Tag Archives: Popular Female Singers

Adele: a Torch Singer for the 21st Century

7 May

Someone Like You: Adele comes of age as a 21st-century torch singer at the Brit Awards 2011

When BBC Breakfast tackled the subject of Adele’s universal appeal and meteoric rise yesterday, the most enlightened comments came not from the ‘experts’ on the sofa but from the people interviewed on the street. One by one, they identified, easily and succinctly why her voice and lyrics strike such a chord with an extraordinary range of listeners. Back in the studio, meanwhile, the conversation got bogged down in sales figures and clichés, and an awkward segue into Cheryl Cole’s appointment as an X Factor judge in the States. What nobody identified as the root of Adele’s success is that she is, above all, the epitome of the torch singer – one of the finest of her generation – whose lyrics, combined with a voice of real range and depth, unravel the epic personal emotions of everyday heartbreak.

In the following article, a version of which appears in the current issue of Theatre & Performance magazine (with some unfortunate graphical errors), I have tried to analyse the eternal popularity of the torch singer, placing singers like Adele, Marianne Faithfull, Justin Bond and Mari Wilson – who here gives a splendid masterclass on the art of torch-singing – in this great tradition.

Marianne Faithfull: grande dame of torch singers (photo by Patrick Swirc)

Adele is dominating the pop charts with her lush, wounded ballads. Tracie Bennett is burning up the West End with her visceral performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow. Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses and High Heels is a useful reminder that there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to unravelling the nuances of lyrics we thought we knew so well.

Yes, the torch song – and our appetite for its cathartic powers – is alive and well. And singers who can deliver one effectively, honestly and with integrity, will always exert a special hold on our broken hearts.

Perhaps it’s the drama: the singer alone in the spotlight, spinning a tale of loss, abandonment, loneliness and longing. Regardless of the genre – rock and pop, country, jazz, cabaret, folk or musical theatre – it’s one of the most totemic images in show business. And it’s served its exponents well since the term ‘torch singer’ was first coined in the 1920s to describe a brace of singers who plied their trade on Broadway, in revues and after-hours nightclubs, and in the early radio and recording studios, specialising in melancholy numbers that struck an emotional chord in the listener that went beyond mere sentiment.

These days, only specialists and enthusiasts will give a second thought to performers like Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice Libby Holman or Lee Wiley. But they were all, in their way, trailblazers for the torch singers who have followed in their wake, and not just the great triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf; three women whose influence on technique, delivery and style continue to resonate with many performers half a century and more after their premature deaths.

Piaf’s place at the top of the tree is a useful reminder that the French chanson has always been a key influence on the concept of the torch song. Brice’s signature song “My Man” – still one of the darkest and most brutal examples of this type of lyric – started life as “Mon Homme”, a lament popularised in Parisian music-halls by the legendary Mistinguett.

Broadway shows have also contributed immeasurably to the evolution of the torch-song, ever since Helen Morgan perched on a piano and delivered a tremulous “Bill” in Showboat, and Libby Holman growled “Moanin’ Low” to a delightedly scandalised audience in The Little Show just before the Wall Street Crash unleashed the Great Depression.

Many great torch songs now recognised as standards started life as stage numbers – a tradition that has been continued by great composers and lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and most recently, Jason Robert Brown.

But broken hearts have also always provided rich material for song writers and, as jazz and big band music moved over to make way for mainstream pop music in the 1950s, they discovered an even broader, global medium to explore the darker side of love. And so the torch was picked up by pop singers like Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey and Elkie Brooks, superstars Streisand and Minnelli, and later by Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor and a string of rising 21st century stars including Adele and Amy Winehouse.

It’s no coincidence that the iconic status of many of the great torch singers has been assisted by their propensity for living in a way that seemed to perfectly reflect the lyrics to which they brought such insight and emotional substance. Even today, our response to the unique vocal qualities of Piaf, Judy and Billie is complicated by our knowledge of the personal price they each paid for success and affirmation by audiences – and a music industry – who perhaps did not always have their best interests at heart.

How else to explain the contemporary appeal of a play that focuses on the traumas of Garland’s final appearances at The Talk of the Town? In End of the Rainbow, Tracie Bennett has been a revelation as the self-destructing star, peeling back the layers of internal conflict and drug-fogged delusion one by one. And it’s in the songs that her characterisation is rooted, conjuring the essence of Garland with “The Man That Got Away” in a way that’s had the audience mesmerised night after night.

