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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.

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CD Review – Signe Tollefsen

1 Dec

Signe Tollefsen sings You, Me & The Brewers. Folk at its noirest

I’ve just been reading Richard Metzger’s fascinating analysis of torch singing on the exciting and eclectic Dangerous Minds blog, in which he gives a generous assessment of the Art of the Torch Singer. Thank you, Richard. Metzger draws particular attention to male artists who have specialised in the genre and his post is well worth a visit. It’s already attracted some interesting comments about singers who should be included in the genre. You’ll find plenty of other connected, music-related material on the site as well. And now, here’s some folk noir for these dark winter days…

Signe Tollefsen's eponymous album. Think dark, then darker still.

You know how the idea of a crisp, snowy December twilight will occasionally work its way into your mind on a steamy summer day, shocking you with a pang of longing to sip whisky in the halo of a flickering log fire while everything hibernates in the shadows beyond?

That’s the effect Signe Tollefsen had on me as I spun her eponymous offering for the first time just a few months ago: perverse, edgy, hankering for the kind of emotional workout that only comes with alcohol-soaked, troubled and troubling relationships. Yikes.

This is folk noir, apparently. And it’s as dark and compelling as anything you’ll find this side of Brel. Tollefsen spins brilliant, diamond-hard images against a gently loping undercurrent of guitar – lots and lots of guitar (some of it of the steel-pedal variety, which in the right hands is always good for conjuring a sense of knives twisting in wounded souls) – banjo, accordion, wailing fiddles and dulcimer. Misery has rarely sounded this inviting.

Dutch-American and an Amsterdam resident, Tollefsen is a born troubadour with a sound as capable of evoking solitary journeys across interminable plains as it is of hypnotic story-telling in the intimacy of a cellar bar.

A cool musicality is revealed in this work (she studied classical singing at the Royal Northern College of Music in her teens) as she plays with rhythms that showcase her bleakly sensual lyrics. “Mama tell me why can’t I sing… Mama let me wallow in my pain,” she sings with uncompromising purity. “I am an art, deprived of a king,” she laments at the receding figure of a dead lover. Vulnerability is exposed. Characters spring to life, doomed unions are played out in a voice of considerable range and, despite the essential gloom of the material, sweetness. ‘The other woman’ is regularly referenced, and themes of duplicity and infidelity creep insidiously into the picture.

And Tollefsen has created a sound that’s very much her own, too. Occasionally, I found myself reminded of Joni Mitchell or the steel-eyed clarity of June Tabor. More prosaically, there is a rather shouty outburst in “History Class” that will certainly appeal to lovers of the full-throated Florence Welch approach to singing. But for the most part, vocally, she keeps her own counsel.

As for the songs, each one is a complete story, told by turns viscerally, through a sequence of potent sensual images, or through a more conventional narrative. I love the opening track, “It Smells of You”, about how the essence of a departed lover hangs around long after the physical presence is gone; the ominous sense of entrapment in “Hooked (You Spit in my Whiskey)”; and the gritty emotional bargaining at the heart of “Up to No Good”. And any lyric that contains the line “I wake up to the smell of gin and regret” (the song has the rather unpromising title, “It Was Ooo”) will always get my undivided attention. Tollefsen sounds like she’s been there. I’ve certainly been there. Haven’t we all? And wouldn’t we all go back for more?

Now those December nights have closed in, the fire is flickering and I’m ready for a bit of heavy catharsis, and Signe Tollefsen is at the top of my playlist. Just thinking about it gives me a chill. Oh go on, then. Pass the bottle, dammit. 

CD Review: Ellen Woloshin – Water Into Wine

17 Sep

Ellen Woloshin sings “Joanna”, a song from new album Water Into Wine

"Water Into Wine": sophisticated, literate and absorbing

“Where does all the time go?” asks Ellen Woloshin on the fifth track of her new album, Water into Wine. It’s a good question, coming half way through a collection of largely self-penned songs that have already taken us through several shades of loss and the cyclical nature of relationships.

By this stage, what starts out like a break-up record, with a touch of Carole King-style self-affirmation (“Making My Way Back (To Free)”), has marked itself out as a sophisticated piece of work, defined by literate lyrics, absorbing key changes and modulations, and underpinned by a shifting, restless quality as the core of each song crystalises before Woloshin moves on to another point of view.

She has a lot to say about life experience and – the sign of an assured and skilful songwriter – she says it with clarity and economy.  Music Connection Magazine described her approach as “decidedly female-friendly”, an epithet that strikes me as unnecessarily limiting for such universal lyrics; sure, one or two numbers – “Just Come Home” and “The Words” – might be tagged ‘women’s songs’ but nobody should be put off by such rigorous demarcation.

New Yorker Woloshin is the daughter of celebrated jingle writer Sid, and made her own early way spinning jingles for some well-known American brands. For some time, she’s written successfully for other people, including Dionne Warwick, Ben Vereen and LaToya Jackson. It’s an impressive career path that must have been invaluable in honing her gift for blending instant accessibility with personal reference. Woloshin’s pure alto voice has emerged as a fine, elegant vehicle in its own right, adept at expressing sentiment without pitching into sentimentality.

