Archive | Torch Singer RSS feed for this section

Album review – Macy Chen: After 75 Years

28 Jul

Languishing Love: Macy Chen’s JazAsia quest pays dividends

 

After 75 Years: Macy Chen’s contribution to the East/West cultural exchange

Macy Chen is living proof that jazz is the most international of musical languages. The Taiwan-born singer soon established herself on the pop scene in her home country after graduating from Soochow University. But having realised that her heart was really in jazz, she headed west to New York in search of new influences that would help her to build on this passion.

A decade later, Chen has released a concept album – After 75 Years – that fuses Chinese and Western jazz traditions in a style she has dubbed ‘jazAsia’. It’s a canny modern take on a phenomenon that actually has its roots in the 1930s. As Chen reveals through a selection of songs from old Shanghai, jazz was a highly popular style of music in the more cosmopolitan cities of pre-Communist China; something that possibly escaped her grandfather, a saxophonist who also left Taiwan to pursue a career as a musician but stayed firmly in the Eastern hemisphere, in Japan.

The album is packaged as an imagined correspondence bridging the 75-year gap between these two wondering spirits (they never knew each other), with a sheaf of letters and photographs for the listener to browse while Chen’s mellow and expressive voice works a rather special spell.

The Shanghai numbers are fascinating in themselves, telling exotic tales of “Unrequited Love” and “The Wandering Mistress” in mandarin. Rather than being an obstacle to the non-speaker, the language becomes an intrinsic element of the music as Chen’s voice blends like an instrument with the rest of her nimble, sophisticated band.

She has also written mandarin lyrics for a handful of American jazz standards – “My Only Love” and a mash-up of “Harlem Fantasia” and the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” – which add an exciting new texture to these familiar tunes.  She is at her most effective in languid, melancholy musical territory: “Reminisce” and “Suzhou Nocturne” both showcase a range that swoops effortlessly across the soprano/alto divide with a blend of sweet, instinctive jazz inflections.

Chen rounds things off with a pair of self-penned songs, “Fly Away” and “Good Night, My Love”, that experiment with tempo and elegant melodic lines, suggesting that her unusual quest is set to pay further dividends as her career develops. JazAsia is full of idiosyncratic possibilities.

Advertisements

Album Review – Gill Manly: The Lies of Handsome Men

7 Jul

Wild is the Wind: Manly’s sublime phrasing bathes you in warmth

The Lies of Handsome Men: world-weary, self-knowing and great singing

If you get the chance to catch Gill Manly singing live, seize it. Even in a London jazz scene crammed with secret treasures, her sublime phrasing, a voice which bathes you in warmth even when the lyrics tell a bitter tale, and her connoisseur’s ear for songs that chime with the musicality which she wears with grace and insouciance, set her apart as a singular talent. The world would be a better place if she were heard more widely – and if there’s any justice, her new album, The Lies of Handsome Men, will bring her the attention she deserves as one of Britain’s finest female singers of any genre.

It’s a carefully selected set of songs that she likens to jewels from her personal treasure trove, put by until the time was right to put her interpretations on the record. Generous, too, at 15 tracks.

Many better-known singers would be hard-pressed to sustain unbroken interest through such an eclectic mix of standards and pop songs. However, Manly has a gift for threading lyrical themes and ideas together with a vocal line that ranges from girlish delight (shades of Blossom Dearie) to arch-vamp (recalling Julie Wilson) but is at its most telling with world-weary, self-knowing material that hints at the emotional texture of a woman’s life, lived fully. Buddy Greco guests on “Second Time Around”, but it’s a measure of the album’s quality that his stardust is a pleasantly incidental contribution rather than the high point of the record.

Despite the occasional tone-lightening favourite (“Peel Me A Grape” and “Witchcraft”), The Lies of Handsome Men sets a contemplative mood from the moment the title track edges into earshot. In that respect, it reminded me very much of a great but little-remembered Judy Holliday album, Trouble is a Man: serious, complex, sophisticated and intelligent readings of heart-breaking songs.

