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Album review – Barb Jungr: Hard Rain

9 May

The making of Hard Rain: Barb Jungr explains her passion for the songs of Dylan and Cohen

Hard Rain: confirms Barb Jungr as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours

Hard Rain: confirms Barb Jungr as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours

If Barb Jungr’s Hard Rain was a coin, one side would be dark-as-pitch bleak and the other would shimmer with uplifting golden sunshine. Few singers have her ability to interweave the extremes of life experience – often during the course of a single number – and make you smile even as a song line delivers a sobering emotional punch. And the effect has never been more powerful than on this sparkling new album – the first on her own label, Krystalyn Records – which finds her at the very peak of her vocal form.

The liberation of independence has given this Dylan/Cohen set a new, bold edge. Jungr’s voice has never sounded better, and Simon Wallace’s spacious, atmospheric arrangements give her a generous rein to explore the turbulent, brooding undercurrents of these formidable lyrics. Teasing rhythms and splashes of flute seduce the listener so that even a hardy annual like “Blowin’ in the Wind” shimmers with the discovery of new surprises.

“Who by Fire” becomes an understated, unsettling meditation, while “First We Take Manhattan” – Cohen’s subversive retort to the traditional American songbook – nails Jungr’s own stance as a singer equally at home in New York’s plush cabaret world and the earthier territory of the European chanson réaliste.

There’s an underlying fierceness in her interpretations that exploits the tension between Cohen’s philosophical, introspective lyrics and the more overtly political grit of Dylan’s songs. The devastating conversational narrative that defines “1000 Kisses Deep”, for example, is a fascinating companion for Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Chimes of Freedom”.

With Hard Rain, Jungr has confirmed her status as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours. Her gift for rendering them accessible to a wider audience – and I write as someone who would run a mile rather than sit down and listen to Bob Dylan snarl his way through one of his own numbers – gives them fresh contemporary relevance as songs for our times.

She has earned her place at the top table of influential singers, and it is bewildering that an appearance on the only popular music programme on British terrestrial television continues to elude her. If Hard Rain doesn’t earn her a place in the line-up for the current series of Later…  With Jools Holland, someone is missing a vital link.

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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 – Liane Carroll: Ballads

1 May

You’ve Got a Friend: Liane Carroll and Ian Shaw in concert

Ballads: grown-up standards delivered with class

Ballads: grown-up standards delivered with class

Liane Carroll’s new album Ballads leaves you utterly wrung out in the best possible way.  Her soulful treatment and sublime phrasing discover previously uncharted nooks and crannies in this elegant selection of standards and torch songs, interspersed with a bit of Todd Rundgren (“Pretending to Care”), Carole King (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and Buddy Holly (“Raining in My Heart”).

Like a plume of smoke rising from a midnight cigarette, her voice sends these much-loved lyrics spiralling into the air, where they mingle and conjure bittersweet images of love and loss – mainly loss, it must be said – that vibrate with authenticity.

As a vocalist, Carroll is emphatically her own woman. Instinctive and inventive, she laces familiar words with underlying melancholy, and barbs of experience and wisdom, inhabiting the melodies and teasing them in unexpected directions. If I draw comparisons with Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, it’s only because she clearly belongs in such exalted company.

Under James McMillan’s production, her talents are brilliantly matched with spacious yet intimate, modern arrangements – mostly by Chris Walden – and an eloquent band that includes pianist Mark Edwards and saxophonist Kirk Whalum.  The chemistry between Carroll and her musicians is well illustrated by “Calgary Bay”, a sweeping original number by Sophie Bancroft.

“Here’s to Life” and “Only the Lonely” become epics with an almost cinematic quality. “My One and Only Love” and “Mad About the Boy” are reinvented as languorous threnodies. Strings abound, but discreetly, never overwhelming Carroll’s voice as she steers a steady, assured course through each number. Not for her the frills and melismatic swoops that pass for singing in most 21st-century pop music. So when she does let rip – in a devastating take on “Pretending to Care”, for example – it is thrilling to hear, and deeply affecting.