“Joanna” is a song about the ache of loss; “Round We Go Again” captures the relief of a relationship recovered from the brink; “Don’t Talk to Me That Way” captures the stealthy, destructive blight with which a cruel word can infect a love affair; “Let It Go Now” is a pick-yourself-up message of hope.

There are two odd songs out: Lennon and McCartney’s “We Can Work It Out”, punctuating the line of experience described by Woloshin and her songwriting partner Jennifer Dent with a loose, almost jaunty interpretation of the Beatles classic; and Barney Griffin’s “You Break My Fall”, which brings the set to a calm, poignant resolution. Astutely produced by Steely Dan veteran Kevin Bents, Water Into Wine is a smart, polished advertisement for an impressive talent.

Concert review: Stephen Sondheim at 80 (BBC Prom 19), 31st July 2010, Royal Albert Hall

1 Aug

David Charles Abell: conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra as it revelled in the original orchestrations (picture by Cory Weaver)

There was never going to be any doubt about the warmth of the reception for Stephen Sondheim when, as eagerly expected, he approached the stage at the culmination of the 19th BBC Prom in this year’s season, conceived to celebrate his 80th birthday. But even he, with his customary humility on these set-piece occasions, must have noted the length of the ovation. The atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall is unique when the audience rises en masse to greet its heroes, and here was London’s chance at last to salute in person this great “playwright in song” (his words, but who could put it better?) in a year packed with performances and festivities to mark this staging post in his life.

Every element of the preceding concert had been brilliantly layered to heighten expectation and nudge up the myriad emotions of the 5,000 or so Prom-goers gathered to honour the composer. And nobody disappointed, least of all the stirling BBC Concert Orchestra with Sondheim specialist David Charles Abell on the podium, revelling in the chance to take some of those famously complex melodies away from the limitations of the pit and, in returning to the original orchestrations, allow them to breathe with new freedom as they soared out across the heads of the promenaders.

In an evening studded with delights, there were two strokes of genius. The first was to partner the great British actor Simon Russell Beale with Daniel Evans – surely one of the finest ever male singers of Sondheim – for the opening number, “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience”, from The Frogs. His comic timing was a joy, and his on-stage rapport with Evans struck sparks. As the evening went on, each of his subsequent appearances (not least in a sublime rendition of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”, when he and Evans were joined by a soft-shoe shuffling Julian Ovenden and, gloriously, that well-known twinkletoes Bryn Terfel) should have had producers wracking their brains for revival ideas to showcase this hitherto unexplored side of his career. What a fabulous Buddy he would make in Follies.

The other moment of genius occurred at the start of the second half when Roderick Elms sounded the first eerie chords of the Prelude from Sweeney Todd on the Albert Hall’s resonant, awe-inspiring organ, and a collective thrill of uneasy delight shuddered down the spines of the audience. There can be no more purposeful passage in musical theatre; it took me all the way back to Drury Lane in 1980 when, from a seat high in the Gods, I was terrified out of my skin by the shrill blast of that factory horn and the mesmerising, darkly funny tale of revenge that followed.

Carolin O'Connor's sassy "Broadway Baby" whetted the appetite for her forthcoming West End run - The Showgirl Within

Evans was quite brilliant in revisiting his success as George, reviving his partnership with Jenna Russell’s Dot for two numbers, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Move On”. There was also a stellar turn from Caroline O’Connor, back in London after a long tour of Chicago down under, and all set to bring her one-woman show to the Garrick in September. Her “Broadway Baby” was sassy and smart, with just the right hint of desperation. And so what if Judi Dench’s “Send in the Clowns” was slightly more wracked than of yore? This best known of Sondheim’s entire-plays-in-a-single-song has never been in better hands and nobody, apart from the maestro himself, was received more warmly by the assembled masses.

The ensemble numbers were triumphant, even allowing for the limited stage room – The Proms Sondheim Ensemble provided well-rehearsed support, losing just the odd word here and there – and “A Weekend in the Country”, another offering from A Little Night Music sent us spinning out to the bars for the interval, full of anticipation for what was to come.

Julian Ovenden and Maria Friedman had already joined forces for a touching “Too Many Mornings” but both really came into their own in the second half: Friedman with Bryn Terfel, making the case yet again for a full-scale revival of Sweeney Todd with these two in the starring roles as they devoured “A Little Priest” with divine timing and characterisation; and Ovenden with “Being Alive”, another of Sondheim’s great ballads, in which he conveyed utterly Bobby’s conflicted state of mind in Company.

The real lump in the throat moment came, however, Glee-style with “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along, delivered by soloists and a chorus from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. They brought this touching, optimistic pop song to life with charming simplicity, setting us up for the tumultuous affirmation of “Sunday” and – the only time when on-stage proceedings looked a little ragged, but who could be blamed when all eyes were trained on the steps to the right, where a flurry of activity signalled the imminent appearance of the man of the moment – finally, “Side by Side by Side”. It was the only way to end an evening that will live long in the memory, and the artists seemed as reluctant to leave the stage as the audience was to wave goodbye to the modest figure who was responsible for everything they had been listening to.