“The Lies of Handsome Men” sets the bar high, but with the glories of the Dudley Moore/Fran Landesman at-least-we-had-a-go classic “Before Love Went out of Style”, the John Scott/Caryl Brahms soliloquy “Woman Talk” and the quietly devastating Rod McKuen testament to survival, “A Single Woman” to follow, the quality never dips. “How Insensitive” is a case study in narrative interpretation, and “Wild is the Wind” a glorious tribute to one of Manly’s main influences, Nina Simone.

Manly’s pianist, Simon Wallace, who also produced the album, must share the credit for this. To make “Mad World” rub shoulders with the damped-down histrionics of “Windmills of Your Mind”, the cynicism of “Charade” and the frustrated longing of a little-heard Goffin/King number, “Go Away Little Boy”, without a single jarring moment is a considerable achievement.

This is a cohesive and coherent piece of work full of endless lessons for any receptive singer – and indeed for the rest of us, picking our way through the emotional minefield of human experience and trying to make sense of it without letting bitterness take hold. When Manly signs off with “Not Like This”, salvaging truth and dignity from the ashes of a love affair, the affirmation is left hanging in the air between the artist and the listener. That’s great singing. Highly recommended.

Album Review – Violette: Simple is Beautiful

4 Jul

La Vie en Rose: Violette leaves the bal musette behind

Simple is Beautiful: a heady mix of pop, torch ballads, soul and chansons

Sorbonne and Berklee College of Music graduate Violette harnesses a complex range of influences on her third album, which give the lie to its title Simple is Beautiful. Sometimes the mix is so broad that it’s tricky to pin down a specific style or direction: “All I Need”, for example, juggles rhythms and pace like there’s no tomorrow. That’s no bad thing in an age when the music industry seems more determined than ever to categorise artists in easy-to-market boxes.

Here are power ballads, soul shuffles with a hint of reggae and, for good measure, a dash of Piaf. The award-winning singer /songwriter’s jazz-tinged pop songs, mostly self-penned (with Rich Mendelsson), are deceptively light, and underpinned by catchy beats, urgent guitar riffs and earthy harmonicas. Quirky references and rhyming couplets abound on numbers like “Superwoman”, interspersed with reflections on the contemporary life and concerns of a young woman about town.

Violette has a sweet voice that reflects the discipline of her classical training – thankfully, the modern trend for all things melismatic has passed her by – and is particularly suited to ballads such as the title song and the bonus track “Miss Your Company”,  if a little less robust on the up tempo rock and gospel numbers.  There’s a glorious Streisand-style torch song, “Don’t Make Me Beg”, all soaring strings and building key changes, which might have considerably improved France’s recent Eurovision status, if Violette had been tempted to represent her native country.

She lives in New York these days, but there’s a nod to her roots with a couple of French language tracks: “Insomnie”, a swirling love song with an operatic choral backing, and “La Vie en Rose”, a jazz-flecked interpretation of Piaf’s standard that is more Manhattan supper club than Montmartre bal musette, reflecting Violette’s transatlantic transition. Between them she and Mendelsson have produced another album with great clarity. A fourth is already on the way.

Album Review – Mari Wilson: Cover Stories

4 Jul

Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying: Mari Wilson goes all Proustian on us

Cover Stories: a delightful piece of work

The title of Mari Wilson’s new album isn’t just a play on words. Cover Stories takes some beloved songs and gently picks its way through their lyrics, discovering a multitude of unexpected twists and turns, against a subtle backdrop of modern, stripped-down arrangements that make you shiver with pleasure as the tune emerges from each reinvented intro.

It’s bathed in nostalgia but could never be described as just another retro covers project. That’s partly down to Wilson’s sensitive, spot-on vocals which give the album its rather poignant quality. It isn’t that the choice of song is unremittingly sad. Far from it. But as she takes traditionally up-beat numbers like Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to be With You” or the Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and slows them down to meandering threnodies of contemplation, it’s impossible to escape a slight sense of melancholy, of youth seen through the eyes of experience.

