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CD Review – Rosie Doonan: Pot of Gold

12 Feb

“Fall for Me”: an urgent demand is the leitmotif of the opening track

Pot of Gold: folk tales full of complex musical influences

Somewhere on the scale between the husky purity of a young Joni Mitchell and Jacqui McShee’s ethereal clarity comes the voice of Yorkshirewoman Rosie Doonan, insightful and humane, restlessly exploring the vagaries of human relationships through lyrics that are as articulate as they are personal.

Doonan’s new album, Pot of Gold, is like a series of encounters with characters and experiences that always leave their mark – more often the bruise of an emotional clout than the ghost of a lingering kiss, but always provocative and empathetic. From the deceptively upbeat, guitar-driven urgency of “Fall For Me” to the ominous, on-the-edge strumming of “Darker Side of You”, Doonan presents a warts-and-all yet compassionate vision of the relentless cycle of meetings, fallings and break-ups that constitute life.

The single “Lay Your Love” epitomises Doonan’s realistic attitude and intelligence as a lyricist. It might be a break-up song, but the back story isn’t all bad and the relationship is meaningful enough to deserve one last send-off. Lines are drawn in the sand, experiences noted and assimilated, hindsight acknowledged, inevitabilities accepted and understood (“Into the Fire”).

These are folk tales, full of complex musical influences that hint at Doonan’s personal heritage (her father was a uilean piper with Hedgehog Pie) – “Wind That Shakes the Barley”, with its yearning strings, slow marching drums and harmonica, is the most traditional song on the album – while embracing a host of other styles and techniques. “Victor”, for example, comes on like a sentimental Edwardian parlour song with modern nuances.

“Winter Song”, reminiscent of a top quality Judie Tzuke number, is a touching, delicate paean to the comfort of turning back to a love that, despite everything, is still all that matters on a cold, snowy night. “Lady Blue” might be a tribute to Joni Mitchell herself, while the album’s title track has a winning jaunty gait and energy that is equal to anything that’s come so far from the pen of Amy McDonald.

Female singer/songwriters are hot currency at the moment and with this album, her second as a solo artist, Doonan has well and truly staked her claim to a place among the front-runners.

Rosie Doonan is on tour in March at the following venues: 11th – with the Snap Dragons at Wem Town Hall (Shropshire); 12th – with the Snap Dragons at The Brindley, Runcorn; 17th – with the Snap Dragons at Cumberland Arms, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; 19th – Shaw Theatre, Leeds; 20th – The Boardwalk, Sheffield; 23rd – with the Snap Dragons at The Biddulph Arms, Stoke-on-Trent; 25th – Trowbridge Arc Theatre (Shropshire); 26th – with the Snap Dragons at The Beehive, Swindon.

Theatre review: Mari Wilson in The Love Thing, Leicester Square Theatre (The Lounge), 6th November 2010

7 Nov

Hits and Misses: from Mari Wilson’s album, Emotional Glamour, which provides much of the musical content for The Love Thing

Dolled Up: Mari Wilson's 2005 album includes the song that gives The Love Thing its name

Never underestimate the power of a few sequins. Romantically bruised, regularly disappointed, ever nostalgic for the music and promise of her youth, never giving up on her quest for stardom, and with an eternally optimistic soul that eventually drives her to modest personal triumph, backing singer Elle has spent most of her professional life waiting for that big break backstage in stinky shared dressing rooms. And when she isn’t waiting backstage, she’s waiting at home for the selfish, feckless bloke who’s never too busy ploughing his own furrow to erode her fading dreams a little bit more. But she is never short of a brave aphorism – or a sprinkling of sequins – to see her through.

Elle is the creation of Mari Wilson, brought to life in a new one-woman musical – The Love Thing – which she has developed with Pete Lawson and features a clutch of beautifully crafted songs written with composer, pianist, arranger and frankly, girl singer’s ideal accompanist, Adrian York. It isn’t an autobiography but the show is largely inspired Wilson’s experiences as a woman and a singer across three decades of show business. And as a result, the character of Elle rings with authenticity.

