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Cry Me a Torch Song: the Video Version – June 2017

1 Jul

The June 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Elkie Brooks (Pearls: the very best of: “A good reminder that real staying power is pretty rare in pop music”); Emma Stevens (To My Roots: “Fresh melodies and uplifting riffs… the perfect album for a summer drive”); Jane Birkin (Le Symphonique: “A glorious, deeply moving album of Gainsbourg songs”), and Alison Moyet (Other: “An artist moving with assurance and serene confidence across the canvas of her own adventure”).

Album Review: Lisa Kirchner – Something to Sing About

14 Dec

Rewarding and scintillating: Listen to three tracks from Something to Sing About

Something to Sing About: a cornucopia of musical genres under the art song umbrella

Tragedy, broken hearts, mortality and violence lie beneath the surface of Lisa Kirchner’s scintillating album, Something to Sing About, like bloodstained rocks. As her vocals spin and gyrate through a cycle of songs that draws on the work of the finest American composers, she covers the range of human experience from girlish hopefulness to world-weary heaviness, exposing these underlying dangers in startling moments of dissonance, shifts in meter and rhythm, and unsettling musical intervals. And all with a lightness of touch that belies the essential darkness of much of the material. These are lullabies with cruel truths at their heart.

Kirchner, the daughter of composer Leon and a doyenne of New York’s cabaret scene, has some pedigree. She has personal associations with many of the composers and songwriters represented in this rich collection, who include her father (“Lily” is one of the most poignant tracks), William Schimmel (who plays accordion on many of the numbers), Charles Ives, Wynton Marsalis, David Del Tredici and, of course, Aaron Copeland. As she explains in her excellent notes, Kirchner met Copeland when she was just eight. His music features large, culminating in a beautiful, gentle, jazz-infused take on his arrangement of “Long Time Ago”, which hangs shimmering in the air at the end of the album.

The result of this inspiring network of connections is a tapestry of musical genres brought together under the umbrella of the art song, revealing the scope of influences on quintessentially American composers whose work often reflects a European heritage in such innovative ways.

It’s impossible, for example, to escape the Brechtian cabaret nuances of Schimmel’s pastiche, “Suicide in C Minor” (the bleak tale of a gangster’s moll); or the chanson flavour of a Ned Rorem melody that provides the setting for Robert Hillyer’s poetic take on the romantic possibilities of Paris, “Early One Morning”. The chanson also informs Kirchner’s own composition, “Crazy Love, Crazy Heart”. Even Lewis Carroll gets a look-in. His ode to Alice Pleasance Liddell finds new life underpinned by Del Tredici’s dreamlike music in “Acrostic Song”. Kirchner herself has written many of the lyrics for the album, most notably for a new version of Paul Chihara’s theme to the Sidney Lumet film, Prince of the City – a gritty paean to betrayal.

Something to Sing About is an impressionistic experience, a sequence of constantly shifting musical tableaux that blur the edges and trace intriguing connections between urban 20th century America, smoky jazz bars, Medieval Europe, Shakespearian England (courtesy of two of Stanley Silverman’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival songs), and even burlesque and casinos. It’s an endlessly inventive proposition, delivered with a streak of humour that leavens the ever-present threats and terrors with quirky songs such as Samuel Barber’s “Under the Willow Tree” and William Bolcom’s “Night Make My Day” or a masterpiece of eccentricity, Silverman’s “Photograph Song”.

At the album’s heart lies Kirchner’s intense knowledge of her material, combined with an ability to render it accessible. While the listener needs to be on their mettle, they never feel part of an academic exercise. Her musicians include pianists Joel Fan and Xavier Davis, saxophonist Sherman Irby, guitarists Ron Jackson and Vicente Archer, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Willie Jones III. Between them, they create a warm, richly textured sound that cradles Kirchner’s voice as it veers from velvety reassurance to acerbic rasp. Rewarding and fascinating stuff.

Box set review: Goin’ Back – the Definitive Dusty Springfield

13 Dec

Losing You: Dusty Springfield in her prime, with a typically big ballad

Goin' Back - The Definitive Dusty Springfield: expensive and comprehensive, with timeless hits

It’s nearly 13 years since Dusty Springfield died, yet hardly a day goes by without her voice cropping up somewhere. She’s frequently playing on the jukebox, providing a soundtrack for the latest instalment of sturm und drang in the Queen Vic or the Rover’s Return. Fittingly, she’ll often be followed by an Adele track.

