Tag Archives: Eurovision Song Contest

Album review – Serpentyne: Myths and Muses

19 Mar

Valkyries: Maggie Beth-Sand and Serpentyne take on Wagner and win

Myths & Muses: a glorious whirl of epic tales, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms

Myths and Muses: a glorious whirl of epic tales, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms

Here’s a thought for the dullards in charge of the UK’s annual Eurovision efforts. Why not ask Serpentyne to sing for us next year? I have no idea what the self-styled ‘Medieval-World-Folk-Rock’ band would feel about that. But I do know that the rousing fusion of their beats and the Game of Thrones vibe of their spectacular act is more in tune with broader European musical tastes than anything we’ve entered in the last two decades.

Their new album, Myths and Muses, is a rampaging set of epic tales told through the lead vocals of Maggie Beth-Sand, so evocative of great British female folk singers, from Sandy Denny to Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.

What sets her apart is a robust musicality that allows her voice to hold its own in some pretty fierce arrangements, where it becomes as much an instrument as Mark Powell’s guitar, cittern and hurdy-gurdy, or the mandolin, didgeridoo and tin whistle that contribute to the variety of sounds. In this, she is equally reminiscent of the more esoteric voices of world music – Norwegian Sami throat singer Mari Boine, for example, or Greece’s Mariza Koch (who actually did Eurovision service, accompanied by a bouzouki, back in 1976!)

Back and forth we are swept, from the fiery story of Boudicca and the Iceni uprising against the Roman occupation of ancient Britain, to the legendary library of Alexandria, and on to an account of the Valkyries that elbows Wagner aside. There’s a Breton dance (“Douce Dame Jolie”), and several traditional English folk songs including “A Rosebud in June”, not forgetting Henry VIII’s convivial testament to “Pastyme with Good Company”.

Comparisons with Steeleye Span are inevitable, particularly with the inclusion of the Span staple “Gaudete”. But Sand and Powell have mixed in their own arrangements, introduced new melodies and lyrics, and with the other versatile players of the band they bring a wide-ranging set of new influences and idiosyncrasies to the feast. There is a ferocity in their playing which binds electronics, choral settings and swirling strings into a glorious whirl, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms.

Album review – Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell: We’re Just Passing Through

7 Jul

Just passing through? Let’s hope not. Robbins and Campbell are a partnership to be reckoned with

 

We're Just Passing Through: Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell make a formidable song-writing team

We’re Just Passing Through: Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell make a formidable song-writing team

Kate Robbins and Nicky Campbell have teamed up to write We’re Just Passing Through, an album of songs inspired by travel, transient experiences and above all, the ruffled texture of human relationships. And despite a sanguine undercurrent which acknowledges that life has a habit of kicking back, it adds up to a charming and often joyful listen.

Campbell’s musical credentials are probably less well-known than his journalism and broadcasting work, and his song-writing skills will be a revelation to anyone who isn’t aware of the swing album he wrote for Mark Moraghan in 2009. Robbins, on the other hand, is a singer and songwriter of wide repute, although she is perhaps most fondly regarded for her gloriously accurate voice work on Spitting Image and Eurotrash. Between them, they’ve forged a creative partnership that on the evidence of this album could run for some time.

The musical range is eclectic, swinging – literally – from country-tinged folk (“Tell My heart”, Campbell’s sole vocal contribution, modest and whimsical; the man can sing, too) to bluesy jazz (“The Imposter in my Heart” and “Too Late for Love”) and a bit of guitar-driven rock (Robbins and Ray Brown sing the heck out of the up tempo “Parallel Lives”).

But the show-stoppers are some big ballads, which allow Robbins the chance to let fly with a voice that really gives the album its signature sound.

Ray Brown, who sings the Gerry Rafferty-esque title track, and Logan Wilson, who gets the slave-to-love swing number “Don’t Start me on Her”, both make significant contributions.

Yet it’s Robbins whose voice lingers once the record has stopped spinning. As anyone familiar with her last album, Soho Nights, will confirm, she handles tender-hearted anthems with an instinctive assurance and authority. “And Then I Loved You” and the late-night meandering piano ballad, “Something Wonderful and New” are mature, realistic observations of those touching moments of affirmation in new and seasoned relationships. But the stand-out song is the final track, “I Am Gone”, a grand, literate power ballad about the end of an affair, dripping with stately regret.

Readers with long memories might recall that Robbins has Eurovision form, having come third for the UK in the 1980 competition as part of the group, Prima Donna, with the pop song “Love Enough for Two”.

