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Concert review: Girl Talk (Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert), Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 29th March

30 Mar

Girl Talk: warm, generous, witty and sophisticated

Take three of Britain’s top female vocalists, each with her own distinctive style and a generous supply of sizzling one-liners. Give them the run of the complete songbook of womanhood. Ask them to come up with an entertainment that touches on the complexities of the female condition, offering catharsis for the women in the audience – and little windows of enlightenment for the men. Then sit back and enjoy the chemistry.

Girl Talk‘s I Am Woman, which unites the multiple talents of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert, sashayed on to the stage at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester last night and delivered a show that brimmed with warmth, generosity, wit and sophistication, but was also peppered with some searingly emotional moments and bittersweet cynicism.

The new line-up (Herbert now occupies Claire Martin’s old spot) gives the singers a new dynamic to work with, pitching Jungr and Wilson’s hard-earned wisdom against the self-confessed young libertarian and allowing the sassy banter to set the songs up in hilarious ways. But more than anything, it gives them the freedom to show off their individual versatility within the framework of a trio. Between them, they share an abundance of musical gifts.

Barb Jungr: sings from the gut (photo by Steve Ullathorne)

Jungr, as always, sings from the gut. Even when she is ripping up a dubious lyric (the Doris Day number, “A Woman’s Touch” was delivered with many a knowing accent), she finds a way to wring some compelling truth from its remains. Wilson is a sublime song stylist with a voice of considerable range and the ability to give even the most familiar number a freshness that can make you feel you’re hearing the lyrics for the first time. And Herbert’s musicality makes her an endlessly fascinating presence, injecting some real edge with a timbre that veers from her trademark theremin tremelo down to a throaty contralto.

From the minute they launched into “Girls, Girls, Girls” – with the excellent Simon Wallace at the piano, standing in for the indisposed Adrian York – the harmonies were exhilarating. Several numbers were delivered a cappella, with an infectious verve that conveyed just how much fun they were having on stage. “Under My Thumb” was given a typically risqué introduction and liberties were taken with the lyrics of the Bacharach/David classic “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, sticking a stiletto into their dated, submissive message. “Where Do You Go to My Lovely?” and, gloriously reinvented, that bizarre, epic 1982 travelogue “I’ve Never Been to Me”, were given similarly arch treatment.

Mari Wilson: sublime song stylist (picture by John Haxby)

From “Jump the Broomstick” to the joyously anthemic “I Am Woman”, the songs flowed thick and fast, each one delivering its own thrills and surprises. A mash-up of “I’m Every Woman” (Jungr), the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” (with an up tempo Wilson soaring) and the Lisa Stansfield mega hit “All Woman” (Herbert in whisky-and-nicotine mode) was the tumultuous highlight of the second half; the arrangement was exhilarating.

But it wasn’t just about three established singers kicking back and enjoying safety in numbers. Each also had a solo spot and treated us to some superb torch singing. Herbert led the way in the first half with an absorbing take on “The Other Woman”: the mistress materialised in front of us, trapped in the ebb and flow of her private agony. Then Wilson delivered a ravishing “Touch Me in the Morning” that had the audience hanging on every word and, I suspect, banished all thoughts of the haughty Miss Ross. Finally, Jungr tore into “Woman in Love”. Think Piaf at her peak with a dash of Callas in the characterisation, and you’ll get the idea. Streisand has always declined to sing it in her concerts, despite the fact that it was one of her biggest hits, because she doesn’t identify with the lyrics. If she’d been in Colchester last night, she might have found a clue or two.

Gwyneth Herbert: from theremin to throaty contralto

This new Girl Talk is tremendously promising. The arc of the evening is brilliantly set by the different qualities of the three singers. There is work to be done on the links, certainly, and the ‘journey’ through the emotions and facets of life could be more clearly defined. But these are quibbles about an act that is still at its formative stage, with the potential to explore so many possibilities in terms of material and style. As Girl Talk evolves, it will be fascinating to see how their characters evolve within the context of the show, and strike sparks off each other. If these women come to your town, don’t miss the chance to see them. They’re a class act.

