Tag Archives: Female Singers

Album Review – Christine Tobin: Sailing to Byzantium

29 Jul

So Far Away: not Yeats but Carole King, from Christine Tobin’s previous album Tapestry Unravelled

Sailing to Byzantium: Christine Tobin rescues Yeats from memories of academic overload

The rich source material for Christine Tobin’s latest album positively encourages metaphor, so here goes. Sailing to Byzantium is a vibrant, irresistible lake. There’s nothing to be gained from standing suspiciously on its shore.  Take a deep breath, plunge in, and let the water draw you down into a musical world of burnished colours, intriguing shades, spine-chilling dangers and soothing sub-aquatic glades.

Tobin’s audacity in setting 13 of W. B. Yeats’s poems to fluid and spacious jazz arrangements pays off on every level.  The poet’s characteristic themes of memory, time and place, unattainable love, the artist’s lot, and mythology shine through, heightened but never unnecessarily embellished by some brilliant ensemble playing.

Tobin isn’t the first composer to set Yeats to music. Herbert Hughes, for example, wrote a rollicking tune for “Down by the Sally Gardens”, most recently recorded by Clare Teal for her album, Hey Ho. But Sailing to Byzantium is on a much more ambitious scale. And how Tobin pulls it off.

It would be invidious to single out any band member; plaudits to Liam Noble (piano), Phil Robson (guitar), Gareth Lockrane (flute), Kate Shortt (cello) and Dave Whitford (double bass). With their support, Tobin’s warm timbre wraps itself around the shimmering imagery of Yeats’s verse, taking it into a new and very different space while staying true to the original work.

Like Tobin, I studied Yeats at school, and was so absorbed by the texture and subjects of his poetry that I later seized the opportunity to immerse myself in it at university. Analytical overload was inevitable and it’s been many years since I revisited the glories of poems such as “Long-legged Fly” and “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Tobin’s inspired handling of the material has sent me scurrying to the bookshelf and reaching out for a familiar, yellowing volume as if it was an old friend.

From the sparkling Joni Mitchell-ish  guitar intro to the opening track, “When You are Old” to the elegiac tones of actor Gabriel Byrne (who taught at Tobin at school in Dublin) reading “The White Birds” to the backdrop of rising waves and Tobin’s wordless, keening chant, Sailing to Byzantium commands attention. The production is fresh and crisp.

There is turbulent beauty, not least in the cacophonous climax to “The Second Coming”. Characters spring to life, greatly assisted by the sparkling arrangements. “The Song of Wondering Aengus” and “The Fisherman” – that paean to a simple, idealised reader – bristle with energy. Some of the songs are haunted and haunting in equal measure:  ghosts gather and whisper as “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz” conjures a room populated by lost friends, to exquisitely poignant effect, building to the sinister revelation of knowledge that’s come too late. An artistic triumph, brimming with integrity.

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Album Review – Broadcaster featuring Peggy Seeger: Folksploitation

5 Jul

First Time Ever: Peggy Seeger’s shamen-like vocal takes a classic to another place

Folksploitation: Seeger’s voice rises triumphant above the vocoder treatment

The Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield. Morrissey and Sandie Shaw. The Bee Gees and Dionne Warwick. Jack White and Loretta Lynn. The KLF and Tammy Wynette. There’s a great tradition in pop music of collaboration between iconic female singers and contemporary singer/songwriter producers that brings their work and back stories to the attention of a new generation.

Note that I don’t use the word ‘rescue’, although in the case of Dusty Springfield, the timely approach of the Pet Shop Boys with “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” led directly to a welcome late career revival. I hesitate, too, to use the much-abused word ‘Diva’, although these women had earned such a status in the historical arc of pop long before any second flourishing opened up new territory for them.

I would certainly hesitate to call Peggy Seeger a ‘Diva’, although if anything, she merits the title in her sphere even more than any of the women mentioned above.  She is a touchstone for folk singers and songwriters of any age. While she herself has dipped in and out of the music business, always having plenty of other fish to fry as an activist and archivist, her songs, her musicianship and that timeless, multi-textured voice have made her a constant influence on her peers and subsequent generations.

