Tag Archives: Popular Female Singers

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.

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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.

Box set review: Goin’ Back – the Definitive Dusty Springfield

13 Dec

Losing You: Dusty Springfield in her prime, with a typically big ballad

Goin' Back - The Definitive Dusty Springfield: expensive and comprehensive, with timeless hits

It’s nearly 13 years since Dusty Springfield died, yet hardly a day goes by without her voice cropping up somewhere. She’s frequently playing on the jukebox, providing a soundtrack for the latest instalment of sturm und drang in the Queen Vic or the Rover’s Return. Fittingly, she’ll often be followed by an Adele track.

It’s been a long wait but finally, in Adele, we have a British singer who is Springfield’s equal when it comes to a vocal capacity for conveying epic desolation and emotional complexity that will find and unpick the sub-text in the least promising lyrics. In a short space of time, she and the late Amy Winehouse established themselves as genuine successors to Springfield’s brand of soulful, palpable heartache, where others have flattered merely to deceive: torch singers for our times.

Goin’ Back: the definitive Dusty Springfield is a major 92-track compilation of the singer’s work and the first box set since The Legend of Dusty Springfield (released by Philips in 1994 on the back of a late flourish in her career, but with a portentously funereal design) and the posthumous, equally sombre Simply… Dusty (Mercury, 2000).

This time the theme is pink. Very pink. And the four CDs, which focus on the hits, the singer’s extensive legacy of live BBC recordings, a loosely-linked collection of film songs and show tunes, and the obligatory rarities (the most valuable part of the offering for die-hard Dusty fans), are joined by three DVDs of performances from a career that spanned more than 40 years.

The box set also includes Paul Howes’ book, The Complete Dusty Springfield, and a separate volume based on an essay by Springfield’s great friend and manager Vicki Wickham, with contributions from numerous pop and rock luminaries including Burt Bacharach and Carole King – the two songwriters whose work probably shaped the Springfield sound more than any others.

Howes, who has curated this collection, deserves special mention. His sterling work as editor of the Dusty Springfield Bulletin created a formidable archive of material and it is thanks to him that, over the years, many rare recordings have seen the light of day. The package feels comprehensive, authoritative and well produced by people who have taken their responsibility to a great artist very seriously. And with the exception of the Lana Sisters, every stage of Springfield’s career is represented, from the quintessential 1960s numbers to the soft rock of her final work (“Wherever Would I Be”, a duet with Daryl Hall) and her last recording, a short version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” which graced a television commercial and is a poignant reminder that when she chose to indulge them, she had a jazz singer’s instincts for interpreting the standards – another parallel with Amy Winehouse.

That said, it’s a mightily sumptuous and expensive set, clearly targeted at aficionados rather than the idly curious or the Dusty Springfield novice. And the trouble with any substantial compilation is the ratio of ‘new’ material to the old and familiar. Without the hits, it would hardly be definitive, but it’s difficult to imagine that any Dusty fan of substance won’t already have stacks of them in abundance. In producer Tris Penna’s remixes of “Goin’ Back” and “The Look of Love” (he returned to the original master tapes), there is a laudable attempt to bring something fresh to the table. But ultimately, these spacey, ambient versions lack the booming, lush sound that constituted so much of Dusty’s appeal.

Which really leaves the rest of the rarities as the most compelling attraction. And this is a mixed bag of alternate takes, obscure ballads (including the delightful “Summer Love” and an aching “Goodbye”) and some intriguing live performances that date back to the Springfields’ heyday – most of which sound as if they were grabbed by someone holding an unsteady mic with a noisy old reel-to-reel recorder under the table in a nightclub. You certainly get the atmosphere but when you’ve heard them once, you probably won’t be keeping them on shuffle. The hits, however, are ageless.

Album Review: Anita Skorgan – Adventus (Special Edition)

15 Nov

Is it True? The song that captured the hearts of Radio 2 listeners

Adventus: a Christmas album that evokes and provokes

“Christmas has started,” said Anita Skorgan before launching into a chilled, jazz-inflected version of “Silent Night” which achieved the near-impossible feat of giving you the feeling that you were hearing that familiar carol for the first time. It was the last number of a short set intended to showcase the UK release of a special edition of her recent album, Adventus, delivered in the opulent surroundings of the palm court at the Langham Hotel.