Even playing these women in dramatised accounts of their lives exerts a tremendous physical toll that gives an insight into the close relationship between the torch singer and the material that is her stock in trade. Piaf, Pam Gems’s play, pulls no punches in its depiction of the way the singer’s voice absorbed all the abuse the Little Sparrow inflicted on it, while still emerging powerful as a bell from her wracked body. For Elaine Paige, who played the role in 1992, it was a painful revelation.

“There was something about her I felt akin to, a kind of obsessive quality,” she once recalled in an interview with this writer. “I find something and I get involved and get hooked and it becomes a bit of an obsession. I didn’t realise it was going to be quite as exhausting. I was very fulfilled and very drained. Every night. I’ve had problems with my knees ever since, from walking around with bowed legs, bent double! She isn’t the easiest character to play without suffering a bit yourself.”

There are occasional reminders that self-destructive tendencies in a singer can still fuel an uncomfortable fascination, particularly when an artist seems completely absorbed by the experiences they are singing about. Look at Amy Winehouse who has long since proved herself one of the great torch singers of our age, despite a back-story that evokes the darker excesses of Billie Holiday or Judy Garland.

Winehouse could draw some inspiration from another trailblazer, Marianne Faithfull, who has long since emerged from the chaos of her own tabloid years to become a stately grande dame of dramatic song. Faithfull’s voice testifies to self-inflicted ravages but there is a beauty and an honesty in her lyrical interpretations that remains utterly arresting.

“I’ve always loved story songs,” she says. “I suppose it’s part of my acting thing, to get into character and live the story with the person. But I think it’s got stronger, probably because I’ve got a bit more compassion now, for myself and others!”

While torch singing – and the image of the torch singer – is primarily associated with female performers, there have also been great, intuitive male interpreters capable of twisting the heartstrings in this way. From Brel, Sinatra and Scott Walker to Marc Almond and Ian Shaw, great male vocalists have also demonstrated a way with desolate lyrics that come into their own at midnight.

For New York transgender singer Justin Bond, who prefers the pronoun ‘v’, the best torch songs achieve their power through evocation.

“Great torch singers create a safer space for us to address our desires and heartaches,” v says. “We get to live our pain through them. When singing a torch song, my mission as a singer has always been to reveal ideas and emotions that would allow my audiences to experience things in a communal way that they might ordinarily allow themselves to deal with only in private – thereby validating them and their experiences of loss, anger, loneliness or desire.”

In the End: Justin Bond spins a torch song at Joe’s Pub in New York

But is it really necessary to have lived to the extremes suggested by so many torch song lyrics? Go to a gig by any of our finest contemporary torch singers – Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Ian Shaw, Antony Hegarty, Martha or Rufus Wainwright – and at some point in the evening you are guaranteed an emotional workout as prescribed by Bond. But in most cases, the emotional realism that they generate with a particular song is founded on an understanding of the lyric that taps into their own human experiences rather than a 24-hour commitment to excess.

“I don’t think ‘good acting’ alone can put across a torch song,” says Bond. “I was pretty much in touch with my emotions as a child, and I think I was capable of tearing up a Jacques Brel tune even in my teens. You’re never too young to understand great sadness OR sexual desire, trust [me].”

Bond cites Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as a great torch number – “written from the perspective of a louche gay man coming of age in very tenuous times” – but says the torch song is in good hands with modern song writers.

“I like some of Jarvis Cocker’s songs. “This is Hardcore” is a great torch song,” v says. “Antony [Hegarty] writes beautiful torch songs and Rufus Wainwright has written some lovely examples. My record, Dendrophile, is coming out in the States on April 5th and includes covers of what might be considered torch songs – “Superstar”, “Diamonds and Rust” and Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”.

“The fact that they are called ‘torch songs’ implies a burning,” adds Bond. “The greatest loves and strongest desires come from a deeply spiritual need. Great torch songs evoke a kind of dissatisfaction caused by uncontrollable, even unwanted, desires that aren’t being satisfied.”

The true torch singer, then, is defined by a capacity to touch us, regardless of sexuality or age, and the extravagance of many of the lyrics they interpret is a disguise for deep, shared, ordinary emotions. A great exponent gives us permission to acknowledge those emotions. As long as we need that, the torch singer’s future is assured.