From a 1960s childhood singing along to Dusty and Dionne – her ‘babysitters’ on the radio – with a hairbrush for a mic and her mum’s sling-backs for a touch of grown-up glamour, she takes us on a journey through the exotic 1980s, and on to the present day. Along the way, she encounters failure (her nearly-hit single bombs; she should’ve gone to the Caribbean and done those sessions with Chris de Burgh after all), serial betrayal, and late, unexpected motherhood. She lays the ghost of her old relationship, and finally meets a man who might, possibly, make her happy. But crucially, she returns to singing and, on her own terms, earns her place in the spotlight – and, albeit still reeking, dressing room. No matter that it’s at the back of a south London pub. It’s a downmarket, refreshingly anti-X Factor affirmation of a long career spent mainly in the wings. And it’s a testimony to Elle’s resilience, her worldly irony and robust humour.

Emotional Glamour: beautifully crafted pop songs written with Adrian York

Mari Wilson never settled for life as a backing singer, of course. She was a big 1980s star and continues to be a very successful artist. But her observations, memories and intimate knowledge of that era – and the highs and conflicts of a singer’s professional and personal life – are central to her portrayal of Elle, and the sympathy with which she plays the role, revealing considerable acting skills in the process.

This is a story told as an hour-long monologue, peppered with asides and re-lived telephone conversations, and interspersed with songs drawn from Wilson’s 2005 concept album Dolled Up (listening to “The Love Thing” sung live in the show, it seems ridiculous that the song wasn’t a huge hit at the time) and the 2008 follow-up Emotional Glamour. They are eloquent, state-of-mind numbers with a clarity of lyric and an emotional tug that pitches Elle’s situation perfectly through a series of scenes. Salt-of-the-earth observations – “Moving In”, with its hints of new beginnings, opens with the disarmingly mundane observation that “Your pants are on the floor” – give way to the darker, torchier sentiments of “Right For You”. “Forever Young” is a fight-back anthem for a generation of women reared on airbrushed celebrity preserved in anti-ageing serum. And “Getting There” is a frank, sophisticated ballad of recovery and survival.

Vocally, Wilson is at the top of her game. In the cramped intimacy (seat behind a concrete pillar, anyone?) of the Lounge in the bowels of the Leicester Square Theatre, she reaffirms her talent as an instinctive interpreter of lyrics, shifting moods in the flick of a very long eyelash and using the limited space to conjure a three-dimensional character with a light touch on the drama.

With their pared down arrangements – and the brilliant York on the piano, contributing sensitive backing vocals and throwing in a cheeky riff from one of Wilson’s 1980s hits, “Just What I Always Wanted” – these pithy pop songs easily make the transition to integrated show tunes. Any small quibbles mainly concern the structure of the piece: the scenes could be more clearly defined, for example, with a stronger sense of the time in which they are set. But at just an hour long, The Love Thing is warm, credible, often very touching and full of potential. Hopefully, this week long engagement has just been the start for a tour de force that showcases the wider talents of one of our best singers in peak form.

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!

A Song Revisited: “Dreams” by Grace Slick

31 Jul
“Dreams”: a video very much of its time, but what a great song

Dreams: Grace Slick's 1980 album, with a title track that's come hurtling back into my life

What makes a song come hurtling back up from the depths of the memory? Just occasionally, something that defined a time in your life – a few hours, a week, a month – but that you haven’t given a second thought to for years, decades, rears up from the past with all its old power. The response, the feelings, the connection you made with that particular piece of music, with its potent combination of voice, lyric, melody – above all, the ‘sound’ it made in your life – clout you with all of their original force. It’s extraordinary, like travelling in time.

I don’t know what made me search for Grace Slick’s “Dreams” on YouTube the other day. It was a random, almost unthinking act. A bit of displacement therapy to postpone some mundane task. But the great thing is that I did it. And ever since, the song has been playing on a continuous loop in my head. I was astonished and touched by its familiarity, the words returning effortlessly to mind after three decades, those epic cadences just as thrilling, and Slick’s fascinating, textured, contralto resonating through an apocolyptic yet compelling vision of the terrors of the night.

