Album review – Judith Owen: Ebb & Flow

30 Jun


I’ve Never Been to Texas: Judith Owen gives 1970s themes a contemporary touch

Ebb & Flow: much more than a tribute to the 1970s troubadours

Ebb & Flow: much more than a tribute to the 1970s troubadours

Forty years on, the early 1970s are increasingly seen as a golden age for the singer/songwriter and new generations are discovering the depth and creativity of performers who have long since ascended their own musical Mount Olympus. Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Carly Simon… the list of deities resonates with true greatness and their influence is keenly felt by today’s troubadours.

Listening to Judith Owen’s new album, Ebb & Flow, which is a self-confessed salute to their legacy, it is fascinating to hear just how much that influence reverberates with relevance. The hunger for thoughtful, personal, meaningful lyrics is greater than ever after a prolonged period in which pop’s dependence on production technology and sampling has seemed irreversible.

Owen has enlisted the help of several musicians who were key to the success of some of the totemic albums of the age, including drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. And there’s a poignant, unlisted nod to Carole King to catch the listener out at the end of the record.

But Ebb & Flow is only superficially a retro ‘tribute’ album. Owen has a consummate skill for referencing themes and riffs that evoke a 1970s spirit while remaining fresh and contemporary. Witness her deft handling of that hardy chestnut “In the Summertime”, which strips away the nonsense and becomes a rather touching, nostalgic skip down the memory lanes of youth.

Overall, however, the substance of the album is more than nostalgic. Loss and separation are the leitmotifs, with Owen seeking resolution and acceptance of the pain through graceful lyrics that explore the visceral impact of these experiences. Catharsis triumphs over anguish and agony, although the wounds remain. Nowhere is this crystallised more effectively than in the twin tracks that deal with the loss of her parents: the heart-stopping “I Would Give Anything” and “You are not There Anymore”.

The life of the troubadour provides the meat for songs like “Hey Mister, That’s me up on the Jukebox” and “I’ve Never Been to Texas”. Elsewhere, Owen takes good old-fashioned betrayal as a core theme and teases it into a couple of deceptively low-key, completely lacerating sets of lyrics (“You are not my Friend” and “Some Arrows go in Deep”).

Fluid and fluent, Ebb & Flow envelops you in its multi-tiered exploration of hard-learned lessons, in which realisation is never subsumed by bitterness. It’s a real grower.

Album Review – Fiona Bevan: Talk to Strangers

22 Jun


Fiona Bevan explains how Talk to Strangers is a reflection of her life

Talk to Strangers: timeless themes explored through eclectic forms and styles

Talk to Strangers: timeless themes explored through eclectic forms and styles

 

Given her pedigree as a songwriter and in-demand collaborator on a wide range of musical projects, it seems extraordinary that we are only now hailing Fiona Bevan’s debut album, Talk to Strangers.

The co-writer – with Ed Sheeran – of One Direction’s “Little Things”, Bevan also made a notable contribution to Gwyneth Herbert’s treasurable The Sea Cabinet song cycle. Like Herbert, she is a unique talent, capable of harnessing styles, riffs, hooks and melodies and spinning them into complete, multi-tiered and utterly absorbing stories.

The lyrics of these songs are scintillating. Bevan’s voice, with its flexibility and that helium shimmer at the top, is the perfect vehicle, treating them with a pop sensibility that seduces you, allowing the darker streaks and uncertainties to sneak up on you and pull you deep into the narrative labyrinth.

Don’t be fooled by the quick tempo of the opening tracks, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Slo Mo Tiger Glo”. Sinister underlying forces soon emerge, piercing the guitar-driven ballads with doubts and questions, not least in the pent-up rage of the “The Machine” and the pure sadness of “Dial D for Denial” – a break-up number that pitches torch-song lyrics against an up-beat melody to heart-wrenching effect.

The airy, wistful beauty of “Monsoon Sundance” provides some respite before things take another detour into the complex landscape of “Exorcist”, where jealousy eventually finds resolution, and the thoughtful title track – a cry for the power of human communication.

These are timeless themes, rendered in eclectic forms and styles that acknowledge Bevan’s cinematic and literary influences, while remaining proudly independent and resistant to categorisation.  The epic feel of the closing number – “Last Days of Decadence”, partly a response to the last financial crash – would resonate in any decade of the last 100 years.

Talk to Strangers is an ambitious piece of work. Bevan paints big, bold musical pictures. The joy of repeated listening lies in discovering the depth and detail which lie just beneath the surface.