Concert review: Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw at Fleece Jazz (Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club), 26th March 2011

26 Mar
The Abbey Road Sessions: Ian Shaw’s new album explored

Mari Wilson: far from common (picture by John Haxby)

As double acts go, they don’t come much more dynamic than Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw, who dusted Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club’s Garden Room last night with a touch of glamour, a smattering of camp asides, the odd ribald show-business tale and, above all, majestic vocal talents that temporarily made this unpromising venue feel like the epicentre of musical sophistication.

Old friends and occasional collaborators they might be. But their Fleece Jazz gig only came about at the eleventh hour – Adrian York, Mari’s regular pianist and co-writer having been taken ill the previous weekend. Shaw stepped into the breach with alacrity, consummate keyboard skills and that resonant voice that swings absorbingly between husky soulfulness and the yearning ache of a consummate male torch singer.

Despite Mari’s request to bear with their lack of preparation, they were so obviously – and professionally – at ease with each other’s musical strengths and instincts that on the rare occasion that meltdown threatened (most hysterically as improvisation came to the rescue when the lyrics deserted them for “Something Stupid” at the start of the second set), they readily pulled themselves back from the brink.

There was a comically awkward start: the room was long and when they were introduced, they were so far back that by the time they actually arrived, the audience’s greeting had petered out. “The applause grew as the artists reached the stage,” joked Shaw with just the right hint of acid, and we knew we’d have to be on our mettle as they batted anecdotes and memories to and fro between songs. “Whoop as much as you like,” said Mari. “We don’t mind – we’re common”. But in truth there was nothing common about the two sets that followed.

Shaw’s jazz-accented playing, always sympathetic to Wilson’s fluid, smooth phrasing, also spurred her to invention. By the end of the evening, she was letting fly with some exhilarating gospel-tinged soul riffs. In a recent interview, she told me that “Cry Me A River” – pretty much her signature song – was, like any one of those well structured, well-written standards, the musical equivalent of a football pitch. Its lyrical truths allow the singer to take it and try it out in any direction. Last night, she took it out to the left field with some dazzling extemporisation, steered by Shaw’s ominous, subdued accompaniment. It was as fine an interpretation as you’re ever likely to hear.

Mari Wilson sings “Cry Me a River” at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2010

But there were numerous other highlights. “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (which Wilson sung as the theme to the BBC comedy Coupling), “Just What I Always Wanted” (her biggest chart hit from the 1980s, key helpfully lowered by Shaw, revealing that it remains one of the era’s best crafted pop songs) and “My Love” (an interpretation of touching emotional maturity), all demonstrated what an accomplished singer she is these days. So, too, did a couple of Dusty Springfield numbers – “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten” and “Son of a Preacher Man” – in which, while paying homage to an all-time-great, she triumphantly applied her own nuances and melodic lines. No ghosts were invited to this party.

From time to time, she retreated to a corner of the stage. We were, as she pointed out, getting two for the price of one, and Shaw seized his moments with grace and vocal power – particularly for a resonant “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (sung as a retort to Wilson’s “Be My Baby”) and an extraordinary version of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia”, which had the entire room transfixed by its beauty and eloquence.

It might have been “thrown together” as Mari put it, but this was a memorable evening, defined by the innate class of two performers at the top of their respective trees.

Joni Mitchell singing Amelia in 1983

CD Review – Helena Blackman: The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein

16 Mar

Helena Blackman sings “If I Loved You” live at The Kings Theatre, Portsmouth

Helena Blackman: pretty in pink and commanding of voice

Helena Blackman might have been the runner-up in the BBC’s 2005 quest to find a Maria for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revival of The Sound of Music. But as her debut album, The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein, reveals, she was never going to settle for perennial bridesmaid status.

The diversity of Blackman’s CV since her television talent show days is telling, and suggests that coming first is far from everything. Connie Fisher was such a quintessential Maria that she was the only possible winner – and consequently seems destined to play the role on the road forever. Similarly, it’s hard to see I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger playing anything other than variations on her hearty Nancy, while runner-up Jessie Buckley has, like Blackman, developed a potentially stellar career as a singer and actor based on the breadth and variety of her talents.