CD Review – Monica Mancini: I’ve Loved These Days

25 Jul

Monica Mancini proves her musical pedigree at the Montreux Jazz Festival

I've Loved These Days: a cherry-picked playlist of rare quality

It isn’t often that I’m tempted to call an album “flawless”. There is usually a track or two that misses the mark, doesn’t connect with the whole, has a slight hint of beating the deadline about it – good enough but not quite in the zone. But Monica Mancini’s I’ve Loved These Days has such a calm sense of completeness about it that I’ve found myself staring at the Bose in astonishment. During the first listen, round about an absorbing reinvention of “How Can I Be Sure” – a number I’ve only ever associated with Dusty Springfield, despite David Cassidy’s best efforts – I actually caught myself thinking, “They really don’t make records like this any more.”

And to be honest, in the best possible way, there is a strong retro feel about the whole thing, not least because Mancini’s phrasing and diction are so effortlessly cool. You don’t miss a single lyric – and how often does that happen these days? Every word is considered, explored and offered up with an honesty that brings to mind female pop singers of the highest calibre: Karen Carpenter or Dionne Warwick at their instinctive best.

The choice of songs also adds to the sense of a time slip. Mancini has cherry-picked a 1960s playlist of rare quality – and in many cases enlisted the help of their originators: Jackson Browne plays guitar and sings backing vocals on “These Days”; Stevie Wonder’s unmistakable harmonica burnishes “Blame it on the Sun”; and Brian Wilson – vocally ageless – features on an intriguingly pared-down “God Only Knows”, giving Mancini the chance to show her mettle against a taste of those legendary Beach Boy harmonies.

These collaborations are testament to Mancini’s musical pedigree, as the daughter of Henry Mancini, the composer behind some of the most iconic film soundtracks of the 20th century. Many of the songwriters she honours here were her father’s peers and clearly exerted a profound influence on her own musical development. Indeed, she calls them her “musical heroes” and offers I’ve Loved These Days as a discovery of what their songs continue to reveal. In that sense, the album makes an interesting comparison with Barb Jungr’s The Men I Love. They both raise a musical toast to Paul Simon, for example: Jungr with “My Little Town” and Mancini with “American Tune”.

Although this album isn’t exclusively American in content – there is a poignant take on the Lennon/McCartney number “I’ll Follow the Sun” – an undercurrent of oblique commentary on the modern emotional landscape of her homeland occasionally ripples to the surface, particularly in the compassion of the Fran Landesman classic “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”, Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days”, and the flute-dusted beauty of Janice Ian’s “Joy”.

The arrangements are spare, acoustic and almost regal in their simplicity. Mancini clearly didn’t want to simply do an all-purpose album of cover versions. Instead, these are gleaming reinterpretations in which the lyrics take centre stage. Producer Phil Ramone – who had a hand in the original versions of many of these songs – has brought all his skill to the mixing desk, giving Mancini’s fluent, elegant vocal line all the air and space it needs to soar above the tasteful, sympathetic arrangements of Jorge Calandrelli. “I’ve Loved These Days” is a breath of fresh air in a musical climate that is so often hell-bent on over embellishment and extravagance. Perfect.

Who pays the songwriter?

2 Jul

Audra McDonald sings “Stars and the Moon” from Jason Robert Brown’s musical, Songs for a New World

Jason Robert Brown: taking on the sheet music file sharers

A singer is largely defined by her repertoire, whether she writes it herself or – as is the case for most people – digs into the great treasure chest of work produced, and constantly added to, by a myriad talented songwriters. Their product becomes a vital part of her currency, so forking out a very little for the sheet music that will allow her to study the song, learn the notes and words, come up with an arrangement that suits, give a professional-looking audition, sounds like a no-brainer. Just so the talent on which she is building her own gets a little payback.

Not quite, it would seem. Jason Robert Brown has been having  a fascinating and lively exchange of views on this subject with an ambitious young performer on his excellent blog.

Brown is one of the finest modern American writers of musicals. His complex, profoundly human, songs rightly feature in many an audition repertoire.

In what sounds almost like an idle moment of curiosity, he decided to investigate the extent to which the sheet music for his own songs were being ‘shared’ online, and as the scale of the situation became clear, he began politely requesting on file sharers’ posts that they didn’t do it with his songs any more. After all, $3.99 isn’t a whole lot to spend on something so important to your progress and if you really can’t afford it, the library will help. Either way, the songwriter gets his or her (modest) royalty, and that seems like a good deal.

Many responded respectfully, although with sometimes staggering naivete that they were doing anything dubious. But one feisty correspondent took him on. His patience and reasoning are as impressive as her articulate but way-off-the-mark argument is staggering. This is a hitherto overlooked but very important element of the whole music file sharing debate – and one which all aspiring singers should study.