Torch Singing Masterclass With Mari Wilson

Mari Wilson: you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness (photo by John Haxby)

Choose your torch songs carefully. I was 15 when I first saw Julie London singing “Cry Me A River” in The Girl Can’t Help It. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then when I started gigging properly in 1981, I was driving along in my Austin A40 and finally it came on the radio. I started singing it in my sets and it felt right – and it still does. It’s such a well-crafted song. Every time I sing it, it’s like being on a football pitch. I’ll decide to take it over there, or stay here in the middle. That’s why you never get bored singing a song of this quality. A great torch song needs that breadth and depth.

Use your experience to tell the story. It’s lovely when people write and tell me that my recording is the best version. But to be honest, I think I sing it much better now because I’ve lived twice as long – and I’m a much better singer! Back then, I hadn’t had my heart broken in a major, adult way. You can only sing from your own experience.

It isn’t all about age. Listen to Adele. She’s only 21 but she’s obviously singing from a deep hurt. Or Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” at 14. Or Amy Winehouse singing “Love is a Losing Game”. You can have the experience to put across a torch lyric at any age. It’s about being able to be honest and vulnerable. You can’t be cynical, you have to be willing to open yourself up, because actually, when you’re singing a torch song, you’re admitting something about yourself and what the lyric means to you.

Write your own material. Trying to find the right songs is difficult. You have to be interested in the lyrics over and over again. I’ve been writing a lot of my own songs [Mari Wilson’s one-woman musical, The Love Thing, had its debut at the Leicester Square Theatre last November]. A lot of the time when you’re singing, you’re also acting. But you have to find an element of truth in the material.

Be your own age. I’m singing “My Love” at the moment and when you’re in your 50s, it’s all about how kind and dependable your love is. Because when you get older, that’s what you want! Friendship and kindness really matter. Of course sex is important but there’s more to it than being great in the sack. And pop music has always been about sex and young people. Jessie J’s “The Price Tag” and “Do it Like a Dude” are fantastic – but where is there to go after that? You need romance and love.

Understand the lyrics. Mick Jagger’s lyrics for “Wild Horses” were written about his relationship with Marianne Faithfull. They were relevant then, to a young person. But they’re equally relevant to me today – “I watched you suffer a dull aching pain…”, “Let’s do some living after we die…” – you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness. That’s what’s so good about the words: there are so many possible interpretations and they can all have meaning, regardless of what stage you’re at.

Sing according to your venue. It really does make a difference. We did The Love Thing in the basement at Leicester Square, without a proper sound system and nothing between me and the audience. In contrast, I’ve just sung at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, which was really lovely. There’s something special about a larger room when the lights go down and the spotlight’s on you. You have some help creating the mood and it helps you to sing a torch song better. Equally, you need to be able to get up and sing at a party – like Judy Garland or, I’m told, Amy Winehouse who, by all accounts, is extraordinary in those private settings. I once sang “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” at a party. It was song that we played at my mum’s funeral, where it had everyone in a heap, so it’s a tricky one for me. But it was also very special to be able to move people in such an intimate space.

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Concert review: Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw at Fleece Jazz (Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club), 26th March 2011

26 Mar
The Abbey Road Sessions: Ian Shaw’s new album explored

Mari Wilson: far from common (picture by John Haxby)

As double acts go, they don’t come much more dynamic than Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw, who dusted Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club’s Garden Room last night with a touch of glamour, a smattering of camp asides, the odd ribald show-business tale and, above all, majestic vocal talents that temporarily made this unpromising venue feel like the epicentre of musical sophistication.

Old friends and occasional collaborators they might be. But their Fleece Jazz gig only came about at the eleventh hour – Adrian York, Mari’s regular pianist and co-writer having been taken ill the previous weekend. Shaw stepped into the breach with alacrity, consummate keyboard skills and that resonant voice that swings absorbingly between husky soulfulness and the yearning ache of a consummate male torch singer.

Despite Mari’s request to bear with their lack of preparation, they were so obviously – and professionally – at ease with each other’s musical strengths and instincts that on the rare occasion that meltdown threatened (most hysterically as improvisation came to the rescue when the lyrics deserted them for “Something Stupid” at the start of the second set), they readily pulled themselves back from the brink.

