Tag Archives: female singer/songwriters

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.

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Album review – Lucy Ward: Single Flame

7 Feb

The Last Pirouette: exhilarating dance of death

Single Flame: auspicious, deep and full of complex nuances

Single Flame: auspicious, deep and full of complex nuances

When Lucy Ward name-checks Melanie Safka and Bob Dylan in the opening track of her brooding, portentous album Single Flame, she is giving notice of the high standards she has set herself as a singer/songwriter – and signalling to her listener that the voyage they’re embarking on won’t always be comfortable.

It is testament to her skill that as she leads them into ever darker and murkier waters, the lyrics underpin her swirling, haunting melodies like seams of black diamonds, redolent with hard truths and acerbic observations, and she never compromises her intentions.

From “I Cannot Say I Will Not Speak” onwards, Ward proves she is right up there with artists like Ange Hardy, and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, who have brought a new kind of gritty realism to modern British folk music, utterly contemporary – and often devastating – in their themes of protest and injustice but equally true to the rich heritage of traditional story-telling.

There is a doom-laden quality to many of her songs that is never less than satisfying and is often bleakly tender, not least in the album’s masterpiece, “The Last Pirouette”. Here, the fading beauty of a washed-up prima ballerina becomes a metaphor for the end of the world. By rights, it should put you on your own suicide watch. Instead, it soars in exhilarating three-time, echoing in the vaults of the ceiling like a universal dance of death.

Other songs cover similarly traumatic terrain: “The Consequence” explores the chilling, seeping imprint left by domestic violence; “For the Dead Men” is a multi-layered exploration of the relationship between campaigners, the victims of injustice and the bystanders who do nothing – all dead, either in the cause or morally, through their inaction; “Rites of Man” is a shimmering eulogy to nature, the ultimate casualty of human folly.

Indeed, folly – of humanity, of war, or of the individual (check out “Icarus”, a sorry tale of desertion) – is one of Ward’s grandest themes. As we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, numbers like “Shellback” (Ward’s first composition) and the upbeat “Marching Through the Green Grass” (an adaptation of an Appalachian folk song) assume a heart-catching resonance.

But if all this sounds forbiddingly apocalyptic, the depth and beauty of the writing also generates shafts of hope that pierce the blackness. “Velvet Sky” is an anthemic explosion of colour and optimism.

With producer and occasional co-writer Stu Hanna, Ward has created the glorious, almost symphonic equivalent of a diorama in which characters spring to life and move against the backdrop of her assured musicality. This is an auspicious piece of work, which reveals more depth and nuance with each play.

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 – Ange Hardy: Barefoot Folk

21 Dec

Forlorn Land: Ange Hardy’s 10-part harmony rings with relevance

Barefoot Folk: so timeless, its Facebook references catch you unawares

Barefoot Folk: so timeless, its Facebook references catch you unawares

It is a measure of Ange Hardy’s immersion in the art of folk-song writing that even the references in her social media-inspired number “Crafty Father John” are rendered timeless. Only as the song’s last strains fade do you do a double-take and catch yourself wondering if they really had Facebook in the ancient days from which it surely dates.

Hardy’s acoustic album, Bare Foot Folk, is some achievement. Each number is a testament to her gift for telling complete, emotionally engaging stories through lyrics crafted with careful economy and plangent melodies that resonate with traditional cadences, without a single hint of parody.

Her references are the experiences of a life that, as the biographical note on her website implies, has had its stormy times. She scatters them across a landscape of those meadows and glades that she says she sees in her mind’s eye when she’s listening to traditional folk music, and distils them into little jewels of song. Motherhood, loss, broken hearts, faith and the artist’s quest for recognition emerge as the strongest themes.

“Forlorn Land” rings with timely relevance as we prepare to mark the centenary of the Great War in an age blighted by new violence and uncertainty around the world. The ten-part harmony, with its intrinsic lament, is gorgeous. There’s a gritted-teeth lullaby (“Stop Your Crying Son”) that will strike a chord with any new parent and, among several tales of romance and separation, “It Can’t be So” and “The Old Maiden” command attention with their gleaming clarity.

The standout track, however, is “The Ghost on the Moors”, a brooding study of the artist’s essential loneliness and frustration. It’s a struggle that Somerset-based Hardy clearly understands. But with this, her second album, she has signalled her own very real presence in the diverse world of modern British folk music.

Album review – Anna von Hausswolff: Ceremony

10 Sep

Mountains Crave: futuristic and industrial sounds give way to glittering beauty

Ceremony: epic and sepulchral with moments of scintillating beauty

Ceremony: epic and sepulchral with moments of scintillating beauty

The brooding sound of an organ echoing in cavernous cathedral vaults creates an ominous bass line which rumbles constantly beneath Anna von Hausswolff’s new album Ceremony.

Epic and sepulchral, the Swedish singer/composer’s aural landscape is pierced by futuristic, industrial sounds that suggest a tumultuous clash between life and death, and between the ancient and the present.  So far, so Nico. ABBA, this certainly isn’t.

But time and again, just when you’re on the verge of being sucked into an abyss of existential bleakness, von Hausswolff chucks a curved ball of glittering beauty that sends you rushing skywards. The arpeggios that announce the “Epitaph of Daniel” come tumbling out of the darkness like spinning hoops of light, for example.

As the tracks unfold, from the opening instrumental “Epitaph of Theodor”, through the anthemic rock references of “Deathbed”, to the soaring glory of “Red Sun” and the scintillating clarity of “Liturgy of Light” and “Harmonica”, reminders of the grave are constant.