Her long partnership – personal and artistic – with Ewan MacColl, which began when she came to the UK in the 1950s, and their prodigious body of work embracing traditional folk songs and new material, made her in many eyes the founding mother of the modern folk revival.

And it would be patently ridiculous to call her extraordinary new collaboration with experimental dance music pioneer Broadcaster a ‘rescue’. New York-born Seeger has long since returned to live in the UK after several years back in her homeland, and at the age of 77 is still singing and touring (albeit avoiding long flights these days) with great zest and verve. But Folksploitation has already ignited a whole new wave of interest in the woman whose voice cuts like the chant of a shamen across Broadcaster’s edgy techno beats with all the wisdom of the ages. It’s an utterly absorbing and frequently exhilarating experience.

Peggy Seeger today: still pushing the boundaries (photograph: Dale Herbert)

Seeger embraces the world of dubs and samples as if to the manner born. And it’s hard to resist the woman for whom Ewan MacColl wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” when she consents to such a radical reworking. Here, as “First Time Ever”, its arrival is signalled by a Numanesque burst of electronica, before fragments of one of the great modern standards build into a remarkable collage that rescues it from the desert of a thousand hotel lobbies and sends it on a completely different trajectory.

The album goes way beyond mere sampling. The compelling beat that underpins the bleak “Little White Grains” is a fascinating juxtaposition, hooking you in even as you’re floored by the grimness of the lyrics. And in the midst of all these new sounds, you never forget that Seeger’s work has always been lyric- (and specifically, story-) centred. As those lyrics often concern timeless themes – drug addiction, violence, abusive relationships – they have a contemporary resonance that’s a perfect match for this hustling, urban treatment.  The narrative lines of “Bad, Bad Girl” and “Welcome to the Neighbourhood” are driven by Broadcaster’s insistent riffs, with Seeger’s voice given the full vocoder treatment, from which it emerges astringent and triumphant.

Despite the essential darkness of much of the material, Folksploitation is a thrilling, hypnotic experiment which Seeger’s die-hard fans will probably approach with trepidation. But ultimately, it’s a surprising triumph for this redoubtable singer’s capacity to push the boundaries and make her listeners think again. So yes, let’s add Broadcaster and Peggy Seeger to that list.

Album Review: Mary Black – Stories From the Steeples

19 Jan

“Marguerite and the Gambler”: story-singing at its best

Stories from the Steeples: a masterpiece from Mary Black

What a fine singer Ireland’s Mary Black is. Unfussy, gimmick-free and capable of switching from confessional intimacy to assured declaration in the space of a phrase, she always puts the song’s story first. The effect can be breathtaking, catching out the listener with a vocal catch or a sung-through line that will break your heart or make you laugh out loud, depending on the lyric.

In years to come, Black’s new album Stories from the Steeples (her first new set since 2005) might well come to be seen as her masterpiece – and considering the quality of her work throughout the last quarter of a century, that would be some achievement. Few singers would have the ability to pull together such a disparate collection of songs – modern folk numbers, soft Celtic rock ballads and a delightful bonus track, the pastiche chanson “Fifi the Flea”- and weave them so effectively into the cohesive whole of this record, which ranges across a rugged emotional landscape, full of troughs and challenging heights.

The thrilling story-song “Marguerite and the Gambler”, the troubadour’s jaunty, evocative signature tune “Mountains to the Sea” (written by Shane Howard and Neil Murray, and featuring an unexpectedly sedate and subtle duet between Black and Imelda May), and the joyous, shambling “Walking With My Love” (on which Black is joined by Finbar Furey) provide the album’s top notes. But the listener is never lulled into a false sense of security. There are shades of darkness in many of Black’s interpretations: the bleak, calm-after-the-storm assessment of a relationship’s uncertain future (“Faith in Fate”); the searing anti-war song “All the Fine Young Men”; and the measured reassurance of “Steady Breathing”, a song written by Chris While to comfort his ill sister.

Janis Ian puts in a welcome appearance on “Lighthouse Light”, contributing guitar and vocals to a simple, foot-tapping meditation on distant threats and prayed-for safety.  “Wizard of Oz” is a touching summation of the longed-for qualities that provide the narrative of the much-loved children’s story, turning them into a mature exploration of the chasm between hope and realistic expectation. And “One True Place” makes a sweet case for some kind of afterlife.