There was a comically awkward start: the room was long and when they were introduced, they were so far back that by the time they actually arrived, the audience’s greeting had petered out. “The applause grew as the artists reached the stage,” joked Shaw with just the right hint of acid, and we knew we’d have to be on our mettle as they batted anecdotes and memories to and fro between songs. “Whoop as much as you like,” said Mari. “We don’t mind – we’re common”. But in truth there was nothing common about the two sets that followed.

Shaw’s jazz-accented playing, always sympathetic to Wilson’s fluid, smooth phrasing, also spurred her to invention. By the end of the evening, she was letting fly with some exhilarating gospel-tinged soul riffs. In a recent interview, she told me that “Cry Me A River” – pretty much her signature song – was, like any one of those well structured, well-written standards, the musical equivalent of a football pitch. Its lyrical truths allow the singer to take it and try it out in any direction. Last night, she took it out to the left field with some dazzling extemporisation, steered by Shaw’s ominous, subdued accompaniment. It was as fine an interpretation as you’re ever likely to hear.

Mari Wilson sings “Cry Me a River” at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2010

But there were numerous other highlights. “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (which Wilson sung as the theme to the BBC comedy Coupling), “Just What I Always Wanted” (her biggest chart hit from the 1980s, key helpfully lowered by Shaw, revealing that it remains one of the era’s best crafted pop songs) and “My Love” (an interpretation of touching emotional maturity), all demonstrated what an accomplished singer she is these days. So, too, did a couple of Dusty Springfield numbers – “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten” and “Son of a Preacher Man” – in which, while paying homage to an all-time-great, she triumphantly applied her own nuances and melodic lines. No ghosts were invited to this party.

From time to time, she retreated to a corner of the stage. We were, as she pointed out, getting two for the price of one, and Shaw seized his moments with grace and vocal power – particularly for a resonant “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (sung as a retort to Wilson’s “Be My Baby”) and an extraordinary version of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia”, which had the entire room transfixed by its beauty and eloquence.

It might have been “thrown together” as Mari put it, but this was a memorable evening, defined by the innate class of two performers at the top of their respective trees.

Joni Mitchell singing Amelia in 1983

CD Review – Clare Teal: Hey Ho

3 Mar

Tea for Two: an up tempo number from Clare Teal shows her vocal prowess but as Hey Ho shows, she can slow it down to great effect

Hey Ho: celebrates the glorious diversity of British song writing and is one of Teal's best albums to date

For a no-nonsense, hearty Yorkshire lass, Clare Teal has the uncanny knack of triggering all kinds of unexpected emotions as she peals back the layers of even the hoariest old chestnut. At least twice as I put her jauntily titled new album Hey Ho through its first couple of spins, I realised my tear ducts had responded instinctively to the uncluttered honesty she brings to a ballad, as she cuts through the basic sentimentality of the lyrics and catches you unaware with something fresh and current.

And while there is plenty of up tempo fun to be had here, not least in the Latin beats of Teal’s take on “It’s Not Unusual” – a radical makeover for Tom Jones’s signature song – and “Sing it Back”, or a sultry, laid-back “Feeling Good”, it is her treatment of the ballads that lingers longest in the mind, provocative and challenging.

Hey Ho has been conceived and compiled thoughtfully, with a dash of inspirational boldness, to celebrate great British song writing, dusting the numbers with the lightest of jazz touches in the process. How Noel Coward or Ivor Novello, let alone W. B. Yeats (present courtesy of Herbert Hughes’ setting of his poem, “Down by the Sally Gardens”) would have felt rubbing shoulders with Annie Lennox, Snow Patrol or Moloko is anybody’s guess. All that matters is that here, Teal and her collaborators have identified the common threads that run through some of their most lovedsongs and come up with a musical tapestry that does them all proud.

A lilting and poignant version of Coward’s “If Love Were All” opens proceedings, touching in its exploration of some basic human truths and the reduction of the entertainer’s art to a simple talent to amuse. Time and again, Teal returns to similar introspection and commentary as she tackles “Why” with a softness that makes for a fascinating contrast with the basilisk coldness of Lennox’s original, and “Chasing Cars” with an intimacy that finds startling simplicity at the heart of Snow Patrol’s anthem. “Try a Little Tenderness” and Cleo Laine’s “He Was Beautiful” are achingly sad and dazzling in their clarity.