I wouldn’t normally expect to describe a new treatment of “Be My Baby” or Gerry Marsden’s “Don’t Let the Sun Catch you Crying” as Proustian, but it’s a measure of the album’s quality, and the thought that has gone into the production (by Simon Hale, who also plays keyboards, and Wilson herself), that its dying chords leave a host of half-memories and elusive dreams hanging in the air, like the scent of autumn on a late summer breeze.

She has chosen these songs very carefully, and with great respect for the writers who have provided her – and us – with such a rich soundtrack of pop music.  And while she connects with them through her own story – much of which will be familiar to anyone who has had the good fortune to spend an evening at one of her gigs – her considerable gifts as a singer render them equally a reflection of the listener’s life. We revisit our own stories in parallel, allowing old, benevolent ghosts another outing. And just as when she sings “Be My Baby” in concert, and your eyes fill with unbidden tears for reasons that you can’t quite put your finger on, it’s a moving experience.

Other stand-out tracks include “Disney Girls” (another concert favourite) and the Gillian Welch number “Dear Someone”, which is treated almost like a sentimental Edwardian music-hall song (more ghosts!) The Gibb brothers are represented by “First of May”, Kirsty MacColl by “They Don’t Know”.  Cover Stories signs off with a soft, jazzy treatment of “Everybody Needs a Holiday”, an acknowledgement of the power and value of support in a relationship. It’s a reassuring coda to a really delightful piece of work.

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

31 Jan

Hello Cruel World: damaged goods make for a fine album of sanguine songs

Hello Cruel World: Gretchen Peters shows you the dark side - and how to survive it

What a trying year Gretchen Peters had in 2010. Worldly and personal challenges hurled themselves at her from every direction. Man-made disaster in the Gulf of Mexico devastated the shore around the Florida bolthole where she writes her songs. Her adopted hometown of Nashville was stricken by catastrophic floods. And one of her oldest friends committed suicide. On the bright side, she married her pianist Barry Walsh after a 20-year relationship; and her child revealed that he was transgender – a shared journey that she says she found inspiring and disorienting in equal parts.

Songwriters of lesser skill might have walked into all the melodramatic traps sprung by such a discomfiting and extended period of life experience, and turned them into a self-indulgent misery fest, shot through with the well-worn leitmotif of the stoic survivor. Not so Peters. “The grain of sand becomes the pearl,” she sings on the title track of her album Hello Cruel World, setting the scene for an unflinching but ultimately hopeful response to her recent ride on the Big Dipper of life.

There’s no hint of smiling bravely through the tears here. Instead, Peters’ lyrics roll with the punches as she picks her way through the wreckage of “Natural Disaster”, the sanguine home truths of “Dark Angel” and a meditation on the testing of faith, “Saint Francis”. Some tracks enter mesmerising art-song territory: the starkly beautiful “The Matador” with its heart-breaking accordion (courtesy of Peters’ husband Barry Walsh); and “Woman on the Wheel”, which takes an old fairground attraction as a metaphor for the listener’s insidious fears.

Peters further proves herself a past mistress in the art of darkness with the glorious “Five Minutes”, a country-tinged torch song that quietly shows how the lingering power of an eternal passion will always manage to disrupt the most mundane, workaday life. “Camille” follows in similar vein, its muted trumpet intro (from Vinnie Giesielski – Peters has surrounded herself with some serious musical talent) heralding a bleak tale of the other woman that is expertly wreathed in whisky vapours and midnight smoke. And “Idlewild” is a throat-catching child’s-eye vision of parental dislocation (and an interesting comparison with Mary Black’s recent take on a similar theme, “The Night Was Dark and Deep”).

It sounds like strong meat for a casual listen but Peters’ essential optimism and resilience mean that even in its bleakest moments, Hello Cruel World offers much more than a fix of suffering for those who tend to roam across shadier emotional plains. Redemption, a tad weary and accepting of the trials that have gone before, comes with the gentle “Little World”, which seizes gratefully on the familiar comforts of home.