For me, though, the standout track is “The Night Was Dark and Deep”, which evokes a universal experience of childhood that echoes into adulthood, with its lingering traces of vulnerability and the realisation that despite our parents’ best efforts to conceal trouble, an insight into their unhappiness is a rite of passage for everybody.

Black has produced the album with Billy Robinson and throughout, she has the support of a driving, vibrant band led by Bill Shanley and Pat Crowley. Stories From the Steeples is a majestic piece of work that yields new treasure with each listening.

Album Review: Judie Tzuke – One Tree Less

17 Jan

“If”: Judie Tzuke at Union Chapel in 2010 – still a voice to be reckoned with

Here’s a piece of advice for Adele, Jessie J, Emili Sandé and everybody else who is riding the crest of a huge wave of fascination with young female singers and songwriters in the UK: make the most of your hour in the sun. Because once you’ve hit middle age, you’ll find it virtually impossible to get any kind of coverage in the mainstream music press.

A flurry of New Year articles hailed 2012 as the year of rock’s illustrious old guys. Bowie, Elton John, Meatloaf, Ronnie Wood and Mick Fleetwood will all turn 65 in the next 12 months, pointed out The Independent. While in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick hailed forthcoming new albums from Leonard Cohen (77) and Paul McCartney (69), Springsteen and the E Street Band, and rumours of 50th anniversary tours from the Rolling Stones and the Who.

The usually excellent McCormick’s crystal-ball piece did at least name check Florence and the Machine, La Roux and Lana del Rey – prime examples of contemporary young female talent, all. But the absence in any of these stories of any reference to mature women singers (Madonna aside) reveals once again the curious neglect of a significant category of talent that frequently blights the best broad music journalism. It’s as if the media suffers from an odd, sexist/ageist blind spot. Even The Guardian’s TV listing for New Year’s Eve fell into the trap, wondering vaguely what Sandie Shaw was doing in Jools Holland’s Later line-up, apparently ignorant of her well-received participation in his 2011 tour.

At least Shaw got a mention at all. Frankly, with the exception of Kate Bush (as left-field in her career management as in her approach to her music) and Annie Lennox (who is, in any case, more likely to garner column inches for her socio-political activism than her music these days), senior British female singers seem to become invisible to the press once they pass 40. Which means that a whole range of performers and recording artists – Eddi Reader, Elkie Brooks, Barbara Dickson, Mari Wilson, Barb Jungr and Mary Hopkin, to name but a handful – are now producing some of their finest work in their middle years, without the hope of a mainstream profile or review to remind people that they’re out there, no less creative than their male contemporaries and in many cases a great deal more active.

Let’s add Judie Tzuke to the list. Her new album, One Tree Less, is a beauty. Troubled, uneasy lyrics juxtapose natural references with smarting, visceral explorations of broken relationships, fractured trust and self-doubt. The arrangements are string-laden, echoing aural landscapes, liberally sprinkled with epic piano riffs and sparkling guitar sequences that draw you in, making the occasional sharp jab of the words all the more startling.

“Stay With Me Till Dawn”: Judie Tzuke’s slow-burning torch song is still a classy affair after all these years

Tzuke has been making records for 35 years. She had her first hit, the torchy, slow-burning ballad “Stay With Me Till Dawn”, in 1978, lifted from the album Welcome to the Cruise, while she was signed to Elton John’s Rocket label. From the start, there was an edginess beneath the ethereal voice and polished pop lyrics – a restlessness and an anxiety that hinted at more substantial themes. In the wake of its success, she was put in the same bracket as Kate Bush, simply by dint of being a new, happening female singer songwriter. Truly, the music industry’s marketing imagination has never known its own bounds.

A stellar future seemed assured as Tzuke became a much in-demand touring artist and released a series of acclaimed albums through the early 1980s (she moved from Rocket to Chrysalis in 1982). But like so many before her, she found herself buffeted by an industry that has never been great at promoting and sustaining singular female talent. Ricocheting from one record company to the next for the rest of the decade and into the 1990s with diminishing returns, and occasionally beset with management disagreements, she took time out to have her two daughters (the eldest, Bailey, is now a singer in her own right and contributes backing vocals on the new album) before returning to the fray with her own label – finally in complete charge of her own career (Elton John handed back the copyright on her first three albums in 1999).