It’s been a long wait but finally, in Adele, we have a British singer who is Springfield’s equal when it comes to a vocal capacity for conveying epic desolation and emotional complexity that will find and unpick the sub-text in the least promising lyrics. In a short space of time, she and the late Amy Winehouse established themselves as genuine successors to Springfield’s brand of soulful, palpable heartache, where others have flattered merely to deceive: torch singers for our times.

Goin’ Back: the definitive Dusty Springfield is a major 92-track compilation of the singer’s work and the first box set since The Legend of Dusty Springfield (released by Philips in 1994 on the back of a late flourish in her career, but with a portentously funereal design) and the posthumous, equally sombre Simply… Dusty (Mercury, 2000).

This time the theme is pink. Very pink. And the four CDs, which focus on the hits, the singer’s extensive legacy of live BBC recordings, a loosely-linked collection of film songs and show tunes, and the obligatory rarities (the most valuable part of the offering for die-hard Dusty fans), are joined by three DVDs of performances from a career that spanned more than 40 years.

The box set also includes Paul Howes’ book, The Complete Dusty Springfield, and a separate volume based on an essay by Springfield’s great friend and manager Vicki Wickham, with contributions from numerous pop and rock luminaries including Burt Bacharach and Carole King – the two songwriters whose work probably shaped the Springfield sound more than any others.

Howes, who has curated this collection, deserves special mention. His sterling work as editor of the Dusty Springfield Bulletin created a formidable archive of material and it is thanks to him that, over the years, many rare recordings have seen the light of day. The package feels comprehensive, authoritative and well produced by people who have taken their responsibility to a great artist very seriously. And with the exception of the Lana Sisters, every stage of Springfield’s career is represented, from the quintessential 1960s numbers to the soft rock of her final work (“Wherever Would I Be”, a duet with Daryl Hall) and her last recording, a short version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” which graced a television commercial and is a poignant reminder that when she chose to indulge them, she had a jazz singer’s instincts for interpreting the standards – another parallel with Amy Winehouse.

That said, it’s a mightily sumptuous and expensive set, clearly targeted at aficionados rather than the idly curious or the Dusty Springfield novice. And the trouble with any substantial compilation is the ratio of ‘new’ material to the old and familiar. Without the hits, it would hardly be definitive, but it’s difficult to imagine that any Dusty fan of substance won’t already have stacks of them in abundance. In producer Tris Penna’s remixes of “Goin’ Back” and “The Look of Love” (he returned to the original master tapes), there is a laudable attempt to bring something fresh to the table. But ultimately, these spacey, ambient versions lack the booming, lush sound that constituted so much of Dusty’s appeal.

Which really leaves the rest of the rarities as the most compelling attraction. And this is a mixed bag of alternate takes, obscure ballads (including the delightful “Summer Love” and an aching “Goodbye”) and some intriguing live performances that date back to the Springfields’ heyday – most of which sound as if they were grabbed by someone holding an unsteady mic with a noisy old reel-to-reel recorder under the table in a nightclub. You certainly get the atmosphere but when you’ve heard them once, you probably won’t be keeping them on shuffle. The hits, however, are ageless.

Album Reviews – Barb Jungr: Man in the Long Black Coat; Durga Rising

3 Oct

It Ain’t Me Babe: the camerawork might be shaky but here’s a real sense of Barb Jungr’s compelling technique

The Man in the Long Black Coat: Barb Jungr gets closer than ever to Bob Dylan's lyrics

There are three elders at the top of the tree when it comes to British female singers who have an instinctive ability to tell the whole story in a song: Norma Waterson, June Tabor and Barb Jungr. Forget any ungallant connotations. I use the word simply to connote wisdom and an almost forensic approach to their craft. If Waterson is the benevolent earth mother, Tabor is the cool, all-seeing and often bleak eye at the centre of life’s storm. Jungr, on the other hand, hurls herself into the maelstrom, seeking the key to the most visceral experiences in the songs and chansons of the great modern songwriters and rendering them into compelling dramas for the listener.

This summer saw the simultaneous release of two albums from Jungr. Strictly speaking, neither is actually ‘new’. Man in the Long Black Coat is a compilation of Bob Dylan recordings made since her groundbreaking 2002 set, Every Grain of Sand, with the bonus of four additional songs laid down in the studio at the start of this year. Durga Rising is the reissue of her 1997 collaboration with renowned Asian music producer Kuljit Bhamra and Jungr’s late, and much-missed, accompanist Russell Churney. Between them, these very different pieces of work showcase an unstinting commitment to innovation and exploration that runs like seams of resilient, glistening black jet through her finest interpretations. Why this important British singer is still waiting to make an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland is a mystery.