“I Am Gone”, in contrast, has a nostalgic feel that recalls some of those classy numbers delivered with conviction, usually by a female artist, in the years before the contest fell prey to spectacle. As a song-writing team, Robbins and Campbell are happily unfettered by any notions of cool, and long may that continue.

Album Review – Agnetha Fältskog: A

14 May

When You Really Loved Someone: Agnetha returns  in fine voice

 

AgnethaIt’s been great to see Agnetha Fältskog back in the spotlight after nearly a decade of silence. Grace and charm personified, she’s handled the publicity treadmill with style, giving dignified responses to undeserving questions – mainly relentless enquiries about the likelihood of an ABBA reunion – while somehow managing to preserve that sense of still waters running deep, which always marked her out as the serious, complicated member of the Swedish supergroup.

Her return has been greeted with such affection and interest that A could probably have been an album of nursery rhymes and nobody would really have cared. The good news is that the voice, with its compelling mix of brightness and underlying melancholy, has in no way been diminished by the years away from the studio. An occasional lingering huskiness only adds to the frisson which it generates, easily evoking the glories of the great ABBA harmonies and cutting through the arrangements like an old friend in remarkably good shape.

So it’s slightly disappointing that A is overall a serviceable record rather than a truly exciting attempt to build on Fältskog’s considerable legacy and give it a 21st-century polish. Gary Barlow’s 2009 collaboration with Shirley Bassey, The Performance, showed how it is possible to take the combined baggage of an exalted performer’s history and their unique sound, and turn it into something relevant and contemporary, teasing it in unexpected directions without frightening the horses. If only Fältskog’s producers, Jörgen Elofsson and Peter Nordahl, had taken a few similar risks, the results could have been electrifying. The closing track, “I Keep Them On the Floor Beside My Bed”, hints at what might have been, with its vocoder accents and swelling, ABBA-esque chorus.

But too many other numbers play it safe to the point of being anodyne, and the token disco track – “Dance Your Pain Away” – never quite gathers the energy to match the nostalgic exuberance of “Dancing Queen” or the guitar-driven urgency of “Voulez-Vous”. Barlow’s contribution to the album is restricted to a dull, up-beat duet (“I Should’ve Followed You Home”), and a phoned-in vocal.

Elsewhere, there are indeed some magical moments: big, orchestral arrangements, minor key changes, and particularly on the ballads that dominate proceedings, passages when that crystalline voice takes a line into a poignant emotional space and lets it soar. The first single from the album, “When You Really Loved Someone”, “I Was A Flower” and the aforementioned “I Keep Them On the Floor Beside My Bed” (a contender for most mind-boggling song title of the year – it’s a relief to discover that “they” are simply memories) all deliver in spades.

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.

The tale behind the song: The Winner Takes It All

3 May

ABBA: The Winner Takes it All, back in the day when blue eye shadow was the answer to all ills

Continuing the seasonal Eurovision theme, here’s another of my Songscape articles, first published in 2006. ABBA continue to be the most famous Eurovision winners, 39 years – and yes, it does only seem like yesterday – since they stormed to victory in Brighton with “Waterloo”. Of their many subsequent anthemic ballads, “The Winner Takes it All” is probably the most poignant and enduring, due in no small part to Agnetha Fältskog’s beautiful vocal work. As she prepares to release an eagerly-awaited new album, A, here’s what I had to say about one of her hallmark numbers from the past.

The Winner Takes It All

The arrival of Mamma Mia in the West End in 2000 was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was a long overdue celebration of the song writing skills of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, demonstrating once and for all that ABBA’s success had been based on far more than 1970s glam and throwaway pop. On the other, it paved the way for a steady slew of shows similarly – and not particularly subtly – manufactured around the hits of other groups and singers.

But let’s accentuate the positive. ABBA’s songs were revealed in all their glory as beautifully constructed and deceptively simple tales of the different phases of love, written through the ebb and flow of the relationships between the two couples who comprised one of the most successful groups in pop history. And none more so than the searingly poignant 1980 number “The Winner Takes it All,” written at the height of their success when, ironically, both couples had already come adrift.

The song tells the story of a jilted woman, taking a sad, clear-eyed look back at a love affair now over, and casting doubt on her ex’s new relationship. Like so many ABBA songs, the melody at first seems almost elementary and even repetitive, rather like a familiar nursery rhyme. But it builds in cycles across four verses, climaxing in the third before returning to the initial air of melancholy resignation for the finale. Swedish in its sensibilities to the last, the song conceals any sense of reproach in the matter-of-factness of the lyrics. Events speak for themselves, but they speak volumes.

