descent into madness suggested by the original. But as befits a true Piaf fan, there are respectful, spare versions of “Non, Je Ne Regrette  Rien” and, most touching of all, the tumultuous “Hymne á l’Amour”.

The quirky comes courtesy of the Cher classic “Bang Bang” and a revitalised Francoise Hardy number, “À Quoi Ca Sert?”, brought up to date with Rufffelle’s own English lyrics. Elsewhere, her French is impeccable, giving the lie to the notion that British singers can’t cope with the francophone demands of the chanson.

The creative partnership behind Les Misérables – Schönberg and Boublil – is saluted with the inclusion of “L’un Vers l’Autre”, a gentle ballad written for Eponine, which didn’t make it into the show, and “On My Own”, the song which became her calling card in the role. This is an iconoclastic take on such a well-loved number but again, the risk pays off as she transforms it into a poignant, swinging pop song.

Ruffelle’s vocals are sublime. And in her quest to evoke the spirit of this eclectic material, she has an exceptional ally in producer Gwyneth Herbert, one of the great musical talents of her generation. Herbert’s arrangements, sprinkled with accordions and clattering tin-pot percussion, are inspired in the way they conjure scene after scene.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the record was made in just three days, recorded on vintage 1960s kit, in a converted East London brothel. You’d expect nothing less from this perfect coupling of idiosyncratic artists.

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News Roundup: Caroline O’Connor, Patti LuPone, Liza Minnelli, Sandie Shaw, Barbara Dickson, Mari Wilson, Barb Jungr, Girl Talk and Juliette Greco

30 Sep

Caroline O’Connor: triple threat gives it large in the West End

Caroline O’Connor seems to have the West End in the palm of her hand if reviews of The Showgirl Within are anything to go by…

Liza Minnelli talks about choosing the songs for new album Confessions

The latest work from Broadway royalty is on its way to me in the shape of Patti LuPone’s autobiography and Liza Minnelli’s eagerly awaited studio album Confessions. Reviews will follow in due course but my appetite has already been whetted by Michael Miyazaki’s tantalising reports on Ms LuPone’s tell-it-exactly-as-it-was writing style and Minnelli’s indestructible gifts as an interpreter of lyrics…

Listen to Sandie Shaw’s live performance of Made in Dagenham

Sandie Shaw has been popping up all over the place ahead of the release of the much-vaunted British film Made in Dagenham, a fictionalised feel-good account of the impact of Ford’s female workers on the equal pay movement in the 1960s. Shaw, of course, is a Dagenham girl who – albeit for a few weeks, before her stratospheric rise to pop stardom – actually worked in the factory. Who better to sing the title track? And what a joy to hear that unique voice, cool and stylish, after too many years’ absence. A clutch of live performances seems to have rekindled her appetite for singing but she told BBC Radio 2’s Steve Wright that she needs loads of encouragement to get back into the studio. If someone wants to start a petition, I’ll certainly sign it…

Barbara Dickson: touring early in 2010

Happy Birthdays this week to Barbara Dickson, who has a major UK tour lined up for early 2011, coinciding with the release of a new album (recording has been going well according to her tweets) and publication of the paperback edition of her autobiography A Shirtbox Full of Songs. I recently interviewed her about her book, and you’ll be able to read all about it soon…

Curiosity value: Forget the sound quality and see how Mari Wilson styles Lili Marlene

and to Mari Wilson, also with a new album release imminent, an eagerly awaited one-woman musical about to test the London water and the revival of the fizzing, wry and brilliantly acerbic cabaret trio Girl Talk scheduled for 2011… Girl Talk will reunite Mari and Barb Jungr, and they’ll be joined by a soon to be announced replacement for Claire Martin…

Autotune be damned: why Barb Jungr is the real deal

It’s X Factor season again, apparently. The Art of the Torch Singer would happily let that pass without any comment whatsoever, but for the great autotune debate. Barb Jungr recently raised the issue on her Passport From Pimlico blog and asks why nobody is making the anti-autotune argument. It seems to me that she’s made it eloquently herself in a couple of heartfelt sentences. And here’s an interesting new angle on her hit album The Men I Love

Juliette Greco: chanteuse sans pareil

Finally, existentialist icon Juliette Greco is coming to the Royal Festival Hall on 21st November for a concert that forms part of the London Jazz Festival. It’s 10 years since I saw this legend of chanson at the Barbican on a highly memorable evening. My tickets are booked and you’ll be able to read the definitive review right here!

CD Review: Emilie Simon, The Big Machine

11 Jul

Rainbow: a track from Emilie Simon’s new album, The Big Machine

The Big Machine: a new musical vision of an iconic city

A few weeks ago I berated PRs who use the “New Kate Bush” tag to try and snatch a bit of space for the latest quirky singer in a niche that, despite the heralding of numerous would-bes, has only ever really been occupied by one talent. Here, for one night only, I’ll eat my words.

Emilie Simon, a French electro-pop singer and composer (or “sonic auteur” according to the slightly pretentious blurb) with a strong track record in her home country, is already a cult figure in her adopted hometown of New York. Her new album, The Big Machine, a conceptual tribute to the city, is about to hit the UK on a tide of gathering interest. And it doesn’t take more than a couple of spins for the aptness of the Bush comparison to make itself abundantly clear.

At times, the extraordinary swoops and intervals of Simon’s vocals are so reminiscent of Bush’s early work, the timbre so similar, that for a second, it’s like being transported back 30 years to a time when the idiosyncratic masterpieces of the UK’s most singular female singer-songwriter carved such a significant path through contemporary pop. But the comparison works – and is a tribute to both women – because once the frisson has passed, it’s quite clear that Simon is a formidable and unique talent in her own right.

Not for her the metaphysical expeditions across the inner landscape of Bush’s child-woman, with their obscure literary and philosophical references. Simon’s lyrics are emphatically 21st-centry urban, rooted in accomplished, synthesised beats.

She’s a one-woman electro-band, a pioneer of “The Arm” – a rather startling, customised sleeve that gives her complete control over her musical gadgets and voice manipulation technology and which, in live performance, allows her to replicate the complex, symphonic qualities of her recordings.

Brick by brick this Brooklyn resident constructs a musical picture of an iconic city that obviously has her firmly in its grasp. Simon’s is a different kind of skyline, far removed from the art deco canyons or concrete jungle conjured by the likes of Gershwin and Bernstein.

Emilie Simon: one-woman electro-band

The album is full of arresting juxtapositions: the near cacophony of the urgent brassy intro to “Rainbow” setting up the first appearance of Simon’s deceptively girlish voice; the retro electronica – almost Thompson Twin-like – of the hypnotic “Dreamland”; the brilliant, glittering vocals of “Nothing to do With You” (the most Bush-like of all the tracks, and for me, the album’s standout number, along with “Closer”); the brooding promise of adventure in “Chinatown”.

Moods shift in the flicker of a neon light as Simon subtlely works the technology to give her voice a new resonance. It’s great to hear a genuinely different sound cutting through the increasingly homogenised legions of young female singer songwriters.