Some people have hailed Man in the Long Black Coat as Jungr’s best album yet. And there is certainly a holistic feel to the album; much of this possibly comes from the sense of a ‘journey’, in which Jungr is getting closer and closer to crystallising exactly what Dylan’s lyrics mean to her. In doing so, she becomes increasingly agile with the possibilities and nuances that they offer.

The four most recent tracks – the title track with its ominous, funereal bell, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, the bitter, ironic “With God on Our Side”, and the sublime “Sara” – were all arranged and recorded with pianist Jenny Carr. They reveal a singer at her peak, brimming with confidence in the material. Dylan purists will no doubt perceive liberties being taken. Let them get on with it. There’s an audacity and boldness about these reinvented classics that is rooted in Jungr’s sense of freedom in the world she discovers through them.

From the up tempo “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to the reggae beat of “Just Like a Woman”, a spacey treatment of “Like a Rolling Stone” and the bluesy “High Water”, Jungr pursues the truth in the lyrics with a spirit of adventure and a musicality that is always intriguing. Who else could dream of giving “Blind Willie McTell” the feel of a chanson and make it work with such flair?

Durga Rising: pain and darkness with splashes of dizzying happiness

“Willie McTell” also turns up in a different, more subdued version on Durga Rising. This album, sub-titled ‘An Indo-Jazz Adventure’ is a cornucopia of human experience; bhangra beats meet midnight soul. Jungr and Bhamra have taken it on the road recently, now with exemplary pianist Simon Wallace, to great acclaim.

Jungr’s natural territory is pain and darkness, but she can also spin tails of dizzying happiness. Both extremes are here in a collection of almost entirely self-penned lyrics (Dylan aside), and the music of Bhamra, Churney and her old partner-in-song Michael Parker.

Jungr, Bhamra and Wallace talk Durga Rising on the road

Bhamra’s percussion is ethereal and fleet-fingered, working with Jungr’s vocals in contrapuntal sequences that shimmer with energy. When things get dark, they get really dark. “How Could I Ever”, “Tears in a Bottle” and the lascerating, end-of-the-affair piece of advice, “Choose to be Alone”, offer delicious degrees of cynicism. So do the apocalyptic overtones of “Crimes Against Nature”. But there are plenty of lighter textures in the music, and the exhilarating, life affirming romance of “Bombay Dreaming” – a latin-ish, retro dance hall number – is balm for the most jaded spirit.

Kathy Kirby: a Unique and Troubled Star

21 May

Kathy Kirby sings at the NME Poll Winners concert in 1964

Hits, Rarities and Lipgloss: demand for Kathy Kirby's recordings remains high, despite her years away from the spotlight

A star’s longevity is a complex thing, often defying simplistic interpretation based on chart placings, millions of records sold and accumulated decades of success. So how to explain the enduring enigma of Kathy Kirby, whose death at the age of 72 made the headlines, despite the fact that nearly half a century had passed since she was at the peak of her television stardom, and it was four decades since she had made any substantial recordings?

Discovered and mentored by the great band leader Bert Ambrose, Kathy Kirby was groomed in the image of his ideal woman – a kind of late 1950s hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors, with crisply styled peroxide hair and startlingly glossy red lips. Ambrose’s concept was dated even by the time Kirby became a major television star on the strength of her early 1960s appearances in Stars and Garters. But somehow – largely thanks to a winning and cheerful personality that knew instinctively how to reach a television audience beyond the camera and, crucially, a voice of spectacular power and emotional force, which commanded attention whatever she was singing – she transcended the stylistic straightjacket he imposed on her.

As so often in the annals of show business, Kathy Kirby’s life eventually came to mirror the more dramatic lyrics of some of her songs. This, combined with the unique qualities of her voice, dusted her with an almost mythical fascination, long after her active career had waned.

Ambrose had given Kirby her first break as a teenager, employing her on a short contract as a vocalist for his dance band after she had persuaded him to let her sing for him at the Palais de Danse in Ilford when she was just 16, in 1954. She spent the next few years paying her dues on the club circuit, singing with Ambrose on and off, and gaining valuable show-business experience. But it was not until he became her manager and took control of her recording and television career that things really took off, culminating in hit singles and albums for Decca, and some hugely popular television series. Their relationship soon developed privately and they would be together until his death in 1971, an arrangement that would have disastrous consequences for Kirby.