Agnetha Fältskog was the lead singer on the original version, and she later recalled the bittersweet irony of being in the studio and singing a number containing such apparently biographical references, alongside her former husband. Björn has always insisted that the song shouldn’t be taken as a literal exploration of their separation, but the accompanying video, with Agnetha acting her melancholy part to the full, only reinforced the atmosphere of private sorrow that informs the lyrics. “It was quite a while afterwards before I realised that we’d made a small masterpiece,” she said.

Agnetha today: back on top form with “When You Really Love Someone”

The ABBA signature sound – those intricate close harmonies between the two female singers, their distinctive individual timbres merging in a way that couldn’t be replicated with all the technology at hand in the modern recording studio – comes into its own in the chorus, helping to build the layers of experience in the story.

This might be one of the reasons why ABBA songs have been slow to find their way into the repertoires of other singers. They are tricky to master convincingly – which probably explains why they seldom turn up on television talent shows.

And yet the opportunity to explore the possibilities of lyrical interpretation should make songs like “The Winner Takes it All” a rich source of material, certainly for any singer looking for something more than the chance to render a karaoke version.

In Mamma Mia, of course, the songs are transplanted to suit a spurious storyline, and become the property of a different kind of singer. In the original cast recording it falls to Siobhan McCarthy to take on “The Winner Takes it All,” and prove that it is quite possible to reinvent such a quintessential ABBA number on your own terms. Without making it overly theatrical, she preserves the simple integrity of the lyric whilst injecting a note of strident anger that Agnetha. The song becomes a warning as much as a narrative.

Most recently, soprano Anne Sofie von Otter included the song on her wonderfully articulate and absorbing Ulvaeus/Andersson album, I Let the Music Speak. As you might expect, there is a sense of returning to Swedish introspection, but with the harmonies stripped utterly away, its Spartan quality becomes a powerful vehicle for the experience at the heart of the song.

Three of the Best

ABBA, ABBA Gold, 2004 compilation, Universal

Agnetha’s pure, searingly honest voice is at its best for a quintessential ABBA performance, including those unique harmonies with Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Its bleakness can still break your heart.

Original London Cast, Mamma Mia, 2000, Polydor

Siobhan McCarthy injects a soaring streak of venom as the song becomes part of the West End musical that started a never-ending trend.

Anne Sofie von Otter, I Let the Music speak, 2006, Deutsche Grammophon

An austere and thought-provoking version of “The Winner Takes it All” is one of the gems of what is effectively an Ulvaeus/Andersson song cycle.

The tale behind the song: Those Were the Days

1 May

Mary Hopkin: those were the days… of floral prints

It’s Eurovision season again, which is a tenuous hook for introducing an article about “Those Were the Days” – an evergreen hit for Mary Hopkin who, of course, represented the United Kingdom in 1970. Alas, it wasn’t with this number, an old Russian folk song. If it had been, she might have sent Ireland’s Dana packing. Instead, she came second with the rather dismal “Knock Knock, Who’s There?” She’s never made any secret of her dislike of this typical old-school Eurovision ditty.

The following article was from a long-running series called Songscape, which I contributed to the now-defunct Singer magazine for several years. I’ll be posting a selection here during the next few weeks. I note that I referred to Mary’s spasmodic returns to recording. Happily, in the interim, she has been back in the studio – and the album (You Look Familiar) she made with her son, Morgan Visconti, a couple of years ago proved that her golden voice is still in fine fettle.

Those Were the Days

If you like your nostalgia tinged with a dose of world-weariness, “Those Were the Days” is guaranteed to send you into a reverie populated by your own loved and lost, tempered with a dark veneer of experience. It’s a folk survival anthem in a minor key, occasionally betraying its somewhat lugubrious, fatalistic Russian roots before rallying itself for that instantly recognisable, bittersweet refrain that harks back to more carefree times.

The melody of “Those Were the Days” is possibly an ancient Russian folk tune, although some sources claim it was written by a pair of Russian songwriters towards the end of the 19th century. Its early history is traced on Pat Richmond’s fascinating Mary Hopkin website, which includes an audio link to a native interpretation by Rada and Nikolay Volshanivovs.

But the song was probably first heard more widely when it was sung by Maria Schell in the 1958 film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. Around the same time, the great American folk composer and songwriter, Gene Raskin, encountered it and produced the English lyrics we know today.

Raskin and his wife, Francesca, kept it in their repertoire and when they appeared at the Blue Lamp club in London in the mid-1960s, Paul McCartney heard it and stored it in his memory bank. A couple of years later, he retrieved it and suggested it as the debut single for his protegée, the Opportunity Knocks winner and new Apple signing, Mary Hopkin.

