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Album review – Emily Smith: Echoes

16 Aug

“My Darling Boy”: Emily Smith explores a new Scottish sound

Echoes: Emily Smith pushes at the boundaries of genre and interpretation

Echoes: Emily Smith pushes at the boundaries of genre and interpretation

Emily Smith has the kind of kind of voice that makes an effortless bridge between traditional folk and the moodier, noir-ish tropes of today’s folk idiom. And she’s in great company. From Ange Hardy and Lucy Ward to Eliza Carthy and Kathryn Williams, we are living in a golden age of young female singers who are constantly pushing at the boundaries of genre and interpretation, creating fresh sounds that are rooted in the ancient craft of telling richly textured stories in song.

Smith’s latest album, Echoes, is a case in point – a collection of 10 traditional and contemporary Scottish songs reinvented with a 21st-century sophistication that honours the heritage they represent while hinting at the growing influence of Americana and the great troubadours of our time.

 For a second, the twanging guitar that heralds the opening track, “Reres Hill”, seems determined to drop you somewhere in the heat of the Deep South before the Celtic harmonies sweep you back to Caledonia. The arrangements are lush and plangent, the pace assured and the emotional connection between the voice and material is insistent and compelling.

Smith describes the album as heralding a “new Scottish sound” – and Echoes has the discrete confidence of a singer who is completely at ease with the organic arc of a career that has come a long way in the decade and more since she was crowned BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year.

There is an aching beauty in her phrasing, underpinned by the playing of a great band of guest musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan and Rory Butler, which frequently tugs at the heartstrings  with a visceral urgency. The range of the material is absorbing, from the intimate tale of “The Sower’s Song” to the epic legend of “King Orfeo”, from the poignant account of “The Final Trawl” to the deceptive jauntiness of “Twa Sisters” – a story that ends in murder.

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Album review – Silje Leirvik: Endless Serenade

12 Feb

Silver & Gold: the throbbing undertow of Silje Leirvik’s songs would grace the soundtrack of any psychodrama

Endless Serenade: epic songs which offer more than a clichéd view of Scandivian bleakness

Endless Serenade: epic songs which offer more than a clichéd view of Scandinavian bleakness

The huge British appetite for Nordic Noir TV has tended to distract attention from another, more subtle cultural invasion: the rise of the Scandinavian singer/songwriter. Or, more specifically, the rise of the female Scandinavian singer/songwriter.

The throbbing undertow of Norwegian Silje Leirvik’s new album Endless Serenade would grace the soundtrack of any psychodrama, Scandic or otherwise. But there is much more to this rich collection of epic songs than inscrutable bleakness. Complex in theme and structure, they navigate shifting moods, ideas that morph tantalisingly in new directions just when you think you have them in your grasp.

With producer Rhys Marsh, Leirvik has experimented with tape delay machines, which gives a grainy, textured quality to the electro backing, peppered with pedal steel guitar. Her voice dances and soars above the almost industrial pulse of the reverb (shades of Sweden’s Anna von Hausswolff) as she steers a fascinating course between symphonic ballads (“Glass of Water”), folk-tinged stories (“Leah’s Song”) and sophisticated pop (the single “Silver & Gold”).

Like her compatriot, Anne Marie Almedal, Leirvik is too sophisticated a musician to be filed neatly under a generic label of Northern melancholy. Her lyrics are less rooted in landscape but there are edginess and dark moments of contemplation aplenty, balanced by passages of ethereal beauty and revelation when she discovers fresh truths about the opaque nature of love (“And Then Love Came” and the gently ironic, gritty “Serenade”).

All of the tracks are sung in English, with the exception of “Snø”, a lush ballad with a sweeping, cinematic feel which builds to a muted crescendo on a flute-and-drum backing. Leirvik’s vocals reach a compelling peak in her native language but they are glorious throughout, never more so than in the gentle, flowing “The Last Dance”.

Album review – Sara Syms: Fade to Blue

21 Dec

Dance on my Grave: Sara Syms offers a bleakly lilting invitation

Fade to Blue: Sara Syms is honest, thoughtful musical company

Fade to Blue: Sara Syms is honest, thoughtful musical company

With Fade to Blue, Chicago-born Sara Syms has produced a debut album steeped in Americana. It’s a heady mix of blues-tinged roots, with dashes of bluegrass and jazz, which reflects the diversity of her influences, including Patty Griffin, but is also an emphatic statement of musical independence.

From the storming “Devil Came Around”, through the bleakly lilting “Dance on My Grave”, to the lyrical sensuality of the title track and the irresistible hook of “Waves Crashing”, Syms and her song-writing partner Lynn Verlayne have crafted a rich aural patchwork of numbers.