There is more dark than light in these choices. The pace is thoughtful and serious, absorbing, rolling with disappointment and betrayal rather than railing against it: grown-up readings which take a 360-degree view of the lyrics, opening them up into a tapestry of life experience.

The year is yet reasonably young, but it will take a lot for another album to beat Ballads for sheer  class and simple artistry.

Album review: Petula Clark – Lost in You

15 Feb

Petula Clark: Crazy, from Jools Holland’s 2012 Hootenanny

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

At 80 – how is that possible? – Petula Clark has made her first English language studio album in 15 years. Lost in You is crisply produced, utterly devoid of sentimentality and resonates with a contemplative, moody and arresting contemporary vibe. There isn’t a whiff of nostalgia. Even a reinvented “Downtown”, stripped back to an almost bleakly acoustic riff, sounds as if it was written only yesterday.

As a record, Lost in You manages to reflect the nuances of a career that for sheer longevity and breadth of achievement puts Clark among the all-time great entertainers. At the same time, it confirms the lingering sense of a complex and enigmatic performer, a woman who would prefer to let her music speak for her than divulge her views about a world beyond the stage that is sometimes profoundly troubling.

I interviewed her once, in her West End dressing room during her successful stint as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It was a trepidatious moment. “Downtown” was number one in the soundtrack of my childhood and I’d been a lifelong fan – always dangerous territory for a journalist meeting a hero. But there were no signs of clay feet. Far from being a grande dame, the friendly yet pensive woman I encountered left a lingering impression of artistic integrity and unfussy professionalism.

“Lyrics are very important to me,” she told me. “When I see a lyric and I say ‘Hey, yes! I know what that means, how it feels. It just flows through, your body is almost like a filter. It’s all filtered through your mind and then it comes out through your mouth. That’s it, you know. That’s the way you feel about something.”

A couple of the covers here  – “Imagine” and “Love Me Tender” – could have languished as record company-requested interludes between her edgy treatments of more 21st-century material, but there is not the slightest hint of a phoned-in vocal. Everything is handled with that distinctive Clark sound: those unique, idiosyncratic vowels, combined with a subtle technique and phrasing that has defined her work at every turn.

“Reflections” is a self-penned, hymn-like paean to little Sally Olwen, the girl who snatched precious moments of childhood in Wales, even while the machinery of show-business was propelling her to child stardom and beyond.

As the prototype 1950s girl singer, she would rescue herself from the cul-de-sac of novelty pop by marrying a Frenchman and discovering the dramatic possibilities of the chanson, absorbing the potent influences of Brel and Piaf. “Next to You” thrums with barely contained emotion – the mark of a great dramatic singer who doesn’t need to resort to melisma or histrionics to make an emotional connection with the story.

Clark reveals another facet of her versatility on the country-tinged “Never Enough”, which she delivers with subtle verve and warmth. The set finishes with a statelier take on romantic relationships: “I Won’t Care”, a big, modern ballad that is the closest thing to formulaic among the twelve tracks.

Cut Copy Me: a lesson in ethereal pop

But overall, the album’s slightly melancholy, troubled atmosphere, established across the first three numbers, is its most fascinating asset. “Cut Copy Me” is a lesson in dreamy, ethereal pop singing without artifice; the title track “Lost in You”, an echoing piano-driven ballad with nifty key changes reminiscent of Clark’s glory chart years with ace songwriters Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent; and best of all, a fascinating version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, which Clark turns into an epic, intelligent exploration of human frailty, dappled with cynicism.

80? The maths say it must be so. But on this evidence, Petula Clark has no intention of being out any time soon. Lost in You is a little triumph.

Album review – Deborah Shulman and Larry Zalkind: Lost in the Stars, The Music of Bernstein, Weill & Sondheim

23 Dec

Mack the Knife: Shulman and Zalkind whip up a little vortex of menace

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars is a classy little jewel of an album. It takes a couple of listens for the sheer quality and uncluttered lustre of Deborah Shulman’s vocals to take hold, so understated and subtle are they. But once they have you in their thrall, they yield refined treasure.

