Tag Archives: Popular Female Singers

Album review – Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London

25 Sep

Falling Back: imperious pop from Marianne Faithfull, with a little help from Anna Calvi (Later… with Jools Holland)

Give My Love to London: a tricky long-term relationship inspires a Marianne Faithfull masterpiece

Give My Love to London: a tricky long-term relationship inspires a Marianne Faithfull masterpiece

Marianne Faithfull’s relationship with London has always been complicated. So it’s no surprise that the title of her staggeringly good new album is laced with irony. Give My Love to London is no billet doux of rapprochement to a city that has been responsible for a fair few of her battle scars over the years.

But as it ranges freely across the landscape of experience, the record – a truly majestic piece of art – balances moments of bleakly dispassionate observation and cold rage with flashes of compassion, tenderness and dizzying joy so effectively that it is impossible to escape a poignant underlying sense of conflicted affection.

Like so many artists before her, Faithfull has discovered in London an infinitely versatile metaphor for the betraying or exalted lover, the progress of an affair, the drug addict, or a society in crisis. But making the metaphor work so fluently is another matter, and her considerable achievement here is to render her subject with such fresh and resolutely contemporary inflections.  In the title track, the city morphs from a moonlit playground to a rioting conflagration. This ambivalence is displaced by fragile hope in the moving Roger Waters composition, “Sparrows will sing”.

Faithfull’s collaborations with songwriters including Anna Calvi (“Falling Back”, a richly anthemic, imperious pop song), Nick Cave (the poignantly fragile “Deep Water”) and Patrick Leonard (the ferocious “Mother Wolf”) give the album its assured foundations. Cave has also contributed a mini classic in “Late Victorian Holocaust”, a psycho-geographical tale of child heroin addicts; almost 50 years after her introspective, faltering treatment of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street”, Faithfull is back on familiar territory, older and a whole lot wiser  And there are lovely interpretations of the Everlys’ “The Price of Love” and the wry Leonard Cohen/Patrick Leonard ballad, “Going Home”.

The musical shifts are as eclectic as the songs. Grand, baroque walls of guitar-driven rock give way to blues riffs, folk tropes, classical pianos and harps. That the album gels so perfectly is due in part to the production (take a bow Rob Ellis and Dimitri Tikovoi), and Flood’s mixes, which brilliantly define Faithfull’s vocals so that whether she is declaiming and intoning like a great 21st-century diseuse or singing in that scarred contralto, she is always a match for a band that plays up a storm.

But perhaps more than anything, Give My Love to London is a triumph for Faithfull’s own artistic conviction and self-confidence, which seem to have peaked just as she celebrates 50 years in the music business.

Faithfull has made it clear that she has no intention of coming home from the Parisian eyrie where she now lives. But as she concludes in a stark, beyond-despair reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s  “I get along without you very well” – here, a torch-song to the city she has just dissected so eloquently – there is a bond that will always be able to reassert itself with the stabbing precision of a stiletto blade. And in Faithfull’s case, like the irritating piece of sand that leads to the creation of a pearl, it has provided the inspiration for a masterpiece.

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 – 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.

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.

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.

Album review – Jain Wells: To Be Real

3 May

Out of the Fog: Jain Wells is ready for whatever life has to throw at her

To Be Real: Jain Wells looks life square in the eye

To Be Real: Jain Wells looks life square in the eye

Working with producer Greg Fitzgerald, Jain Wells has come up with an echoing, ambient sound that gives her debut album an ethereal, other-worldly quality.

But there’s nothing airy-fairy about her lyrics, which are thoughtful, eloquent musings on love, loss, moving on and taking the positive from every event and encounter.

If that sounds ominously didactic, To Be Real is far from being an extended homily on the human condition. Canada-born and now living in London, Wells has a PhD in Transpersonal Psychology but she wears her years as a therapist lightly.

Many of these songs are candid, very personal responses to accumulated experience, and even when the material gets dark (check out the underlying sadness of “Holiday”, a study of betrayal), it is lifted and carried away from the abyss by some sparkling, beat-driven arrangements.