That said, I must confess that I approached The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein with somewhat muted enthusiasm, simply because there are more than half a century’s worth of similar anthologies out there. Do we really need another one?

Well yes, it turns out that we do. Blackman’s producers, Neil Eckersley and Paul Spicer, and conductor Mike Dixon, have treated her to a substantial orchestra – much bigger than you’ll find in the average West End pit today. And yet the playing of Richard Rodgers’ soaring melodies is so restrained and sympathetic that the songs emerge as chamber pieces, clear and nuanced, with Blackman in commanding form as she traces their underlying emotional content with obvious pleasure, as if she’s discovering treasure in each line.

With a pure soprano voice that would easily straddle the divide between operetta and musical theatre, she’s something of a throwback to a golden age of pre-pop performers who knew all about lyrical interpretation and melodic lines.

At the same time, and supported here by some sharp, pared down arrangements, she’s quite capable of giving a refreshing twist to familiar material without resorting to contemporary vocal gimmicks. “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” becomes an unexpectedly modern, gentle piece of introspection, for example, and the wistful “Love Look Away” is beautifully reinvented as a stately ballad, delivered with controlled power.

If the track list contains no real surprises, the real delight is to hear Hammerstein’s words and phrases delivered with such crystal eloquence. There are duets with Jonathan Ansell (“I Have Dreamed”) and Daniel Boys (a profoundly romantic “People Will Say We’re in Love”). The album is book-ended by numbers from The Sound of Music,“I Have Confidence” and that ripe, wise old anthem, “Climb Every Mountain” – perhaps not an obvious choice for a singer whose voice rings with youthful clarity but it’s an unbeatable show stopper to end on and Blackman proves herself more than equal to the task.

In between, other highlights include characterful stalwarts like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair”, “Some Enchanted Evening” and a splendid “The Gentleman is a Dope”.

CD Review – Clare Teal: Hey Ho

3 Mar

Tea for Two: an up tempo number from Clare Teal shows her vocal prowess but as Hey Ho shows, she can slow it down to great effect

Hey Ho: celebrates the glorious diversity of British song writing and is one of Teal's best albums to date

For a no-nonsense, hearty Yorkshire lass, Clare Teal has the uncanny knack of triggering all kinds of unexpected emotions as she peals back the layers of even the hoariest old chestnut. At least twice as I put her jauntily titled new album Hey Ho through its first couple of spins, I realised my tear ducts had responded instinctively to the uncluttered honesty she brings to a ballad, as she cuts through the basic sentimentality of the lyrics and catches you unaware with something fresh and current.

And while there is plenty of up tempo fun to be had here, not least in the Latin beats of Teal’s take on “It’s Not Unusual” – a radical makeover for Tom Jones’s signature song – and “Sing it Back”, or a sultry, laid-back “Feeling Good”, it is her treatment of the ballads that lingers longest in the mind, provocative and challenging.

Hey Ho has been conceived and compiled thoughtfully, with a dash of inspirational boldness, to celebrate great British song writing, dusting the numbers with the lightest of jazz touches in the process. How Noel Coward or Ivor Novello, let alone W. B. Yeats (present courtesy of Herbert Hughes’ setting of his poem, “Down by the Sally Gardens”) would have felt rubbing shoulders with Annie Lennox, Snow Patrol or Moloko is anybody’s guess. All that matters is that here, Teal and her collaborators have identified the common threads that run through some of their most lovedsongs and come up with a musical tapestry that does them all proud.

A lilting and poignant version of Coward’s “If Love Were All” opens proceedings, touching in its exploration of some basic human truths and the reduction of the entertainer’s art to a simple talent to amuse. Time and again, Teal returns to similar introspection and commentary as she tackles “Why” with a softness that makes for a fascinating contrast with the basilisk coldness of Lennox’s original, and “Chasing Cars” with an intimacy that finds startling simplicity at the heart of Snow Patrol’s anthem. “Try a Little Tenderness” and Cleo Laine’s “He Was Beautiful” are achingly sad and dazzling in their clarity.