These days, the voice has a pleasing mahogany-dark timbre that compliments Tzuke’s misty upper register. From the title track, the ominous and agitated “One Tree Less”, with its tentative discovery of hope, to brooding, thoughtful numbers like “The Other Side” and “Till It’s Over”, the album showcases the ripeness of her talents – and particularly her ability to suggest an inner life in which doubt and uncertainty are constantly preying shadows, without ever sounding trite or pretentious. In other words, she is still exploring the consequences of that first dawn.

“Joy” is a deeply personal take on a friendship interrupted by tragedy. “Humankind” favours a dramatic piano intro, leading into a bleak wonder across the face of the human condition. “The Other Side” bridges the divide between life-as-a-bitch and security – but as always, with Tzuke, that note of hesitation is left hanging in the air: “though I might be wrong…”

“I Can Wait” is an up tempo, guitar-driven ballad about the sudden discovery of passion, “A Moving Target” an urgent, self-directed plea for acceptance of the way things are.

More substantial themes, indeed. So yes, Judie Tzuke is very much alive and kicking – and apparently in her prime. And more people should know about it. She’s touring the UK throughout March – which sounds like a good opportunity to catch up with one of our foremost, lamentably unsung, female singer/songwriters.

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.

Album review – Margie Nelson: Hungry Girl

9 Oct

“Lost Mind” isn’t on the album but this live performance shows a fine jazz singer at work

Hungry Girl: time for Margie Nelson to set her sights further afield

There’s a lot of competition out there when it comes to albums based on the American standards. But still they keep on coming, filling your CD shelves and playlists until you’re awash in a hundred interpretations of “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Cry Me a River”. Some of them are very good, of course. But every so often, one turns up and delivers something so fresh and scintillating that it knocks everything else off the player. Hungry Girl from Californian Margie Nelson, a self-styled ‘late bloomer’ has just that effect.

Where has she been hiding, this mistress of deft phrasing, with her ear for the sardonic underbelly of a lyric, and her ability to balance comedy with moments of unadorned melancholy? In and around Santa Barbara for the last 15 years, according to her biographical notes, paying her dues in showcases, workshops and jazz clubs. It’s high time she started to set her sights further afield, because vocalists with this kind of talent deserve a much wider audience.

Hungry Girl should help. For a start, it contains by far and away the best version – with all due respect to Ms Streisand – I’ve ever heard of the Johnny Mandel/Alan and Marilyn Bergman classic “Where do you Start?” All sense of melodrama is banished. Nelson picks her way with arresting honesty through the bittersweet break-up lyrics, unravelling the bleakness as they shift from helpless uncertainty to self-realisation, ultimately finding a nugget of comfort in acknowledging the eternal hold of the departing lover. It becomes an epic tale, told with unflinching clarity. She’s great with a couple of other torch numbers – a lilting “If You Never Come to Me” and a late-night, bluesy “Don’t Go to Strangers” both stand out – revealing the intuitive gift of the best narrative singers.

Margie Nelson sings with the Montecito Jazz Project at the Environmental Defense Center's "TGIF" Benefit in Santa Barbara

There’s a dash of Julie Wilson’s artful story-telling (“I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart”) and Julie London’s laconic irony (“An Occasional Man”), as well as hints of the phrasing of the great jazz singers – Anita O’Day (Nelson’s heroine), Carmen McRae (listen to Nelson swing on “How Come?”) and Rosemary Clooney. In a nod to the technique of such illustrious forebears, when she declares “I Need Ya (Like I Need a Hole in the Head)”, not a single word of those acerbic-yet-resigned lyrics is wasted. But whatever her influences, Nelson is very much her own mistress – assured, putting a relaxed, timeless spin on such standards as “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, a swerving, slowed-down “The Best is Yet to Come” and a nicely contemporary “Be Cool”, as well her irresistible and articulate take on the title track.