“Look into the Mirror” epitomises Wells’ look-life-square-in-the-eye attitude. “Tonight” embraces similar themes: live for the present and be guided by your own inner truth. “Out of the Fog” finds her emerging from crisis, cleansed and ready for new emotional experiences.

Her imagery is complex but always looking upwards and forwards rather than trading on negative legacies. It makes her company less anguished than most of the female singer/songwriters currently dominating the charts.

Wells has an interesting vocal timbre, reminiscent of Carly Simon, which commands attention without ever sounding forced or strident. It suits the individuality of her material as she exhorts the listener to question themselves and take responsibility for the answers they find inside.

Album review: Petula Clark – Lost in You

15 Feb

Petula Clark: Crazy, from Jools Holland’s 2012 Hootenanny

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

At 80 – how is that possible? – Petula Clark has made her first English language studio album in 15 years. Lost in You is crisply produced, utterly devoid of sentimentality and resonates with a contemplative, moody and arresting contemporary vibe. There isn’t a whiff of nostalgia. Even a reinvented “Downtown”, stripped back to an almost bleakly acoustic riff, sounds as if it was written only yesterday.

As a record, Lost in You manages to reflect the nuances of a career that for sheer longevity and breadth of achievement puts Clark among the all-time great entertainers. At the same time, it confirms the lingering sense of a complex and enigmatic performer, a woman who would prefer to let her music speak for her than divulge her views about a world beyond the stage that is sometimes profoundly troubling.

I interviewed her once, in her West End dressing room during her successful stint as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It was a trepidatious moment. “Downtown” was number one in the soundtrack of my childhood and I’d been a lifelong fan – always dangerous territory for a journalist meeting a hero. But there were no signs of clay feet. Far from being a grande dame, the friendly yet pensive woman I encountered left a lingering impression of artistic integrity and unfussy professionalism.

“Lyrics are very important to me,” she told me. “When I see a lyric and I say ‘Hey, yes! I know what that means, how it feels. It just flows through, your body is almost like a filter. It’s all filtered through your mind and then it comes out through your mouth. That’s it, you know. That’s the way you feel about something.”

A couple of the covers here  – “Imagine” and “Love Me Tender” – could have languished as record company-requested interludes between her edgy treatments of more 21st-century material, but there is not the slightest hint of a phoned-in vocal. Everything is handled with that distinctive Clark sound: those unique, idiosyncratic vowels, combined with a subtle technique and phrasing that has defined her work at every turn.

“Reflections” is a self-penned, hymn-like paean to little Sally Olwen, the girl who snatched precious moments of childhood in Wales, even while the machinery of show-business was propelling her to child stardom and beyond.

As the prototype 1950s girl singer, she would rescue herself from the cul-de-sac of novelty pop by marrying a Frenchman and discovering the dramatic possibilities of the chanson, absorbing the potent influences of Brel and Piaf. “Next to You” thrums with barely contained emotion – the mark of a great dramatic singer who doesn’t need to resort to melisma or histrionics to make an emotional connection with the story.

Clark reveals another facet of her versatility on the country-tinged “Never Enough”, which she delivers with subtle verve and warmth. The set finishes with a statelier take on romantic relationships: “I Won’t Care”, a big, modern ballad that is the closest thing to formulaic among the twelve tracks.

Cut Copy Me: a lesson in ethereal pop

But overall, the album’s slightly melancholy, troubled atmosphere, established across the first three numbers, is its most fascinating asset. “Cut Copy Me” is a lesson in dreamy, ethereal pop singing without artifice; the title track “Lost in You”, an echoing piano-driven ballad with nifty key changes reminiscent of Clark’s glory chart years with ace songwriters Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent; and best of all, a fascinating version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, which Clark turns into an epic, intelligent exploration of human frailty, dappled with cynicism.

80? The maths say it must be so. But on this evidence, Petula Clark has no intention of being out any time soon. Lost in You is a little triumph.