This is Peters’ sixth solo album. And thanks to the gimlet-eyed take on life that informs her lyrics, a voice that sings the story straight, and arrangements that imbue the songs with a stark, poignant beauty, it’s an absorbing transformation of adversity into art.

Album Review: Mary Black – Stories From the Steeples

19 Jan

“Marguerite and the Gambler”: story-singing at its best

Stories from the Steeples: a masterpiece from Mary Black

What a fine singer Ireland’s Mary Black is. Unfussy, gimmick-free and capable of switching from confessional intimacy to assured declaration in the space of a phrase, she always puts the song’s story first. The effect can be breathtaking, catching out the listener with a vocal catch or a sung-through line that will break your heart or make you laugh out loud, depending on the lyric.

In years to come, Black’s new album Stories from the Steeples (her first new set since 2005) might well come to be seen as her masterpiece – and considering the quality of her work throughout the last quarter of a century, that would be some achievement. Few singers would have the ability to pull together such a disparate collection of songs – modern folk numbers, soft Celtic rock ballads and a delightful bonus track, the pastiche chanson “Fifi the Flea”- and weave them so effectively into the cohesive whole of this record, which ranges across a rugged emotional landscape, full of troughs and challenging heights.

The thrilling story-song “Marguerite and the Gambler”, the troubadour’s jaunty, evocative signature tune “Mountains to the Sea” (written by Shane Howard and Neil Murray, and featuring an unexpectedly sedate and subtle duet between Black and Imelda May), and the joyous, shambling “Walking With My Love” (on which Black is joined by Finbar Furey) provide the album’s top notes. But the listener is never lulled into a false sense of security. There are shades of darkness in many of Black’s interpretations: the bleak, calm-after-the-storm assessment of a relationship’s uncertain future (“Faith in Fate”); the searing anti-war song “All the Fine Young Men”; and the measured reassurance of “Steady Breathing”, a song written by Chris While to comfort his ill sister.

Janis Ian puts in a welcome appearance on “Lighthouse Light”, contributing guitar and vocals to a simple, foot-tapping meditation on distant threats and prayed-for safety.  “Wizard of Oz” is a touching summation of the longed-for qualities that provide the narrative of the much-loved children’s story, turning them into a mature exploration of the chasm between hope and realistic expectation. And “One True Place” makes a sweet case for some kind of afterlife.

For me, though, the standout track is “The Night Was Dark and Deep”, which evokes a universal experience of childhood that echoes into adulthood, with its lingering traces of vulnerability and the realisation that despite our parents’ best efforts to conceal trouble, an insight into their unhappiness is a rite of passage for everybody.

Black has produced the album with Billy Robinson and throughout, she has the support of a driving, vibrant band led by Bill Shanley and Pat Crowley. Stories From the Steeples is a majestic piece of work that yields new treasure with each listening.

Album Review: Judie Tzuke – One Tree Less

17 Jan

“If”: Judie Tzuke at Union Chapel in 2010 – still a voice to be reckoned with

Here’s a piece of advice for Adele, Jessie J, Emili Sandé and everybody else who is riding the crest of a huge wave of fascination with young female singers and songwriters in the UK: make the most of your hour in the sun. Because once you’ve hit middle age, you’ll find it virtually impossible to get any kind of coverage in the mainstream music press.

A flurry of New Year articles hailed 2012 as the year of rock’s illustrious old guys. Bowie, Elton John, Meatloaf, Ronnie Wood and Mick Fleetwood will all turn 65 in the next 12 months, pointed out The Independent. While in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick hailed forthcoming new albums from Leonard Cohen (77) and Paul McCartney (69), Springsteen and the E Street Band, and rumours of 50th anniversary tours from the Rolling Stones and the Who.