Album review – Franka de Mille: Bridge the Roads

10 Jun


Fluid, assured and with an underlying catch of vulnerability: Franka de Mille sings “Gare du Nord” unplugged

Bridge the Roads: a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons

Bridge the Roads: a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons

The influence of the chanson doesn’t always cross easily into British musical sensibilities, which tend to favour a more ironic or cynical approach when it comes to exploring gut-wrenching emotion in song. But occasionally, a singer emerges who revels in the shape and form of an art-form with a commitment that transcends the reservations and embarrassments of tastes that might be more naturally drawn to the bleak introspection and political nuances of folk noir.

Franka de Mille’s album, Bridge the Roads, delivers such a revelation – a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons about separation, longing and atonement which disarm the listener with their honesty.
The lyrics don’t dissemble. Cradled by discreet strings, shimmering mandolins and yearning accordions, they spin raw tales of hurt in which the story-teller reaps the consequences of deception – not least in the album’s centrepiece, “Gare du Nord”, which details the devastation of parting with an existential frankness that harks back to Juliet Gréco at her most mesmerising.

Fluid and assured, with an underlying catch of vulnerability, de Mille’s voice is the perfect vehicle for a journey that begins with the upbeat, country-tinged incitement to “Come On” and the fiddle-enhanced self-realisation of “Fallen”, before things grow increasingly dark and contemplative with “Solo”, a lament that plays cleverly with the song title. “Birds”, punctuated by a wail of anguish that could come from the heart of the Balkans, later picked up in the visceral pain of “So Long”, is a deeply affecting exploration of a father/daughter relationship.

Occasionally, the sun shines through the gathering clouds, hinting at the possibility of healing from these bruising experiences: “Bridge the Roads” itself is a number which sets out the defiant promise of survival and resilience just in time. A complex, rewarding blend of European influences and evocative song-writing.

Radio interview: Piers Ford talking about torch singers and life as a jobbing journalist

4 Jun

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On 23rd May 2014, I was a sofa guest on BBC Radio Suffolk, chatting to Chrissie Jackson about this blog, among other things, and why there are plenty of female singers who deserve much greater media coverage – and why now is the right  time to get on with writing a book that’s been germinating for 20 years. This is a conversation-only version of the interview, with music and radio bits edited out (thanks to my brother, producer Julian Ford).

Album review – Barb Jungr: Hard Rain

9 May

The making of Hard Rain: Barb Jungr explains her passion for the songs of Dylan and Cohen

Hard Rain: confirms Barb Jungr as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours

Hard Rain: confirms Barb Jungr as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours

If Barb Jungr’s Hard Rain was a coin, one side would be dark-as-pitch bleak and the other would shimmer with uplifting golden sunshine. Few singers have her ability to interweave the extremes of life experience – often during the course of a single number – and make you smile even as a song line delivers a sobering emotional punch. And the effect has never been more powerful than on this sparkling new album – the first on her own label, Krystalyn Records – which finds her at the very peak of her vocal form.

The liberation of independence has given this Dylan/Cohen set a new, bold edge. Jungr’s voice has never sounded better, and Simon Wallace’s spacious, atmospheric arrangements give her a generous rein to explore the turbulent, brooding undercurrents of these formidable lyrics. Teasing rhythms and splashes of flute seduce the listener so that even a hardy annual like “Blowin’ in the Wind” shimmers with the discovery of new surprises.

“Who by Fire” becomes an understated, unsettling meditation, while “First We Take Manhattan” – Cohen’s subversive retort to the traditional American songbook – nails Jungr’s own stance as a singer equally at home in New York’s plush cabaret world and the earthier territory of the European chanson réaliste.

There’s an underlying fierceness in her interpretations that exploits the tension between Cohen’s philosophical, introspective lyrics and the more overtly political grit of Dylan’s songs. The devastating conversational narrative that defines “1000 Kisses Deep”, for example, is a fascinating companion for Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Chimes of Freedom”.

With Hard Rain, Jungr has confirmed her status as an important curator of the songs of the great 20th-century troubadours. Her gift for rendering them accessible to a wider audience – and I write as someone who would run a mile rather than sit down and listen to Bob Dylan snarl his way through one of his own numbers – gives them fresh contemporary relevance as songs for our times.

She has earned her place at the top table of influential singers, and it is bewildering that an appearance on the only popular music programme on British terrestrial television continues to elude her. If Hard Rain doesn’t earn her a place in the line-up for the current series of Later…  With Jools Holland, someone is missing a vital link.

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 – Anita Wardell: The Road

11 Feb

“But Not For Me”: Anita Wardell in recital with Ed Cherry (not on The Road)

The Road: Anita Wardell's lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

The Road: Anita Wardell’s lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

For every Jamie Cullum there are a dozen highly talented British jazz singers who beaver away on the circuit to the delight of the cognoscenti, making critically acclaimed albums and commanding the respect of their peers without the benefit of a profile that might bring a wider audience to hear them.