But for me – and the cause of my misty eyes – the vocal fluency of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and the final track, “We’ll Gather Lilacs”, sum up what this album is all about. There is nothing halting or reticent about Teal’s delivery on these gentle, restrained tracks; just the assuredness of a singer at the peak of her powers. When she opens up her throat, the warmth of her timbre is like the sun coming out. And to make Novello’s lilacs sound completely relevant and immediate in 2011 is a triumph. With only a piano for accompaniment, she makes the song glow with meaning.

Credit must also go to pianist Grant Windsor for his production and musical arrangements, and to Teal’s musicians who include guitarist Femi Temowo and, on “Love is The Sweetest Thing”, stellar saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.

Teal wears her talent with the down-to-earth characteristics of her home county. She once told me in an interview that she was finding her success “Mad as cheese”. With an album of this quality to add to her already distinguished resumé, those flavours should be ripening very nicely by now. Hey Ho is one of her best yet.

CD Review – Tamela D’Amico: Got a Little Story

3 Mar

And I Love Him: D’Amico in the studio, showing off her risky phrasing

Tamela D’Amico is no mere canary or foil for the big band. She has one of those voices that doesn’t sidle shyly up and ask respectfully for your attention. It swoops in and insists that you listen. One minute it’s powerful and keening. The next it’s intimate and conversational, in half-past midnight mode, cards on the table time.

Got a Little Story: the work of a formidable song stylist

Her debut album Got A Little Story is a swinging, fluid collection of standards, punctuated with a bit of Lennon and McCartney, Harry Connick, Jr. and Ann Hampton Callaway – the latter cited by D’Amico in her thank-you notes and clearly a modern inspiration to match the greats of yesteryear who also get a mention.

The whole production exudes a sumptuous glamour thanks to a sizeable orchestra of top-flight instrumentalists – one or two are given solos – which, under Chris Walden’s baton, cradles D’Amico’s multiple vocal shades in soothing strings, appropriately brassy horns and the subtle, easy touch of Jim Cox on the piano.

She proves herself a formidable song stylist. Every word is audible, a rarity for a singer who lives so much in the upper register. And she is risky to the point of audacity in her phrasing. Imagine Billie Holiday singing “And I Love Him” and you’ll get the idea. D’Amico combines the instincts and hard-earned musical sensibilities of her heroines with a touch of Broadway verve and a contemporary technique in such a way that you never feel you’re being treated to just another nostalgia trip.

She may not share Peggy Lee’s small, husky vibrato – D’Amico’s voice is an altogether different instrument – but she pays homage to another big influence with a swinging, unfussy “He’s a Tramp”, letting the lyrics lead the way. Other up tempo numbers like “The Gentleman is a Dope” and the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed” zing with vitality, while Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby” and “When October Goes” (Mercer again, this time with Barry Manilow) are layered with resignation and a restrained hint of melancholy. Likewise, a swirling, jazzy take on Callaway’s “Perfect”, which brings the album to a poignant close like a wistful sigh.

Not on this album but also worth a listen is D’Amico’s most recent recording of “Down With Love”.

Theatre Review: End of the Rainbow (Trafalgar Studios, London)

9 Jan

A trailer full of plaudits for Tracie Bennett – with a tantalising snippet of “Over the Rainbow”

Tracie Bennett: inhabits the role of Judy Garland with assurance and commitment

Two triumphant aspects dominate End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s play-with -music that explores Judy Garland’s turbulent season at London’s Talk of the Town in 1968, months before her death, whose run at the Trafalgar Studios has been extended to April.

The first is Tracie Bennett’s visceral, committed performance as the brittle icon nearing the end of a tether already frayed to breaking point. Bennett inhabits the role with tremendous assurance, layering the multiple nuances between fragile hope and bleak despair with such brilliance that you leave the theatre exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure.

She leads a two-hour guided tour of the ravaged landscape of Garland’s pharmaceutically ravaged psyche, veering from brazen diva-dom to wretched neediness via a clawing desperation, without resorting to a single gimmick or clichéd gesture. And that’s just the acting.

When the back wall of William Dudley’s fantastically evocative set – an expensively vulgar, late 1960s Ritzy hotel suite – rises to reveal the band, it becomes the Talk of the Town stage. And Bennett is also revealed as a superb singer, conjuring the throaty Garland vibrato with such uncanny accuracy that at the height of many of the numbers, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play about a long-dead show business superstar.