“Dreams” was the title track of Slick’s 1980 solo album. I remember the first time I heard it on BBC Radio 1 – how much more adventurous its playlist was in those days! – and how completely enthralled I was by its symphonic qualities, and by Slick’s blistering vocal attack. At that stage – and for a long time afterwards – I knew nothing about her, that pedigree steeped in the legendary psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane in its various guises. I just knew that this was a voice that commanded attention, that was hypnotic in the way it charged on with something that sounded like controlled rage, almost fighting with the majestic beauty of the song’s arrangement. At least, looking back, I think that’s what I thought. Only probably less specifically. I was only 18, after all. I just knew what I liked, and there wasn’t a lot of it about in those days.

Fortunately, “Dreams” got a plenty of airplay, none of which helped to make the song a hit, although it meant I got to hear it a lot. I suppose that gives it cult status today, because it obviously has a lot of fans out there. Sean Delaney’s lyrics paint a wonderfully lurid picture of the sinister parade that storms, tantalises, disturbs and ravages sleep. I now understand, of course, that the album was at heart a concept project that explored the AA 12-step programmes, Slick having recently emerged from a prolonged stay in rehab.

“To be honest, doing solo albums scared the shit out of me; making music was no longer fun, it was nerve-wracking pressure,” she wrote in her absorbing 1998 autobiography, Somebody to Love? “For someone who couldn’t handle a quarter cup of coffee without wondering where the quaaludes were, working solo was just a couple of steps short of flinging myself off a 150-foot diving board.”

The really odd thing is that I’ve only heard the rest of the album in the last few days. The song “Dreams” was always enough in the completeness of the story, the vision it rolled out. But when I found the video on YouTube (a word about that: it’s very much of its time! Slick looks hard and big-haired, her eyes demonic in a Myra Hindley-ish way, but she is still riveting, a performance artist through and through. The Dolly Parton wig is a stroke of genius) and found myself transported back – not to an actual experience but to a sense of my teenaged self – I wanted to know more about the album. A search for MP3 downloads was fruitless. So it was off to Amazon.

In her book, Slick points out that her solo albums didn’t sell. That she didn’t tour on the back of them, which was a mistake. Well, Grace, thanks to a Japanese import and a rather silly amount of money, Dreams just notched up another royalty and I hope you get it. Because it’s a marvellous album, an explosion of musical references that’s surely overdue for a release. It’s gone straight onto my smartphone and I’m just letting the stories it tells play out on the commute, building a complex picture around a song that’s come back into my life like an old friend.

I know that there was much more to Slick’s music than this, and I’ve since discovered the wonders of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, and the unique contribution that arresting voice made to a seminal period in rock history. And even the commercial hits of Starship – Slick has since made no secret of her lack of interest in them –  have the ability to generate a nostalgia for the 1980s, powered by her unmistakable vocals.

Grace Slick at 70: a successful artist with the presence of a tribal elder

She stopped performing at 49, believing that rock stars over 50 should stop inflicting their ageing presence on an audience. That’s a shame because from the sound of it, she could still knock seven bells out of her iconic numbers – including “Dreams”. Today, she is a successful artist, renowned for her work in acrylic, particularly studies of her rock star contemporaries, many of whom didn’t have her resilience and instinct for self-preservation. In interviews she appears a wise elder of the global tribe: fiercely intelligent, plain-spoken, as uncompromising as ever, warm, compassionate and very funny, a mane of white hair pulled tightly back so that her interrogator gets the full benefit of that frank, experience-laden gaze. More power to her. And huge thanks for “Dreams”.

CD Review – Jude Cowan: Doodlebug Alley

15 Jun

Jude Cowan singing Doodlebug Alley, the title track from her new album

Doodlebug Alley: bringing back memories of a teenage record producer

When I was13, I was a producer for a day. Armed with my trusty Phillips cassette recorder (dodgy mic lead but it worked if you held it in a certain position), I persuaded my seven-year-old sister Isabel to make a record with me. We spent a busy hour extemporising. I know we reached far and wide for our cultural allusions but for some reason only the films of Joan Crawford (there was a Saturday afternoon season on television) and Clark Gable, and sexy underwear (always worth a childish giggle) linger in the memory after all this time.

We came up with some basic tunes, beat the rhythms on a pile of books and, making it up as she went along, Isabel plucked her own lyrics out of thin air with a facility beyond her years. Before we ran out of steam, we had a whole C60 side of material – enough for a whole album – and armed with scissors, a couple of photographs and a black felt tip, I quickly rustled up a cover. I can still see it. Bella, it was called. And I know the words “Includes the hit single…” appeared somewhere, together with my all-important producer’s credit. It must still be around somewhere at the back of a cupboard.