She is greatly assisted by a top-flight band that includes her producer, drummer Kevin Winard, Christian Jacob and Quinn Johnson sharing keyboard duties, Kevin Axt on bass, saxophonist Matt Catingub and guitarist Stephen Geyer. The arrangements simply swing out from the speakers.

Album Reviews – Barb Jungr: Man in the Long Black Coat; Durga Rising

3 Oct

It Ain’t Me Babe: the camerawork might be shaky but here’s a real sense of Barb Jungr’s compelling technique

The Man in the Long Black Coat: Barb Jungr gets closer than ever to Bob Dylan's lyrics

There are three elders at the top of the tree when it comes to British female singers who have an instinctive ability to tell the whole story in a song: Norma Waterson, June Tabor and Barb Jungr. Forget any ungallant connotations. I use the word simply to connote wisdom and an almost forensic approach to their craft. If Waterson is the benevolent earth mother, Tabor is the cool, all-seeing and often bleak eye at the centre of life’s storm. Jungr, on the other hand, hurls herself into the maelstrom, seeking the key to the most visceral experiences in the songs and chansons of the great modern songwriters and rendering them into compelling dramas for the listener.

This summer saw the simultaneous release of two albums from Jungr. Strictly speaking, neither is actually ‘new’. Man in the Long Black Coat is a compilation of Bob Dylan recordings made since her groundbreaking 2002 set, Every Grain of Sand, with the bonus of four additional songs laid down in the studio at the start of this year. Durga Rising is the reissue of her 1997 collaboration with renowned Asian music producer Kuljit Bhamra and Jungr’s late, and much-missed, accompanist Russell Churney. Between them, these very different pieces of work showcase an unstinting commitment to innovation and exploration that runs like seams of resilient, glistening black jet through her finest interpretations. Why this important British singer is still waiting to make an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland is a mystery.

Some people have hailed Man in the Long Black Coat as Jungr’s best album yet. And there is certainly a holistic feel to the album; much of this possibly comes from the sense of a ‘journey’, in which Jungr is getting closer and closer to crystallising exactly what Dylan’s lyrics mean to her. In doing so, she becomes increasingly agile with the possibilities and nuances that they offer.

The four most recent tracks – the title track with its ominous, funereal bell, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, the bitter, ironic “With God on Our Side”, and the sublime “Sara” – were all arranged and recorded with pianist Jenny Carr. They reveal a singer at her peak, brimming with confidence in the material. Dylan purists will no doubt perceive liberties being taken. Let them get on with it. There’s an audacity and boldness about these reinvented classics that is rooted in Jungr’s sense of freedom in the world she discovers through them.

From the up tempo “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to the reggae beat of “Just Like a Woman”, a spacey treatment of “Like a Rolling Stone” and the bluesy “High Water”, Jungr pursues the truth in the lyrics with a spirit of adventure and a musicality that is always intriguing. Who else could dream of giving “Blind Willie McTell” the feel of a chanson and make it work with such flair?

Durga Rising: pain and darkness with splashes of dizzying happiness

“Willie McTell” also turns up in a different, more subdued version on Durga Rising. This album, sub-titled ‘An Indo-Jazz Adventure’ is a cornucopia of human experience; bhangra beats meet midnight soul. Jungr and Bhamra have taken it on the road recently, now with exemplary pianist Simon Wallace, to great acclaim.

Jungr’s natural territory is pain and darkness, but she can also spin tails of dizzying happiness. Both extremes are here in a collection of almost entirely self-penned lyrics (Dylan aside), and the music of Bhamra, Churney and her old partner-in-song Michael Parker.

Jungr, Bhamra and Wallace talk Durga Rising on the road

Bhamra’s percussion is ethereal and fleet-fingered, working with Jungr’s vocals in contrapuntal sequences that shimmer with energy. When things get dark, they get really dark. “How Could I Ever”, “Tears in a Bottle” and the lascerating, end-of-the-affair piece of advice, “Choose to be Alone”, offer delicious degrees of cynicism. So do the apocalyptic overtones of “Crimes Against Nature”. But there are plenty of lighter textures in the music, and the exhilarating, life affirming romance of “Bombay Dreaming” – a latin-ish, retro dance hall number – is balm for the most jaded spirit.