Skorgan’s surprised delight at the growing British interest in her work was as charming as her songs – contemplative, searching threnodies with a non-evangelistic spiritual accent that is a rare antidote to the annual rash of festive standards already descending on us.

It would be patronising to call this Skorgan’s breakthrough when has been a major star in her native Norway for more than 30 years. Yet there’s something very touching and satisfying about a successful, mature artist finding deserved but unexpected acclaim beyond their established market. And for that, she has to thank BBC broadcaster Jeremy Vine, who introduced Skorgan’s showcase and has been playing her songs for a couple of years – and listeners of his Radio 2 lunchtime show, who heard something profoundly appealing in her pure soprano and gentle melodies and wanted to know more about her. That powerful connection was crystallised in the wake of last summer’s atrocities in Oslo and Utøya, when Skorgan sang live on the show, her clear, soaring voice epitomising the dignified grief of her nation.

The Eurovision years: Anita Skorgan sings “Oliver” in Jerusalem, 1979

Anita Skorgan: voice of a nation

In fact, Anita Skorgan is no stranger to international audiences. But in helping to bring her to wider attention, Vine has succeeded where several high-profile Eurovision appearances failed. Readers whose memories stretch back to the late 1970s might recall her stalwart efforts for Norway, which included the excellent “Oliver” in 1979, a duet with her former husband Jahn Teigen and in 1988, songwriting credits for Karoline Krüger’s fifth-placed “For Vår Jord”.

Adventus is actually an updated and largely anglicised version of Julenatt, a 1994 album that sowed the seeds of Skorgan’s hugely popular – and groundbreaking for a pop singer – seasonal tours of traditionally sober Norwegian churches. The first track on the album – the poignant “Is it True” – is the song that captured the hearts of Jeremy Vine’s listeners, and the way she delivered it to an enraptured showcase audience showed exactly why this thoughtful, questioning and deeply personal exploration of hope struck such a chord.

Equally absorbing, “The Miracle in Me” was another performance highlight. With lyrics from the pen of Skorgan’s regular song-writing partner Kari Iveland, it interprets the story of Christ’s birth from Mary’s point of view without a hint of evangelising. Like “Peace”, in which faith bursts from uncertainty with a glorious burst of the saxophone from Tore Brunborg,  and “Come With Me”, these songs are thematic rather than specifically religious.

There are a handful of traditional numbers, including a Norwegian version of “Mary’s Boy Child”, plus Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu”, “Den Fattige Gud” (on which Skorgan is joined by rousing Salvation Army horn orchestra, and the sweet folk song “Et Lite Barn”, all delivered with a vocal clarity thrillingly free of artifice or schmaltz. There’s also a homage to her hero, Johan Sebastian Bach, whose first Prelude she references on “Kyrie Eleison”.

Skorgan’s voice has a beguiling honesty and underlying nordic melancholy. Rather than imposing a particular narrative, she invites you to explore a thought or a feeling with her. The result is an album that is evocative and subtly provocative. Light the candles. Christmas has started indeed.

Album review: Jo Birchall – Something to Say

22 Sep
 
Wonderful: Jo Birchall delivers a late blast of summer
 

Something to Say: Jo Birchall firmly in the driving seat

Here’s a late blast of summer. A collection of bright, guitar-driven pop songs – self-penned, with a handful of faithful covers thrown in – from London-based Liverpudlian Jo Birchall.

A veteran of the first series of Pop Idol, Birchall is blessed with a fine, confident voice and a well-stocked songwriter’s tool chest. Signed to Gary Barlow’s production company in the wake of Pop Idol exposure, she made an album for Decca, which was promptly shelved when the record company restructured. Meanwhile, Barlow, who continued to be a champion of her work, became preoccupied with the revival of Take That, and Birchall’s career was interrupted by family illness and personal loss.

But if the last five years have been a bit of a roller-coaster, she’s very much back in the ascendant following Barlow’s advice to get into the driving seat. Something to Say is a polished production, and Birchall was particularly impressive when she launched the album at a showcase in July.

On a humid evening in the oak-panelled cavern upstairs at Kettners, packed with seasoned music hacks and industry insiders, she commanded the room impressively with a brisk set that easily kept the wailing Soho police sirens at bay: no mean achievement.