In this, she is helped immeasurably by Terry Johnson’s meticulous direction and the musical supervision of Gareth Valentine, who discretely helms the band while Garland’s conductor and accompanist Anthony (a nice turn by Hilton McRae, his sympathy for the fading star ebbing torturously away as she becomes ever more unreasonable) effects control on stage.

Using Chris Egan’s sympathetic arrangements with flair, Valentine whips up the authentic sense of a Talk of the Town band of the time, its slightly desperate bounce and verve signifying the authentic struggle for attention over the clatter of cutlery, the chatter of the audience and constant popping of champagne corks – and the battle to keep pace with the capricious demands of the volatile performer they were obliged to serve.

The play is peppered with a selection of Garland classics: “The Trolley Song” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” are typically frantic moments for the band, while “The Man That Got Away”, the inevitable “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the defiant “By Myself” give Bennett the chance to extend her performance into the stratosphere. Despite the bang-on-target timbre, at no point is this ever an impersonation or a tribute. You won’t find a more complete dramatic interpretation anywhere on the West End stage.

Judy Garland in her final months: a problem subject for playrights

All of which helps to disguise some weaker moments in the play itself. Garland herself is a huge part of the problem. The histrionics, the unstable behaviour, the drink and the drugs, are all so well known that there is nothing new to say about them. Genuine revelations about Garland’s plight are well nigh impossible, and the play’s point occasionally becomes muddled. A previous attempt by Terry Wale in 1986 to dramatise her life (Judy at the Strand Theatre) stumbled in the same way, although it featured an equally compelling and award-winning performance by Lesley Mackie in the title role.

Peter Quilter’s decision to focus on such a specific moment towards the end of Garland’s life, making it a metaphor for all her trials, might have been more effectively served by a monologue in the Piaf mould.

The characters of Anthony – a kind of everyman figure who represents kindness, reason and ultimately, abandonment (most of Garland’s friends necessarily chose self-preservation in the end) – and Mickey Deans, her fifth husband, who was with Garland at the end, are rarely more than ciphers for Garland to fence with. And in the end, she was mainly fencing with herself. Deans, in particular, remains a shadowy character whose influence on Garland as her talent and life drained away could take more scrutiny than End of the Rainbow allows. So, too, could her relationship with her audience – by this stage in her career frequently combative and abrasive, with an unhealthy dash of sadism on both sides.

But if the play isn’t always quite the thing, Tracie Bennett certainly is. Her performance alone is worth the price of a plane ticket and a hotel in town. And with an album of songs from the show in the pipeline, this role places her fairly and squarely on the top rung of musical and dramatic stage actors. Whether you are a Garland fan or not, catch her while you can.

CD Review – Sondheim on Sondheim: Original Broadway Cast

6 Jan

Montage from last year’s Broadway production of Sondheim on Sondheim

The following review also appears in the current issue of The Sondheim Society’s magazine. A London production of the show is anticipated for 2011.

Sondheim on Sondheim: a welcome new approach to revues based on the Broadway composer's work

Does Stephen Sondheim really play pinball on his Mac when the muse doesn’t show up? The sound effects during one of the recorded asides that punctuate “God”, a witty, self-deprecatory number written specially for Sondheim on Sondheim certainly suggest it. I hope it’s true because if he relies on the odd bit of displacement activity – and a vodka shot or two – to get his writing gear working, it would make the rest of us see all the hours we spend procrastinating, dawdling and daydreaming in a much more positive light.

 Such revelations pepper the revue, which arrived on Broadway to coincide with Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebrations last April and has been preserved in a two-disk original cast recording that artfully balances entertainment with documentary. And in many ways, they are among the bravest and most revelatory comments he has ever publicly made about himself as a human being and a working artist.

There is an intimacy about his observations that is far more profound than anything Jude Kelly managed to extract, for example, during their interview at the Royal Festival Hall in October. This alone makes for a listening experience that, while completely different from seeing the production at first hand, is compelling –and often touching – in its own right.