Kathy Kirby’s repertoire, tightly controlled by Ambrose, was heavily standards-based. Her most enduring hit was an up-tempo cover version of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”, and most of her television performances favoured the American song book and show tunes rather than the pop and soul songs that fuelled the careers of her contemporaries – Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Cilla Black and Petula Clark. Her look, too, was at odds with their fashionable styles, which would come to define the swinging 60s. And yet she carved a niche for herself in a competitive market, winning an NME Award for the best female singer of 1964 and singing “I Belong” with characteristic brio for the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. She was defeated only by the mighty combination of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s yé-yé compositions and the nubile France Gall, who took the trophy for Luxemburg.

I Belong: Kathy Kirby’s performance at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest

There’s no doubt that Kirby could – and should – have had a much more versatile and long-lasting career. But Ambrose’s artistic and financial control were absolute. Occasionally she tried to persuade him to try something new. She begged him to let her record “You’re My World”, a typically extravagant 1960s Latin ballad that would have suited her vocal range and majesty down to the ground. He refused, the song went to Cilla Black, and she took it to the top of the charts. Not only were Kirby’s sharp musical instincts constantly repressed but when Ambrose died, she discovered how badly he had mismanaged – and misspent – her hard-earned fortune (she was for a while the UK’s highest-paid female television star).

Rudderless and naïve, and at the mercy of her own increasingly brittle temperament, Kathy Kirby soon found herself marooned at the edge of the spotlight. If she’d had the steely, worldly-wise verve of a Shirley Bassey or the common touch of a Cilla Black, and the backup of an astute manager, she might have been able to reinvent herself for the 1970s. As it was, for her, that decade imploded into tabloid notoriety, bankruptcy, mental health problems and a difficult reputation which made work difficult to come by.

Secret Love: Kathy Kirby sings her greatest hit in 1982 – a rare, late appearance that shows she’d lost none of her vocal power

Kirby did come back, several times. As late as 1983, she was making occasional television appearances and singing in nightclubs. Then she turned her back on the business, retreating to her flat in West London. Living quietly, she unwittingly added to her own status as a reclusive enigma. Occasionally a newspaper article would ask, “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” but the lady herself preferred to keep quiet on the matter.

Then, in 2005, a biography (Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss) written by her friend and manager James Harman appeared, generating new interest in her career and recordings. And in 2009, she made a DVD documentary with Harman – Kathy Kirby: My Story – giving her first live interview in decades. Some people were upset by her appearance – she was clearly not in the best of health, and perhaps they resented the changes that had taken place since she was last in the public eye. In fact, her lucid comments, her refusal to cast blame elsewhere for any of her troubles – she loved Bert Ambrose, she said, despite everything – and her gratitude for what she still considered to have been a career of high achievement (which indeed it was), proved a fitting and dignified valediction.

Among her considerable vocal talents, Kathy Kirby was a superb torch singer. You only need to hear her versions of “Body and Soul” or “The Man I Love” to understand the extent of her skill. Her large voice sometimes seemed too grand an instrument to be constrained by small rooms and venues, but given a classic number her phrasing and lyrical clarity were second to none and she was equally capable of great subtlety and an urgent emotional truth. We should have heard a great deal more from her.

I tried to interview her occasionally over the years, sending letters via Equity and Decca without a great deal of hope. Then one afternoon in the mid-1990s, the phone rang and a familiar, breathy, slightly off-centre voice started speaking to me in the third person about a note received for Miss Kirby from Mr Piers. Miss Kirby, said the voice, was not giving interviews at the moment but would pass the letter to her musical director who would let Mr Piers know when anything changed. As tends to happen on such occasions, I was too nonplussed to press the singer – for it was obviously the lady herself – any further and meekly thanked her for calling. Caller-ID allowed me to take a note of the number, which I kept for posterity but never had the courage to ring. Now, it’s too late. But I was delighted that the BBC bulletins made room for news of the death of this unique and quintessentially troubled star.

Album Review: Miriam Waks – Waksing Lyrical

10 May

O gente da minha terra: Miriam Waks in fadista mode

Waksing Lyrical is an elegant, sophisticated debut album from Sydney’s Miriam Waks. Light jazz inflections mingle in an intimate, lounge-inspired atmosphere as she tours an eclectic  set of standards, chansons and a couple of quaint, unexpected choices.