The usually excellent McCormick’s crystal-ball piece did at least name check Florence and the Machine, La Roux and Lana del Rey – prime examples of contemporary young female talent, all. But the absence in any of these stories of any reference to mature women singers (Madonna aside) reveals once again the curious neglect of a significant category of talent that frequently blights the best broad music journalism. It’s as if the media suffers from an odd, sexist/ageist blind spot. Even The Guardian’s TV listing for New Year’s Eve fell into the trap, wondering vaguely what Sandie Shaw was doing in Jools Holland’s Later line-up, apparently ignorant of her well-received participation in his 2011 tour.

At least Shaw got a mention at all. Frankly, with the exception of Kate Bush (as left-field in her career management as in her approach to her music) and Annie Lennox (who is, in any case, more likely to garner column inches for her socio-political activism than her music these days), senior British female singers seem to become invisible to the press once they pass 40. Which means that a whole range of performers and recording artists – Eddi Reader, Elkie Brooks, Barbara Dickson, Mari Wilson, Barb Jungr and Mary Hopkin, to name but a handful – are now producing some of their finest work in their middle years, without the hope of a mainstream profile or review to remind people that they’re out there, no less creative than their male contemporaries and in many cases a great deal more active.

Let’s add Judie Tzuke to the list. Her new album, One Tree Less, is a beauty. Troubled, uneasy lyrics juxtapose natural references with smarting, visceral explorations of broken relationships, fractured trust and self-doubt. The arrangements are string-laden, echoing aural landscapes, liberally sprinkled with epic piano riffs and sparkling guitar sequences that draw you in, making the occasional sharp jab of the words all the more startling.

“Stay With Me Till Dawn”: Judie Tzuke’s slow-burning torch song is still a classy affair after all these years

Tzuke has been making records for 35 years. She had her first hit, the torchy, slow-burning ballad “Stay With Me Till Dawn”, in 1978, lifted from the album Welcome to the Cruise, while she was signed to Elton John’s Rocket label. From the start, there was an edginess beneath the ethereal voice and polished pop lyrics – a restlessness and an anxiety that hinted at more substantial themes. In the wake of its success, she was put in the same bracket as Kate Bush, simply by dint of being a new, happening female singer songwriter. Truly, the music industry’s marketing imagination has never known its own bounds.

A stellar future seemed assured as Tzuke became a much in-demand touring artist and released a series of acclaimed albums through the early 1980s (she moved from Rocket to Chrysalis in 1982). But like so many before her, she found herself buffeted by an industry that has never been great at promoting and sustaining singular female talent. Ricocheting from one record company to the next for the rest of the decade and into the 1990s with diminishing returns, and occasionally beset with management disagreements, she took time out to have her two daughters (the eldest, Bailey, is now a singer in her own right and contributes backing vocals on the new album) before returning to the fray with her own label – finally in complete charge of her own career (Elton John handed back the copyright on her first three albums in 1999).

These days, the voice has a pleasing mahogany-dark timbre that compliments Tzuke’s misty upper register. From the title track, the ominous and agitated “One Tree Less”, with its tentative discovery of hope, to brooding, thoughtful numbers like “The Other Side” and “Till It’s Over”, the album showcases the ripeness of her talents – and particularly her ability to suggest an inner life in which doubt and uncertainty are constantly preying shadows, without ever sounding trite or pretentious. In other words, she is still exploring the consequences of that first dawn.

“Joy” is a deeply personal take on a friendship interrupted by tragedy. “Humankind” favours a dramatic piano intro, leading into a bleak wonder across the face of the human condition. “The Other Side” bridges the divide between life-as-a-bitch and security – but as always, with Tzuke, that note of hesitation is left hanging in the air: “though I might be wrong…”

“I Can Wait” is an up tempo, guitar-driven ballad about the sudden discovery of passion, “A Moving Target” an urgent, self-directed plea for acceptance of the way things are.

More substantial themes, indeed. So yes, Judie Tzuke is very much alive and kicking – and apparently in her prime. And more people should know about it. She’s touring the UK throughout March – which sounds like a good opportunity to catch up with one of our foremost, lamentably unsung, female singer/songwriters.