Each song draws on the insight of experience and explores the many complexities and shades of relationships. These are not the laments of the romantic victim so much as a quest for affirmation and clarity, acknowledging that when it comes to love, nothing is ever simply black and white. Sometimes, as Syms sings in “Free”, you just have to borrow a silver lining.

“Someday” and “Gypsy Dreams” are two songs about longing from different angles, the first bittersweet and hopeful, the second hinting at the exotic distractions of a romance based on fantasy. “One Last Hit” is a suite of fables about the destructive power of addiction, while the sad, poignant beauty of “To Be in Love” explores what we’re missing if we don’t live in the moment.

Fade to Blue is an assured debut album, and an intimate take on universal themes. Syms is thoughtful, honest and touching musical company – never more so than on the final track, with its uncluttered realisation that “All We Have is Now”.

Album review – Nynke: Alter

8 May

How Alter was made: Javier Limón and Nynke at work

Alter: Nynke blends northern and southern cadences to arresting effect

Alter: Nynke blends northern and southern cadences to arresting effect

I don’t know how many Frisian language albums have been released in the last ten years but I suspect that Nynke pretty much has the field to herself at the moment with Alter, a shimmering collection of self-penned songs that draw on many musical influences from beyond Friesland, her birthplace in the northern Netherlands.

Even to a non-speaker (there is a smattering of English to leaven the mix), her lyrics have a runic, poetic quality as they weave in and out of some fascinating rhythms. After a gentle, haunting start, the album comes fully to life with “Nei Hûs”, which announces itself with a Moorish chant before launching into a swirling epic against a backdrop of silvery guitars.  On the next track, “Foarsizzing”, the influences move north with a sprinkling of balalaika-like strings that sound positively Russian.

A hint of flamenco is never far away, and it’s no surprise to discover that Nynke’s collaborator-in-chief here is Javier Limón, head of the Mediterranean music department at  Berklee College of Music in Boston, who has also worked with Estrella Morente and Mariza. The sonic blend of northern and southern cadences is arresting, conjuring vivid geographical images that shift constantly, catching the listener off guard. Just when you think you’ve settled in one scene, Nynke’s pure voice sweeps you off to a new, undiscovered landscape.

The one English-language track, “Awaiting”, hints at the depth and melancholy of its Frisian companions. This isn’t quite Nordic noir but it definitely inhabits the sombre space between Mediterranean fire and inscrutable northern melancholy. On “Eftereach”, Nynke has the audacity to blend more feverish Flamenco guitars with an intoned Frisian poem, and the result washes over you like soothing water with an unexpected, icy kick.

Alter could be the most idiosyncratic album you’ll hear all year. Compare it with the splendours of next week’s Eurovision Song Contest and think how different the competition would be if everyone used it to explore their musical heritage in a similarly inventive way.

Album review – Karen Ruimy: Come With Me

8 May

Whisper: Karen Ruimy sets out on a voyage of discovery with a nearly-power ballad

Come With Me: North African beats meet flamenco and chanson in a hypnotic mash-up

Come With Me: North African beats meet flamenco and chanson in a hypnotic mash-up

Polyglot Karen Ruimy’s debut album, Come With Me, is so full of colliding influences that the more you listen to it, the harder it is to pin down exactly what sound she is striving for.  It’s a head-spinning mash-up of flamenco, chanson, trance and Arabic styles. But whether she’s singing in Arabic, French, Spanish or English, the overall effect is oddly compelling and soothing, evoking the chill-out fringes of Mediterranean club land one minute, sweeping desert vistas the next.

This is a sound the Israeli singer Ofra Haza pioneered in the late 1980s, fusing world music with strong electronic and pop rhythms. Joining forces with Youth and Justin Adams, Ruimy has given it a fresh gloss, writing mystical, meditative lyrics and setting them against an impressively international range of musical textures . “Come With Me” and “Fragile” have already been big club hits with their insistent, soaring hooks and contrapuntal beats.

Ruimy was born in Morocco, growing up there and in France. So when things quieten down on “Les Oiseaux” and “Mojave Moon”, it’s no surprise that she can also work the more conventional chanson style of influences such as Michel Berger and Véronique Sanson, delivering silky, meandering ballads with an understated assurance.

Towards the end of the album, this almost takes her into power ballad territory with “Traveller” and “Whisper”, although her chops aren’t robust enough to launch them fully into the stratosphere. Atmospheric, dreamy musing is more her comfort zone as she builds her vocal around hypnotic North African patterns with Flamenco notes,  as in “Sangré” and the chugging, trance-like title track.