Why Suffer: Miriam Waks collaborates with Coptic Soldier

There’s no doubt Waks can deliver a genuinely contemporary sound when she has to. Check out her collaboration with Coptic Soldier on “Why Suffer” for evidence. So when I say that in some ways, the overall effect of Waksing Lyrical is disarmingly old-fashioned, I mean it in the most complimentary way: her diction is perfect, regardless of the language she’s singing in (and her linguistic skills are nicely showcased). You get every word, which is rare in an age of overwhelming production values. And there is an air of traditional, pared-back simplicity about the whole project that is utterly refreshing.

Kerrie Biddell has done a discreet job on the mixing desk, leaving plenty of air around Waks and her accomplished trio – pianist Michael Bartolemi, Ben Waples on double bass and drummer James Waples (they’re joined by her uncle, Nathan, on cello for “La Vie en Rose”).

Waksing Lyrical: an elegant debut for the Sydney singer

Waks has a lilting soprano voice that really tugs the heartstrings on the ballads. But she also throws in some earthy grit and nuanced comedy on more lived-in numbers like “Peel me a Grape”, “Black Coffee”, “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and the suitably torchy “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s”, phrasing with confidence and clarity. She attacks “There’s Gotta be Something Better Than This” with restrained bravado.

The Portuguese and Spanish numbers – “Chega de Saudade” and “Veinte Años”, in particular throb with dignified emotion, and she has a sweet, wistful approach to “La Vie en Rose”. Further proof of her stylistic range is provided by the Sephardic song, “Si Veriash”, on which she reveals real vocal ease and flexibility.

As I’m writing this Eurovision 2011 is fast approaching, so the presence of “Al di La” rates a special mention. Although Betty Curtis failed to win the 1961 contest for Italy with this stately, sentimental ballad, it became a signature song for Connie Francis. Dated it might be but here, dusted off and polished up by Waks, it gleams afresh, full of yearning and regret for what might have been.

Al di La: Betty Curtis sings at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961

Album Review: Cæcilie Norby – Arabesque

10 May

The Dead Princess: Cæcilie Norby’s haunting take on Ravel

Arabesque: contemplative and modern treatments of classic melodies, with astringent lyrics

Arabesque is an edgy, moody collection of songs to thrill the musical iconoclast. Classical purists might run for the hills but Danish jazz singer Cæcilie Norby has come up with some extraordinary settings that shed new light on familiar melodies by Rimsky Korsakov, Satie and Debussy, boldly applying her own astringent lyrical interpretations of the stories behind them.

The result is an impressionistic aural feast, punctuated by a burst of funky swing (“Bei mir bist du schoen”), a couple of Michel Legrand tracks and an inspirational take on Abbey Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth”. In short, Norby, who has been a pioneer of modern Nordic music, straddling the choppy territory between jazz and pop with her refusal to be categorised, has sharpened her maverick credentials and come up with an audacious concept. Just when you think you’ve pinned it down, the musical influence on each track shifts into new territory.

“The Dead Princess” takes Ravel’s haunting theme and turns it into an exploration of the character of the composer’s benefactress, Princess Winnaretta de Polignac. His “Pavane”, so evocative in any setting, is transformed into a brooding meditation on the power of music to arouse memories and sensations.

Norby isn’t the first musician tempted to take liberties with Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” – prog rock band Renaissance built an entire album around it in the 1970s – but she treats it with great respect, her Arabian Nights-inspired lyrics swirling among the excellent accompaniment of musicians including pianist Katrine Gislinge, co-producer Lars Danielsson (on bass, cello and organ).

The percussion of Anders Engen and Xavier Devandre-Navarre is a crucial ingredient of Arabesque, fluid and driven, providing a great counterpoint to the fascinating texture of Norby’s voice. There is more than a hint of Berlin cabaret in her timbre – at times, comparisons with Ute Lemper are valid – but her phrasing is always contemplative and modern. Norby is more about the inner monologue than playing to the gallery.

Other highlights include “The Tears of Billie Blue”, a shimmering interpretation of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, and “No Air”, which turns Satie’s Gymnopédie into sultry, delicate soliloquy. There is also a Danish version of Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” (“Hvirvelvinden”) and a bonus track, “How Oft”, a tribute to the singer’s father, Erik, who composed it. An absorbing landscape of an album.