Birchall excels at the Nashville-tinged ballad. “All About Love”, “Wonderful” and the title track, “Something to Say”, are well-constructed, radio-friendly earworms with upbeat lyrics. But in true country-influenced tradition, there’s also an underlying melancholy and a more than a hint of bitter experience in some of the low-key numbers, particularly the standout track, “Unanswered”, with its aching, Dusty-style piano.

“Unanswered” unplugged

The covers, which include “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You”, are fine, straight-down-the-middle interpretations. But on the evidence of the rest of the album, Birchall doesn’t really need to bulk out her own song-writing talents with other people’s old crowd-pleasers.

Kathy Kirby: a Unique and Troubled Star

21 May

Kathy Kirby sings at the NME Poll Winners concert in 1964

Hits, Rarities and Lipgloss: demand for Kathy Kirby's recordings remains high, despite her years away from the spotlight

A star’s longevity is a complex thing, often defying simplistic interpretation based on chart placings, millions of records sold and accumulated decades of success. So how to explain the enduring enigma of Kathy Kirby, whose death at the age of 72 made the headlines, despite the fact that nearly half a century had passed since she was at the peak of her television stardom, and it was four decades since she had made any substantial recordings?

Discovered and mentored by the great band leader Bert Ambrose, Kathy Kirby was groomed in the image of his ideal woman – a kind of late 1950s hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors, with crisply styled peroxide hair and startlingly glossy red lips. Ambrose’s concept was dated even by the time Kirby became a major television star on the strength of her early 1960s appearances in Stars and Garters. But somehow – largely thanks to a winning and cheerful personality that knew instinctively how to reach a television audience beyond the camera and, crucially, a voice of spectacular power and emotional force, which commanded attention whatever she was singing – she transcended the stylistic straightjacket he imposed on her.

As so often in the annals of show business, Kathy Kirby’s life eventually came to mirror the more dramatic lyrics of some of her songs. This, combined with the unique qualities of her voice, dusted her with an almost mythical fascination, long after her active career had waned.

Ambrose had given Kirby her first break as a teenager, employing her on a short contract as a vocalist for his dance band after she had persuaded him to let her sing for him at the Palais de Danse in Ilford when she was just 16, in 1954. She spent the next few years paying her dues on the club circuit, singing with Ambrose on and off, and gaining valuable show-business experience. But it was not until he became her manager and took control of her recording and television career that things really took off, culminating in hit singles and albums for Decca, and some hugely popular television series. Their relationship soon developed privately and they would be together until his death in 1971, an arrangement that would have disastrous consequences for Kirby.

Kathy Kirby’s repertoire, tightly controlled by Ambrose, was heavily standards-based. Her most enduring hit was an up-tempo cover version of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”, and most of her television performances favoured the American song book and show tunes rather than the pop and soul songs that fuelled the careers of her contemporaries – Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Cilla Black and Petula Clark. Her look, too, was at odds with their fashionable styles, which would come to define the swinging 60s. And yet she carved a niche for herself in a competitive market, winning an NME Award for the best female singer of 1964 and singing “I Belong” with characteristic brio for the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. She was defeated only by the mighty combination of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s yé-yé compositions and the nubile France Gall, who took the trophy for Luxemburg.

I Belong: Kathy Kirby’s performance at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest

There’s no doubt that Kirby could – and should – have had a much more versatile and long-lasting career. But Ambrose’s artistic and financial control were absolute. Occasionally she tried to persuade him to try something new. She begged him to let her record “You’re My World”, a typically extravagant 1960s Latin ballad that would have suited her vocal range and majesty down to the ground. He refused, the song went to Cilla Black, and she took it to the top of the charts. Not only were Kirby’s sharp musical instincts constantly repressed but when Ambrose died, she discovered how badly he had mismanaged – and misspent – her hard-earned fortune (she was for a while the UK’s highest-paid female television star).

Rudderless and naïve, and at the mercy of her own increasingly brittle temperament, Kathy Kirby soon found herself marooned at the edge of the spotlight. If she’d had the steely, worldly-wise verve of a Shirley Bassey or the common touch of a Cilla Black, and the backup of an astute manager, she might have been able to reinvent herself for the 1970s. As it was, for her, that decade imploded into tabloid notoriety, bankruptcy, mental health problems and a difficult reputation which made work difficult to come by.

