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CD Review – Signe Tollefsen

1 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CD Review – Julie Atherton: No Space for Air

16 Nov

Julie Atherton: a rocking live performance of “Blind” from her new album, No Space for Air

A closer look at Julie Atherton’s new album in a second. But first… Producers of the mooted 2011 London Follies revival apparently don’t think Bernadette Peters is sufficiently “box office” to carry a production on this side of the Atlantic. So murmurs the rumour mill. Ye gods. Here is one of the great leading ladies of our time – sure, a superstar on Broadway, but also a performer whose status and reputation is global as far as anybody who knows anything about musical theatre is concerned. And she is a luminary among actors who have specialised in Sondheim. You can’t buy the kind of gold dust she would sprinkle across the West End.

Never mind. Let’s wait 10 years. Then Dannii Minogue can give us her Sally, Cheryl Cole can step up to the plate as Phyllis, Susan Boyle’s “Broadway Baby” can raise the roof and Amanda Holden can summon her acting skills to deliver “I’m Still Here” with all the dramatic irony she can muster. And we’ll have the television audience-friendly Follies we apparently deserve. I can hardly wait. So I’ll probably curb my impatience with a trip to Washington DC in the spring, where Peters is scheduled to be a fascinating Sally, and Elaine Page will appear as Carlotta Campion, US producers apparently still being able to think outside the box just a little.

No Space for Air: a fascinating collection of modern pop and theatre songs

Julie Atherton will be a prime candidate to play Sally if there’s a revival to mark Sondheim’s centenary in 2030 – although she’d better make sure she’s got a television profile by then or she’ll have a tough job convincing the impresarios of the future.

Atherton is one of a handful of young West End leading ladies who composers would have been queuing up to write parts for in the old days. She’s a veteran of the cult hit Avenue Q and in the age of juke box musical dominance, through her involvement with the Notes From New York project, she consistently does her bit to promote new musical work in London.

When I saw her in their production of Jason Robert Brown’s chamber piece The Last Five Years last summer, it was clear that she was the genuine article: an actor with the instinctive ability to interpret lyrics in character so that they become part of the dialogue. Even so, I approached her new album, No Space For Air, with some trepidation. Musical actors ‘doing’ pop can be wince-inducing; I refer you to some of John Barrowman’s big finale numbers on the BBC’s Tonight’s the Night.

But Julie Atherton rocks. This modern, thoughtful collection of songs – produced with obvious attention to detail – is provactive and inspiring by turns. There are a couple of theatrical numbers: the tricky tale of “Lost in Translations” from Craig Adams’s Lift; and the most radical reworking of Sondheim’s Follies torch song “Losing My Mind” since Liza Minnelli’s 1989 electric disco collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys. But the bulk of the material is from the pens of edgy, contemporary songwriters like Mark Tremonti (“Broken Wings”) and Jake Hook (“Silent Whispers”).

Atherton is well served by arranger and pianist Craig Adams, with a string quartet adding some evocative accents to the pristine sound of the band. She launches into the opening track, “Weak”, with a cross between Emmylou Harris’s crystalline soprano and the finer emotive qualities of Celine Dion, sweet, country-flavoured tones shot through with moments of controlled power. The effect is exhilarating.

“Crawling” matches anything else on offer from the current clutch of young female artists. Atherton’s ability to inhabit a song and tell its story with emotional conviction but none of the artifice that so many singers rely on – let’s call it the curse of X Factor – is refreshing. She switches in a breath from subtle and gentle (“Never Saw Blue Like That”) to quirky and vulnerable (Tori Amos’s “Leather”).

The title of “Encore”, technically the last track on the album, raises the prospect of theatrical resonance but turns all such expectations on their head with a soaring exhortation to live in the present. But leave the disk on the player for a hidden treat: Atherton’s poignant take on the John Denver classic “Annie’s Song”.

Torch Songs Aplenty Promised at the Pheasantry

16 Jun

Jessie Buckley and the Joe Thompson Trio: More Than You Know

Claire Martin: jazz royalty heading for The Pheasantry (picture by Kate Eastman)

After the will they, won’t they confusion surrounding the demise of cabaret venue Pizza on the Park – it will definitely close for the last time on Saturday – it’s all systems go at the new location, The Pheasantry in Chelsea’s King’s Road.

Producer Samuel Joseph has switched his programme to The Pheasantry and the good news for torch-song fans is that it offers plenty to look forward to throughout the summer.

Jessie Buckley – an Art of the Torch Singer favourite since I saw her at Pizza in March, and judging by the number of visits you’ve made to that review, I’m not alone! (the uninitiated should click on the video link above) – kicks things off on Saturday 26th June.

If she and pianist Joe Thompson don’t bring the house down with “More Than You Know” and “The Man That Got Away”, I’ll be very surprised.

Then, from 30th June to 3rd July, British jazz royalty in the form of Claire Martin and her trusty accomplice, composer and pianist Richard Rodney Bennett, will deliver their trademark mixture of effortless swinging and emotional subtlety for a short run.

Jessie will be followed by more West End talent, including Avenue Q’s Cassidy Janson (4th July), Kelly Price (18th July), and Shona White (25th July) – who should all be burning up a few torch numbers along the way.

Art of the Torch Singer hopes to make it to some of these gigs and I’ll report back from what is clearly going to be London’s cabaret hot spot. Here’s hoping for some sultry summer nights to match the music.