On stage, Sondheim’s narration was conveyed through specially filmed interview footage presented on numerous flat-panel screens so that he became a fully integrated character, acknowledged by the performers who could interact with him at several key moments. In a purely aural medium, his commentary inevitably becomes more detached. But thanks to producer Tommy Krasker, a veteran of 14 Sondheim cast recordings, there are still moments of connection that make you blink at the loudspeakers in wonder, not least the final number – “Anyone Can Whistle” – in which you’re suddenly aware that a new singing voice has joined the eight-strong cast for the last stanza; it’s Steve himself, tentatively suggesting that if we whistle, we could do so for him.

If this is showbiz sentimentality, it’s of the highest order and repeated listening doesn’t diminish the impact, coming as it does after Sondheim has analysed his love of theatrical collaboration as compensation for the lack of family life that blighted his youth. As he explains during the course of his commentary, his songs are character and situation based. They are not autobiographical. And yet for those who know and love his work, it’s impossible at certain moments while listening to Sondheim on Sondheim to escape the sense of an artist reaching out to his audience in search of understanding and affection.

“Anyone Can Whistle” is the culmination of a revue that is presented as memoir rather than chronological autobiography. Themes and artistic challenges rather than specific events are the triggers for many of Sondheim’s observations. All that has been important in his life – personal as well as creative – is alluded to.

Important influences and collaborators – Oscar Hammerstein II, Hal Prince, Mary Rodgers – are celebrated. Sondheim’s difficult relationship with his mother is pithily summarised, its long-term ramifications acknowledged. The revelation that he first fell in love at 60 comes almost casually, sandwiched between the charming “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (Bounce) and numbers from Passion, by any standards one of his most emotionally intense pieces.

The songs, carefully culled, interspersed and, occasionally, amalgamated in telling medleys (never more poignantly than the combination of two of his most dazzling torch songs “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By”), become a commentary on Sondheim’s narration. And as has become traditional with a Sondheim anthology, the show’s creator and director James Lapine seizes the chance to raid the archives for songs that were eventually replaced in original productions or revivals. This time, Company proves a fascinating source, the tale of its three endings serving as an excuse to revive two complex numbers: “The Wedding is Off” and “Happily Ever After” (which evolved into “Being Alive”) are worth hearing again, even if they also confirm that sometimes a producer’s reservations about a particular song are spot on.

With great economy, Sondheim describes the process of artistic creation, demystifying his own contribution as part of a collaborative effort, explaining that his work is not self-referential, but that writes for the specific circumstances of a character at that particular moment in the story. “God” is a delicious deconstruction of his own myth, poking gentle fun at his detractors and supporters alike.

It’s ironic that the biggest star of this cast recording is the recorded voice of the show’s central character when the hard work is done by the performers who bring the songs to life with some lightly scripted joshing and interplay that helps to maintain the loose sense of a developing story.

Barbara Cook: one of the wonders of Broadway

Chief among them is Barbara Cook, whose voice remains one of the wonders of Broadway. It might be thickening now in the middle register but the soaring beauty of one of musical theatre’s great sopranos remains a potent force, serving some of Sondheim’s signature numbers – “Not a Day Goes By”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Take Me to the World” and two of Fosca’s ominous, brooding soliloquies “I Read” and “Loving You” – with supremely intelligent interpretations.

Vanessa Williams is under used on the album, although she contributes a rich, creamy “Losing My Mind”. Among the male voices, Tom Wopat delivers a stunning “Finishing the Hat”, Norm Lewis wrings every sliver of meaning from “Being Alive” and Euan Morton brings the developing writer’s dilemma to life in “Franklin Shepard, Inc”.

Sondheim on Sondheim is an expertly produced double album that complements rather than replicates the original stage production. Michael Starobin’s orchestrations are restrained and elegant, supporting some shimmering ensemble work, so that the overall effect is of a holistic collage rather than a staccato series of standalone numbers. This sets it apart from most previous revue-style anthologies and in many ways harks back to the purity and simplicity of that original pioneer piece, Side by Side by Sondheim, albeit with a 21st century angle on the material.