Armed with a voice as pure and true as anything that has graced the charts in the decades since, and a plangent arrangement that featured various strings – including a Hungarian version of the dulcimer – and a boys’ choir, Hopkin scored a huge international hit and secured her own place in pop history.

On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Hopkin, a vision of youthful innocence with her unspoilt folk-singer’s soprano, was hardly a convincing prospect for lyrics imbued with the hard-learned lessons of life and the wages of experience. But somehow, she got to the truth at the heart of the words and made them her own. The recording, as evocative today as ever, never leaves you doubting that the lonely woman she sees in her reflection is really herself.

Both Hopkin and Sandie Shaw recorded “Those Were the Days” in a number of different languages for the international market, singing phonetically in the custom of the time.

Shaw’s Italian, French, German and Spanish efforts have recently resurfaced, nicely packaged, on a series of compilation CDs. Unfortunately, they trade the subtleties of the Hopkin arrangement for the brassy oom-pahs that tended to characterise so many of her records. Despite her valiant efforts, she always seems to come second to the band.

When Hopkin recorded the song, perhaps she was already anticipating how quickly life in the mainstream recording industry would stale. To the regret of her contemporary fans, and plenty who have discovered her since, Hopkin turned her back on a commercial career after a couple of albums. She has made only spasmodic returns to public performance, always on her own musical terms.

Those Were the Days, Dolly-style

How touching it is, then, to hear a familiar voice among the harmonies for the title track on Dolly Parton’s album, Those Were the Days. Parton, an immensely likeable, serious musician, almost claims the song for her own. But she had her people call Mary’s people, and Hopkin’s tones – remarkably undiminished by the years – shimmer through the proceedings in delightful memory of times past.

Three of the best

Mary Hopkin, Postcard, EMI

The 1968 worldwide hit is still fresh and arresting after all these years. A concert version is also available on Live at the Royal Festival Hall 1972, released on CD by Mary Hopkin Music.

Dolly Parton, Those Were the Days, EMI

One of the highlights of a jewel-studded album from an artist who, beneath the wigs and the front, just keeps on getting better. Hopkin guests on the harmonies.

Sandie Shaw, Pourvu que ca Dure, EMI

Interesting collection of Shaw’s French language recordings, including “Le Temps des Fleurs” (“Those Were the Days”). She races the band all the way to the finishing line.

Album review – Mary Hopkin: Spirit

15 Dec

Mary Hopkin reminisces about her childhood in Pontardawe

Spirit: Mary Hopkin explores her early musical influences

If you’re in a contemplative mood and want to create a little corner of peace and tranquillity, you could do a lot worse than to light a few candles and give Mary Hopkin’s Spirit a spin. Reissued on her own label under the guidance of daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, this 1989 album offers an intimate and deeply personal insight into the early influences that coaxed Hopkin into her singing career. So intimate, in fact, that you occasionally feel that you are eavesdropping on private thoughts about her Welsh childhood.

That is the charm of Spirit. In a new note for the album, Hopkin states candidly, “No aspiration to classical accuracy here… just me and my memories.” So classical purists probably need proceed no further. But they’d really be missing the point if they started grumbling. Mary Hopkin is no pop star trying to be an opera star.

Her Introit and Kyrie from Fauré’s Requiem are honest, unfussy interpretations. “One Fine Day” from Madam Butterfly, sung in English, is a clear and touching narrative which eschews the potential for overblown drama and actually allows you to hear the thoughts of the tragic heroine – although there is one slightly tricky moment when the keyboards evoke a Hammond organ at its most tremulous. And there is an ethereal “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana, which confirms the fact that Hopkin always had one of the sweetest voices of any popular female British singer. Mozart’s “Ave Verum-Corpus”, the sentimental parlour song “Sweet and Low” and a soaring “Ave Maria” evoke the childish innocence that must have informed those early performances at chapel or in the school choir.

Two composers’ takes on Pie Jesu are offered. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s – the only contemporary offering – recovers much of the dignity it has lost over the years at the hands of over-hyped juvenile stars, while Hopkin’s crystalline soprano weaves a moving threnody with Fauré’s version. But the highlight of the album is a delightful, folk-ish interpretation of “Jerusalem” that allows you to hear the beauty and strength of Blake’s words in a way that is the antithesis of the hearty tub-thumping treatment it usually receives.

Mary Hopkin lets the words come first

Following the success of her recent release, You Look Familiar, which was written and produced with son Morgan Visconti, Spirit is a touching reminder of the range and depth of Mary Hopkin’s singing talent. It’s great to see her back catalogue being made available while we look forward to the possibilities of new work.