But von Hausswolff is an intrepid musical explorer, unraveling her own perceptions of mortality – not least in the penultimate track, devastatingly entitled “Funeral  For My Future Children” – and the possibilities of rebirth. Her music erupts from the elemental clashes generated by her questions. “Mountains Crave” is a throbbing testament to the might of nature.

With its absorbing, intricate melodies, Ceremony is often overwhelming in its intensity. It rises above the listener like a vast granite rock face. Tracing the threads of gold that run through it demands commitment, but there are plenty of rewards to be discovered in these musical and poetic meditations if you’re prepared to surrender to such a visceral listening experience.

Album review – Anne Marie Almedal: Memory Lane

11 Jun

Winter Song: raises the hairs on the back of your neck (in a good way)

Memory Lane: multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies

Memory Lane: multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies

There are many gorgeous moments in Anne Marie Almedal’s album Memory Lane – the distillation of a host of folk and pop influences into a clean, uncluttered sound that draws equally on the inspiration of the landscape around her home in Kristiansand, which permeates the music and conjures a brooding, unsettled and occasionally restless atmosphere.

Threads of nostalgia are tempered by elemental noises and echoes that give the album an almost metaphysical feel.  The opening track, “Back to Where it Started”, with its soaring hints of Pentangle flute and guitar, is a tale for everyone looking in the rear view mirror, trying to recapture the mysterious moment when a relationship sprang into bloom.

With her British husband and co-writer Nicholas Sillitoe, the Norwegian singer/songwriter has crafted a fresh, contemporary, ambient take on modern folk that completely subverts the increasingly tiresome clichés which abound around Nordic Noir. Sure, there is darkness and unease in her often introspective lyrics, but there is also an acknowledgement – even a celebration – of the cleansing, focusing effect of proper cold, freezing everything in a breath of innocence as it does on one of the standout tracks, “Winter Song”.

If I say that this and the equally beautiful “Scars” remind me of Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow, the comparison is intended entirely as a compliment. They are songs in which the combination of simple yet multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies generated by strings, wind chimes, even a singing bowl, deliver a subtle acoustic blow that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

Lyrically, Almedal draws her inspiration from the relationship between human experience and landscape. It isn’t always an easy one: “And It’s the Loneliness” urges us to look always to the horizon in our effort to keep love alive, “One Day” faces up to the uncertainty of the future. But an underlying optimism lifts even the bleak moments, imbuing them with warmth and quiet calm.

In the company of her own songs, the two covers – of John Martyn’s “May You Never” and Bread’s “If” – seem almost superfluous. Where the latter is concerned, at least Almedal’s assured, fluid voice goes some way to exorcising the horrors of Telly Savalas’s spoken 1975 version, which continues to blight the song for those of us of a certain age.

Album review – Gwyneth Herbert: The Sea Cabinet

5 Jun

Gwyneth Herbert talks about the genesis of The Sea Cabinet

Haunted and haunting: Gwyneth Herbert's Sea Cabinet is a triumph of eclecticism

Haunted and haunting: Gwyneth Herbert’s Sea Cabinet is a triumph of eclecticism

Haunted and haunting. Poignant and achingly beautiful. Ribald and raunchy.  Evocative and nostalgic. These are just a few of the adjectives that spring to mind as Gwyneth Herbert’s inspired, crowd-funded and self-released new album scatters and spills its contents before the intrigued listener.

The Sea Cabinet started life at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, following Herbert’s artistic residency with Aldeburgh Music. The concert at which she introduced this cycle of sea-inspired songs was absorbing, heralding a work of great promise, albeit still very much in progress and charmingly rough-hewn in places. Almost three years later, that promise has been fully realised.

Herbert’s wide-ranging musical references – sea shanties, Edwardian parlour songs, folk airs and laments, chansons, bluesy bar songs – are impeccable. And she has woven them into a fluent, multi-textured piece from which her eclecticism emerges triumphant and accessible. There isn’t a trace of pretentiousness.  She has laboured over her lyrics, honing and polishing them so that they shimmer across a constantly shifting aural landscape of rhythms and ghostly echoes.

The concept of a solitary woman picking her way along the shore and storing the fruits of her beach-combing in a cabinet, provides a beautifully simple arc for the album. Herbert’s achievement is to populate the memories and ideas inspired by the woman’s discoveries with a cast of characters who spring vividly to life before they are absorbed back into the ebb and flow of diverse melodies.

Mrs Wittering, the owner of the Regal, emerges from the fading gentility of her tea room to take a bow. The petticoat-flashing “Fishguard Ladies” live once more to see off the French fleet. Old salts and soldiers jostle for position. But there is also plenty of underlying darkness and melancholy, not least in the sombre tale of wartime “Alderney”.  In the beguiling “Sweet” and the increasingly belligerent “I Still Hear the Bells” there is also a sense of the personal experiences that brought Herbert to the emotional place which inspired The Sea Cabinet.

She is ably assisted by fellow singer/songwriter Fiona Bevan, who collaborates on “I Still Hear the Bells” and “The King’s Shilling”, by The Rubber Wellies, and by regular band Al Cherry, Sam Burgess and David Price. But it’s Herbert’s own voice, ranging from that of a sweet folk siren to jazz canary and late-night blues singer, which gives the album its momentum.

Snatches of the songs continue  to swirl and soar in the air long after The Sea Cabinet has spun to a stop, not least the “Sea Theme” which opens and closes the set, tempered with field recordings that add pleasingly disturbing frissons of mystery and unease. In its lovingly-produced completeness, this album is a work of art.