There are some omissions, from the recording at least. Pacific Overtures, one of Sondheim’s most challenging and rewarding pieces, is never mentioned. More puzzling, neither is Sweeney Todd. Given that it is one of his most popular and frequently revived musicals, this seems odd and as the final chords die away, there is inevitably a nagging sense of something missing. But even without the demon barber, Sondheim on Sondheim is a fitting 80th birthday addition to the library of recordings of his work – and one of the best of its kind.

CD Review – Emma Dean: Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret

26 Dec

“Sincerely Fearful”: a track from Emma Dean’s new album, Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret

Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret: a record with huge ambitions

I know it makes me a failure on so many levels as a gay man but I’ve never really understood the Kylie phenomenon. Those Stock, Aitken and Waterman years were anathema to me. And give or take a couple of genuinely interesting floor fillers since then – and the lady’s occasional flirtations with jazz and Nick Cave – I’ve always found that tiny sliver of a voice totally at odds with her diva status and the outrageous production values of her arena tours. For such a small talent, she’s had a spectacular career. But now that she’s post-40 and has successfully battled breast cancer, she has also earned her ‘show-business survivor’ stripes. So good luck to her, I guess.

Emma Dean is something altogether different: bold, edgy, clearly determined to plough her own creative furrow and to hell with the consequences, and possessed of a raw, outsize talent that will take some steering. And with a new album – Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret – just out, she is in pole position to be Australia’s next big cultural export.
 
This is a record with huge ambitions – epic arrangements (catch those strings on “Sharks”), swooping vocals (that have had some critics reaching yet again for Kate Bush comparisons), lyrics that plunge with vertigo-inducing speed from existential streams of consciousness to the gut punch of rock balladry and the occasional crude verbal laceration.
 
Dean herself says, “It’s [the album] about letting go of all the things I’m normally too afraid and ashamed to speak of and unashamedly airing them in song.” If you have sensitive pretentiousness antennae, they’re probably twitching already. And the album’s concept – Dean spilling the contents of her sub-conscious to the eponymous Dr Dream – is no small hurdle, for a start. But once you get beyond that and start listening to the words, the cascade of characters, dark tales, threats, dangers and sensual motifs, is innovative and promising.
 
It’s a long while since I heard a lyric as challenging as: “Once a thieving scoundrel dared me to steal your underwear. The silk did trickle down your legs to your ankles pink as pigs,” the opening lines to the hymn-like “Thieving Hearts”.
 
Can’t get her out of my head? Well Dean is certainly a bold and refreshing new voice, and there are several tracks I’ll happily have on my iPod. To be honest, I don’t get Kate Bush so much as Sparks (“Sincerely Fearful”) with a dash of  Tori Amos and Berlin cabaret. Dean’s fascinating vocal texture also reminds me very much of Melinda Miel, a performer of dark, bloodstained cabaret material, who captured the imagination of London’s club scene all too briefly in the early 1990s.
 
 
Melinda Miel sings “Delirium’s Mistress”: dark, bloodstained cabaret from the early 1990s
  
Dean has combined idiosyncrasy and a strong, fetishistic visual impact with a promisingly commercial sound, epitomised by one of the best tracks, the anthemic “Thunder”.
 
At the same time, this points to another hurdle: Dr Dream is a character from her alternative cabaret show, and there is sometimes a sense with the album that the listening experience is only giving you half the story. Not all the songs are wholly effective in a pure audio format. So hopefully, she’ll soon be following that well-trodden path to London and we’ll get the chance to see and hear the complete picture.
Meanwhile, if you’re going to be in Australia this summer, you can catch her as Sally Bowles in Zen Zen Xo Physical Theatre’s production of Cabaret in Brisbane.

CD Review – Renée Yoxon: Let’s Call it a Day; plus news of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Girl Talk, Marianne Faithfull and a Sondheim cabaret season

24 Dec

Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!

Wilson, Jungr and Herbert: the new Girl Talk line-up hits London in February

Congratulations to Barb Jungr, whose album The Men I Love has just been named Cabaret CD of the Year by Time Out New York.

Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.

Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.

Horses & High Heels: Marianne Faithfull's new album, out in March

Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.

Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.

Let's Call it a Day: an auspicious debut from Renée Yoxon

Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.

It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.

Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.

Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.

If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.

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.