The album is based on songs from a trinity of musical theatre composers – Weill, Bernstein and Sondheim – who need no further introduction. The delight is in the ease with which Shulman teases out nuances and revelations from numbers that you might think you know inside out.

There’s an eerie, unsettling version of “Mack the Knife”, for example, which sweeps you up into a little vortex of menace, light years from the bravado that most singers ladle on. And if “The Ladies Who Lunch” replaces the traditional self-scorning attack with a more observational, modulated treatment, it’s certainly a fresh approach to some of Sondheim’s most visceral lyrics. That clarity extends to “Children will Listen”, a lilting “I Feel Pretty” and an assured, stark and mournful “Losing My Mind”.

Shulman’s restraint pays such dividends that it almost seems a shame not to hear how she might handle “My Ship”, here an elegant instrumental solo for her brother-in-law, the trombonist Larry Zalkind, whose contribution to the album is equally fascinating. He leads an accomplished band of accompanists who provide Shulman with some intriguing counter harmonies to work against. The texture they bring to the gently swinging “September Song” and the washed-up, after-hours blues of “Ain’t got no Tears Left” is sublime. Serious without once sounding earnest or worthy, this is an album of standards for grownups.

Album review – Barb Jungr: Stockport to Memphis

23 Dec

River: Barb Jungr and the Northampton and Derngate Community Choir raise the roof for Christmas

Stockport to Memphis: some of Barb Jungr's finest work to date

Stockport to Memphis: some of Barb Jungr’s finest work to date

Substrata of autobiography, moments caught in time and the inherited trove of familial memories lurk beneath the polished surface of Barb Jungr’s new album, Stockport to Memphis. The occasional jagged shard among the softer elements hints at pockets of darkness to counter the exuberance of the title track, a foot-stomping anthem in which she tips a knowing wink at the young woman who sought – and found – escape from small, northern-town blues in music way back when.

So far, so pleasingly typical. Jungr’s ability to juxtapose bittersweet nostalgia with something bleaker is her stock in trade, giving depth and often an ominous power to her re-imaginings of seminal numbers from the great modern songbook. Heroes including Dylan (“Lay Lady Lay”), Joni Mitchell (an aching version of “River” which, reinforced with a choral backing, has been released as a Christmas single), Neil Young (“Old Man”) and Tom Waits (“Way Down in the Hole”) are represented with skill and style.

But the big news here is that Jungr has connected with the muse, and in partnership with regular accompanist and producer Simon Wallace, found space to exercise her song-writing muscles.

The six self-penned songs (which also include a number written with her former Sticky Moments singing partner Michael Parker) provide an intriguing counterpoint to the cornerstones of the modern standards. “Sunset to Break Your Heart” is further evidence of  Jungr’s particular way with a break-up song: that characteristic mixture of searing desolation and the cynicism of the survivor. But there is joyful optimism, too, in the promise of “New Life “ and – my highlight of the album – “Urban Fox”, a beautiful and evocative jazz-tinged ode to that maligned creature. Without question, some of her finest work to date.

Barb Jungr will be touring extensively throughout 2013. On January 12th she will be at the Quay Theatre in Sudbury, Suffolk.

Single review – Mary Dillon: John Condon

5 Nov

John Condon: Mary Dillon’s haunting vocal signals a welcome return after 15 years away from the music scene

Ulster singer Mary Dillon has returned after a 15-year break from the music scene with “John Condon“, the tale of a 14-year-old boy lost on the front in the Great War. Stark and pure, with exquisite backing, the single is released in time for Remembrance Day and heralds a new album, North, which will arrive in February. Poignant and cinematic in its imagery, the song exerts a gentle but irresistible pull thanks to Dillon’s eloquent reading of lyrics that find universal relevance in the tragedy of one young, wasted life. If the rest of North lives up to this, Dillon’s re-emergence as a solo artist will be something to celebrate.