Anita Wardell is a case in point. With a career dating back to the 1990s, she has enjoyed more than two decades of success. Last year, she was pronounced Best Jazz Vocalist at the British Jazz Awards, leading a shortlist that indicated the sheer depth of talent in this diverse field (Claire Martin, Liane Carroll, Val Wiseman and Clare Teal).

She has earned an international reputation for the scat-singing which has become her trademark, as well as the sensitivity with which she handles ballads and standards, discovering fresh nuances in familiar lines with the lightness and flexibility of her touch. She is one of the most innovative performers on the scene, but she could probably stroll through the Soho heartland of London jazz unrecognised.

Perhaps she’s happy with that. But given the quality of her recent album The Road, it seems a crime that her name isn’t more widely known beyond the glass walls of the jazz world. And I say that as someone who isn’t the greatest fan of scatting. But only a tin ear could fail to appreciate her musicality and subtlety in this department – by no means the only skill on show on this exciting record.

Belying the rather bleak and wintry scene on the album’s cover, The Road ripples like a sophisticated summer evening, particularly in Wardell’s nimble treatment of “Frevo em Maceio” and “Voca e eu”, both redolent of warm Brazilian nights, and her distinctive handling of an old favourite, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”.

A Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays mash-up  of “Travels” and “The Road”, with Wardell’s own lyrics, sets the scene for a journey across some nicely-chosen terrain, which includes a sensuous “You’re My Thrill”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” and a thrilling take on “Without a Song”.

The highlight of the album is “With Every Breath I Take”, which Wardell turns into an elegant, thoughtful torch song. The way she holds the note on the word ‘break’ is a lesson in the virtue of restraint over grandstanding vocal gymnastics.

Album review – Lisa Cuthbert: Paramour

9 Feb

Party’s Over: edgy and constantly shifting

Paramour: an album with a howling sweep that gives vent to a universal agony

Paramour: an album with a howling sweep that gives vent to a universal agony

The ghastly, often brutal regime of the Magdalene Laundries – institutions to which Ireland’s ‘fallen’ women were consigned for more than 200 years, the last closing its doors unbelievably recently in 1996 – has understandably provided a rich, if grim, seam of inspiration for artists, writers and musicians.

Dublin-born singer/songwriter Lisa Cuthbert is the latest to give a voice of sorts to the thousands of unfortunate unmarried mothers, prostitutes and mentally ill women who suffered humiliation, virtual imprisonment, abuse and utter despair in these institutions that masqueraded as philanthropic houses of rehabilitation.

Her concept album – Paramour – is a dark journey through two centuries of almost gothic wretchedness, the historical context in which she places her characters being also studded with references to her own experiences at a convent school. The result is an angry, profoundly compassionate exploration of the lives led by these women, their precarious emotional resilience and survival, the desolation of their faith, and the viciousness of the nuns who ran the ‘laundries’.

There is a howling sweep to the album, which peaks regularly in rampaging swirls of rage as Cuthbert gives vent to the universal agony that it is too late to restore justice for these women. The damage runs deep, a cultural wound that is barely healed. From the opening track “Destitute”, the tone is set.

Occasionally its relentlessness borders on the excessive – but perhaps that is part of Cuthbert’s purpose: the listener’s submission to the cascade of intense rhythms, Cuthbert’s compelling, soaring vocals and chants, and the false peace promised by an insistent cello, is a metaphor for the helplessness of the fictional protagonists who populate Paramour.

There are also moments of real beauty – the heart-breaking “Gartan Mother’s Lullaby”, with its tinkling piano, children’s voices and the distant sound of artillery fire , the richness of “The Balancing Act”, the absorbing ballad “The Sooner You Know”, and even “Madame’s Secret Pain”, which suggests that things were not so black and white for the overseers of these institutions.

Is there absolution in the end? Not exactly. The edgy, shifting quality of the closing track, “Party’s Over”, draws a line of sorts, but the overwhelming weight of what’s gone before refuses to die away entirely. Paramour is an imposing and demanding piece of work – and a fitting tribute to generations of women whose lives were blighted beyond reason.

Album review – Kaz Simmons: Signs

8 Feb

For the Love of the Big L: Signs is a scintillating love letter to London

Signs: 'quirky' is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

Signs: ‘quirky’ is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

There are two stars of the show vying for top honours on Kaz Simmons’s new album Signs. The first is the singer/songwriter’s deceptively girlish voice, which weaves its way through this cycle of city tales with all the variety and flexibility of a seasoned jazz artist. The second is London itself, which emerges as an irresistible influence on her writing and is effectively the central character in a concept album that is far too mature in its themes and textures to be categorised with a glib ‘quirky’ label.