Secret Love: Kathy Kirby sings her greatest hit in 1982 – a rare, late appearance that shows she’d lost none of her vocal power

Kirby did come back, several times. As late as 1983, she was making occasional television appearances and singing in nightclubs. Then she turned her back on the business, retreating to her flat in West London. Living quietly, she unwittingly added to her own status as a reclusive enigma. Occasionally a newspaper article would ask, “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” but the lady herself preferred to keep quiet on the matter.

Then, in 2005, a biography (Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss) written by her friend and manager James Harman appeared, generating new interest in her career and recordings. And in 2009, she made a DVD documentary with Harman – Kathy Kirby: My Story – giving her first live interview in decades. Some people were upset by her appearance – she was clearly not in the best of health, and perhaps they resented the changes that had taken place since she was last in the public eye. In fact, her lucid comments, her refusal to cast blame elsewhere for any of her troubles – she loved Bert Ambrose, she said, despite everything – and her gratitude for what she still considered to have been a career of high achievement (which indeed it was), proved a fitting and dignified valediction.

Among her considerable vocal talents, Kathy Kirby was a superb torch singer. You only need to hear her versions of “Body and Soul” or “The Man I Love” to understand the extent of her skill. Her large voice sometimes seemed too grand an instrument to be constrained by small rooms and venues, but given a classic number her phrasing and lyrical clarity were second to none and she was equally capable of great subtlety and an urgent emotional truth. We should have heard a great deal more from her.

I tried to interview her occasionally over the years, sending letters via Equity and Decca without a great deal of hope. Then one afternoon in the mid-1990s, the phone rang and a familiar, breathy, slightly off-centre voice started speaking to me in the third person about a note received for Miss Kirby from Mr Piers. Miss Kirby, said the voice, was not giving interviews at the moment but would pass the letter to her musical director who would let Mr Piers know when anything changed. As tends to happen on such occasions, I was too nonplussed to press the singer – for it was obviously the lady herself – any further and meekly thanked her for calling. Caller-ID allowed me to take a note of the number, which I kept for posterity but never had the courage to ring. Now, it’s too late. But I was delighted that the BBC bulletins made room for news of the death of this unique and quintessentially troubled star.

Album Review: Miriam Waks – Waksing Lyrical

10 May

O gente da minha terra: Miriam Waks in fadista mode

Waksing Lyrical is an elegant, sophisticated debut album from Sydney’s Miriam Waks. Light jazz inflections mingle in an intimate, lounge-inspired atmosphere as she tours an eclectic  set of standards, chansons and a couple of quaint, unexpected choices.

Why Suffer: Miriam Waks collaborates with Coptic Soldier

There’s no doubt Waks can deliver a genuinely contemporary sound when she has to. Check out her collaboration with Coptic Soldier on “Why Suffer” for evidence. So when I say that in some ways, the overall effect of Waksing Lyrical is disarmingly old-fashioned, I mean it in the most complimentary way: her diction is perfect, regardless of the language she’s singing in (and her linguistic skills are nicely showcased). You get every word, which is rare in an age of overwhelming production values. And there is an air of traditional, pared-back simplicity about the whole project that is utterly refreshing.

Kerrie Biddell has done a discreet job on the mixing desk, leaving plenty of air around Waks and her accomplished trio – pianist Michael Bartolemi, Ben Waples on double bass and drummer James Waples (they’re joined by her uncle, Nathan, on cello for “La Vie en Rose”).

Waksing Lyrical: an elegant debut for the Sydney singer

Waks has a lilting soprano voice that really tugs the heartstrings on the ballads. But she also throws in some earthy grit and nuanced comedy on more lived-in numbers like “Peel me a Grape”, “Black Coffee”, “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and the suitably torchy “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s”, phrasing with confidence and clarity. She attacks “There’s Gotta be Something Better Than This” with restrained bravado.

The Portuguese and Spanish numbers – “Chega de Saudade” and “Veinte Años”, in particular throb with dignified emotion, and she has a sweet, wistful approach to “La Vie en Rose”. Further proof of her stylistic range is provided by the Sephardic song, “Si Veriash”, on which she reveals real vocal ease and flexibility.

As I’m writing this Eurovision 2011 is fast approaching, so the presence of “Al di La” rates a special mention. Although Betty Curtis failed to win the 1961 contest for Italy with this stately, sentimental ballad, it became a signature song for Connie Francis. Dated it might be but here, dusted off and polished up by Waks, it gleams afresh, full of yearning and regret for what might have been.

Al di La: Betty Curtis sings at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961