What prompted this flood of reminiscence? A few spins of Jude Cowan’s new album, Doodlebug Alley. Not that I’m suggesting Cowan is stranded in early adolescence or that there is anything remotely childish about the production or concept, or her stridently poetic lyrics. But the overall effect is of a similarly chaotic, random clash of references and influences – and yes, more than a hint of the precocity that makes me wince slightly as I look back down the corridor of years.

Doodlebug Alley is nothing if not experimental and uncompromising. But it’s telling that the first time I grabbed the sleeve for more information was midway through “She Sits at the Window” – itself a nostalgic treat, as it conjured hours of listening to obscure Radio 4 afternoon dramatisations during the afternoon ‘rests’ of childhood – and discovered that the eerie beauty of the piano solo was down to composer Nicky Bendix rather than Cowan herself.

Easy listening, this is not, and Bendix’s interlude provides a welcome respite from Cowan’s acerbic and jagged adventure across a rich landscape of folklore, literature and, in the title track, popular history, in which she mainly accompanies herself on her disconcertingly cheerful ukelele.

The publicity blurb generated high expectations: John Gay meets Hogarth, say, they bump into Brecht and Brel, and the essence of their artistic collaboration is channelled by Cowan as a latter-day Agnes Bernelle. And occasionally, there is the real prospect of those expectations being met – particularly in the visceral bleakness of “Remember Sinners” (an homage to the French poet François Villon), with Tom Fawcett contributing a grim guest appearance, disturbingly bringing the first-hand gallows experience to life (and death). “Jolly Roger” takes a long, hard look at unwanted pregnancy, finding a rare dark humour in the depths of experience. There is some fine, topical, satire too in the vicious “Naughty Daddy”, a timely anti-capitalist swipe.

But the high points are undermined by moments of startling banality particularly in the title track, which is supposed to evoke the live-for-the-moment intensity of London during the Blitz. The awkward rhythmic shifts, a burst of finger-clicking, the rhyming of arse with St Pancreas, and a bzzzz more reminiscent of a dying bluebottle than the drone of an approaching V1, had me glaring at the speakers in disbelief and instead, brought my old Phillips days vividly to life.

I wanted to love Doodlebug Alley (note to PRs: Please stop comparing any hard-to-categorise female artists with Kate Bush. It’s a tired old cliché these days, and rarely flatters either party). But despite its sardonic darkness, it’s left me frustrated. Jude Cowan, a cultural historian, clearly has genuinely original talents to be reckoned with. I’d like to see them harnessed with more discipline and a clearer vision next time round.

Who are Your All-Time Top Ten Eurovision Female Singers?

27 May

55 years of Eurovision history: Oslo hosts the latest installment

The 55th Eurovision Song Contest – Europe’s annual televised pop music extravaganza – takes place in Oslo on Saturday 29th May. Why do I still love this much mocked and derided event? I suspect it’s largely to do with nostalgia. I’ve seen every show since 1971 and if I’m perfectly honest, watching it is more a habit than an eagerly anticipated event these days.

The glory years of a live orchestra – for me, always an element that heightened the excitement – bringing the best (or worst) out of the artists, and occasionally conjuring an unexpected silk purse from a sow’s ear of a song, are long gone. So too are the days when singers were expected to use their native tongue, which was always as much a part of Eurovision’s unique, idiosyncratic appeal as the preposterous voting system.

The whole thing has become a victim of its surge in camp popularity during the last decade: a sporting event, held in vast arenas, which has shed its concert-focused origins. I haven’t attended Eurovision since Copenhagen in 2001, when the to-ing and fro-ing of the live audience throughout the evening completely ruined any sense of occasion. The singing is still live, but today it’s really all about the decibels of the backing tracks, the eccentricity of the costumes and the litheness of the dancers.

However, I will be watching on Saturday as usual. And as always, the big lady singers will command my particular attention. Female solo artists have dominated the contest throughout its history, winning many more times than their male counterparts or group entries. And the competition has attracted some pretty big names, whose reputation extends well beyond their own countries, in its time.