Simmons has raided the rich canyons of psychedelia for a sound that is also flecked with jazz, folk and show-tune references. The result is a constantly shifting musical landscape that evokes the sweeping pomp of symphonic prog rock one minute, a 1960s Marianne-Faithfull-Fitzrovia vibe the next. There’s even a hint of Sondheim when a slightly sinister organ undercuts a few bars of “London Loves” and briefly conjures Sweeney Todd.

This eclectic mixture might have overwhelmed the ambitions of a less assured musician. But Simmons has more than a decade’s experience as a session guitarist behind her, and this has clearly fuelled her dextrous ability to build unexpected bridges between different styles and techniques.

Take “I Know You”, which spreads like a pool of sunshine from its initial introspective folk idiom to an almost cinematic pan across the London skyline, encapsulating the frustratingly thin line between loneliness and a sense of belonging that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the British capital.

Similar tropes weave their way through “Your Love” and “For the Love of the Big L”, in which Simmons could equally well be singing about her intrinsically flawed relationship with the city as about an unreliable lover.  “We’re friendly people, honestly…” she insists, as her poetic lyrics pick their way through the complicated litter of urban humanity.

Occasionally, as on “London Loves” or the title track, people emerge from the cityscape – a parade of paramours with varying eye colours, each one more feckless than the last, and out-of-sync couples.

She has surrounded herself with a vibrant and sympathetic band, including guitarist Martin Kolarides, Will Bartlett (who is responsible for that edgy organ), drummer Tim Giles and Riaan Vosloo on bass.

The only cover is a sweetly melancholy take on the Pee Wee King pop classic “You Belong to Me”, which is calming balm after the frenetic, always-rewarding drama of the previous eight songs.

Signs is an album to have ringing in your headphones next time you set out for a stroll around the big L. Any other city might do at a pinch, but it is essentially a scintillating love letter to a place that exasperates and enthrals this singular talent (and anyone else who knows it) in equal measure.

Album review – Mary Hopkin: Painting by Numbers

7 Feb

Gold and Silver: a delicate and hypnotic threnody

Mary HopkinSomewhere in a parallel universe, Mary Hopkin presides as an insightful grande dame of British popular music, afforded her due as a fine singer and an astute, thoughtful songwriter.

In reality, of course, she has long-since eschewed such a high-profile path, preferring to maintain a low-key presence in the industry, taking a gently cynical stand against some of its more outrageous manifestations, and popping her head above the parapet on Twitter from time to time.

Thankfully, however, there is still new music coming from the Hopkin household, and that lovely, expressive voice – with the extra shades and textures of maturity – continues to captivate.

Following on the heels of You Look Familiar (her 2010 collaboration with son Morgan Visconti) and the contemplative Spirit, her latest album – Painting by Numbers – is an intimate set of mainly home-made recordings featuring just Hopkin and her guitar, with occasional guest musicians adding some harmonic depth at the mixing stage.

As she explains in her sleeve notes, most of them have been lifted from DAT copies and even a worn cassette (the gorgeous “Incurable Romantic”), the master tapes having vanished long since. Polishing is kept to a minimum. A handful have been mixed and engineered in the studio, a few harmonies added here and there, but always without sacrificing the sense of a spontaneous take, complete with its slight hisses and clicks.

Painting by Numbers emerges as a sweet, thoughtful, honest work of integrity, showcasing Hopkin’s distinctive, effortlessly wistful voice and making it seem impossible that more than 40 years have passed since “Those Were the Days” made her a household name.

The essential melancholy of that signature song, with its undertow of life-lessons learned the hard way, found the perfect vehicle in Hopkin’s timbre, and it unravels further through these ten numbers, from the title track, through the touching reassurance of “Fair-weather Friends” (mixed by Alan Britton, who has also added some rich, steely guitars, and featuring Hopkin’s own backing vocals mixed by Visconti), to the poignant “Love, Long Distance”.

Part timeless folk melody, part meditation on love’s ability to survive the passing of time, the Visconti-mixed “Gold and Silver” is the standout track on the album, a delicate and hypnotic threnody that hangs tantalisingly in the air before it dies away.

There are other delights. “Improvisation” is a wordless chant which works its way under your skin, “Fresh out of Favours” a world-weary emotional stock-take, “Die for you” a reminder of the power of constancy,  and “Teardrops” a cautionary look in the mirror. Rounding things off, “Love Belongs Right Here” perfectly captures the lump-in-the-throat moment of parting, and is one of several moments when the album’s bittersweet quality gives your heartstrings an unexpected tug.

Studio interventions aside, you are left with the overriding sense of a singer at peace with her art and content to let it speak for her, plainly and simply.