This is my personal top ten, in descending order. They weren’t all winners – my favourite entries rarely have come out on top! – but on the night, the combination of artist and song gelled to create a memory that still rises above all the ridicule. Do you agree? Why not share your top ten with us?

10 – Semiha Yanki: Seninle Bir Dakika, Turkey (1975)

This was Turkey’s first ever entry. Semiha Yanki was just 17 but sung this ambitious, elaborate and symphonic ballad with a conviction well beyond her years. She came last, with just three points – a result that still seems baffling 35 years later. Yanki has continued recording.

9 – Mariza Koch: Panaghia Mou, Panaghia Mou, Greece (1976)

Greek folk singer Mariza Koch presented this absorbing protest song (a reaction to Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus) complete with bazouki accompaniment. Her dignified stage presence and powerful voice really captured my imagination; remember, this was the year that Brotherhood of Man won for the UK! Compare and contrast… Koch still performs and records.

8 – Remedios Amaya: Quién Maneja Mi Barca, Spain (1983)

Flamenco singer Remedios Amaya stormed the 1983 event in Munich – and scored the dreaded nul points. Why? This torrid, authentic entry was an uncompromising masterpiece, and makes a mockery of the faux-ethnicity of songs like last year’s Norwegian winner. Elfish folksiness be gone. Give me Remedios and her hearfelt wail every time.

7 – Mia Martini: Rapsodia, Italy (1992)

Class, with a side order of razor blades. This was Mia Martini’s second attempt for Italy, a glorious, rambling ballad of pained love, presented with simplicity and all the assurance of an artist who knows that whoever tops the leader board, she has the only seriously good song in the competition. Martini died too young, but her marvellously ravaged voice lives on in the memory.

6-  Kathy Kirby: I Belong, United Kingdom (1965)

I know Sandie Shaw should be on the list, but everyone knows “Puppet on a String” and this performance epitomises the brittle, high-octane talent of a singer who really should have enjoyed a longer career. Kathy Kirby lives quietly in London these days but her music remains hugely popular with her loyal fan base.

5 – Alice (and Franco Battiato): I Treni di Tozeur (1984)

OK, not exactly a solo artist on the night but Alice’s moody glamour and resonant voice rose above songwriter Franco Battiato’s awkwardness so magnificently that I became an instant fan. The song is a classic: haunting, singular and atmospheric, complete with the surprise of an operatic chorus. Alice’s career went from strength to strength and she remains one of Italy’s most important and inventive musical artists.

4 – Paloma San Basilio: La Fiesta Terminó, Spain (1985)

Spain’s greatest musical theatre star (she played Evita) should have walked the contest with this stately torch song. But in the end, the performance was just a little underpowered and instead, Paloma San Basilio had to settle for a lowly 14th place. Eurovision juries really are a law unto themselves.

3 – Patricia Kaas: Et S’il Fallait le Faire, France (2009)

Another moment of class, this time from the modern age of Eurovision. I’ve been a fan of Patricia Kaas since hearing her 1990 hit “Les Mannequins d’Osier” and saw her live at Hammersmith back in 1994. Her participation in the 2009 contest was a welcome surprise, and she didn’t disappoint with this austere, slightly haughty performance of a top-quality chanson.

2 Anne-Marie David: Tu Te Reconnaîtras, Luxemburg (1973)

Anne-Marie David’s three-time ballad was polished and perfectly suited the attractive emotional timbre of her voice. She saw off the challenges of Spain’s equally strong entry from Mocedades, “Eres Tu” and Cliff Richard’s “Power to all our Friends” to gain Luxemburg’s second win in a row.

1 – Vicky Leandros: Après Toi, Luxemburg (1972)

The winner that does it for me, every time I hear it. Vicky Leandros swept to victory with this all-or-nothing declaration of love, an up tempo ballad with a loud, brassy refrain that I used to play at full volume. And this is why I still love Eurovision.

Review – Patty Griffin: Downtown Church

6 May
The Making of Downtown Church – how they did it
 
 

Downtown Church: Patty Griffin - Country without too much twang

My review of Patty Griffin’s new album, Downtown Church, is just up on the excellent Folkingcool web site. I’m usually on the fence about country music, but this album stole my heart with a minimum of twang.