But for me – and the cause of my misty eyes – the vocal fluency of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and the final track, “We’ll Gather Lilacs”, sum up what this album is all about. There is nothing halting or reticent about Teal’s delivery on these gentle, restrained tracks; just the assuredness of a singer at the peak of her powers. When she opens up her throat, the warmth of her timbre is like the sun coming out. And to make Novello’s lilacs sound completely relevant and immediate in 2011 is a triumph. With only a piano for accompaniment, she makes the song glow with meaning.

Credit must also go to pianist Grant Windsor for his production and musical arrangements, and to Teal’s musicians who include guitarist Femi Temowo and, on “Love is The Sweetest Thing”, stellar saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.

Teal wears her talent with the down-to-earth characteristics of her home county. She once told me in an interview that she was finding her success “Mad as cheese”. With an album of this quality to add to her already distinguished resumé, those flavours should be ripening very nicely by now. Hey Ho is one of her best yet.

Theatre Review: End of the Rainbow (Trafalgar Studios, London)

9 Jan

A trailer full of plaudits for Tracie Bennett – with a tantalising snippet of “Over the Rainbow”

Tracie Bennett: inhabits the role of Judy Garland with assurance and commitment

Two triumphant aspects dominate End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s play-with -music that explores Judy Garland’s turbulent season at London’s Talk of the Town in 1968, months before her death, whose run at the Trafalgar Studios has been extended to April.

The first is Tracie Bennett’s visceral, committed performance as the brittle icon nearing the end of a tether already frayed to breaking point. Bennett inhabits the role with tremendous assurance, layering the multiple nuances between fragile hope and bleak despair with such brilliance that you leave the theatre exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure.

She leads a two-hour guided tour of the ravaged landscape of Garland’s pharmaceutically ravaged psyche, veering from brazen diva-dom to wretched neediness via a clawing desperation, without resorting to a single gimmick or clichéd gesture. And that’s just the acting.

When the back wall of William Dudley’s fantastically evocative set – an expensively vulgar, late 1960s Ritzy hotel suite – rises to reveal the band, it becomes the Talk of the Town stage. And Bennett is also revealed as a superb singer, conjuring the throaty Garland vibrato with such uncanny accuracy that at the height of many of the numbers, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play about a long-dead show business superstar.

In this, she is helped immeasurably by Terry Johnson’s meticulous direction and the musical supervision of Gareth Valentine, who discretely helms the band while Garland’s conductor and accompanist Anthony (a nice turn by Hilton McRae, his sympathy for the fading star ebbing torturously away as she becomes ever more unreasonable) effects control on stage.

Using Chris Egan’s sympathetic arrangements with flair, Valentine whips up the authentic sense of a Talk of the Town band of the time, its slightly desperate bounce and verve signifying the authentic struggle for attention over the clatter of cutlery, the chatter of the audience and constant popping of champagne corks – and the battle to keep pace with the capricious demands of the volatile performer they were obliged to serve.

The play is peppered with a selection of Garland classics: “The Trolley Song” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” are typically frantic moments for the band, while “The Man That Got Away”, the inevitable “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the defiant “By Myself” give Bennett the chance to extend her performance into the stratosphere. Despite the bang-on-target timbre, at no point is this ever an impersonation or a tribute. You won’t find a more complete dramatic interpretation anywhere on the West End stage.

Judy Garland in her final months: a problem subject for playrights

All of which helps to disguise some weaker moments in the play itself. Garland herself is a huge part of the problem. The histrionics, the unstable behaviour, the drink and the drugs, are all so well known that there is nothing new to say about them. Genuine revelations about Garland’s plight are well nigh impossible, and the play’s point occasionally becomes muddled. A previous attempt by Terry Wale in 1986 to dramatise her life (Judy at the Strand Theatre) stumbled in the same way, although it featured an equally compelling and award-winning performance by Lesley Mackie in the title role.

Peter Quilter’s decision to focus on such a specific moment towards the end of Garland’s life, making it a metaphor for all her trials, might have been more effectively served by a monologue in the Piaf mould.

The characters of Anthony – a kind of everyman figure who represents kindness, reason and ultimately, abandonment (most of Garland’s friends necessarily chose self-preservation in the end) – and Mickey Deans, her fifth husband, who was with Garland at the end, are rarely more than ciphers for Garland to fence with. And in the end, she was mainly fencing with herself. Deans, in particular, remains a shadowy character whose influence on Garland as her talent and life drained away could take more scrutiny than End of the Rainbow allows. So, too, could her relationship with her audience – by this stage in her career frequently combative and abrasive, with an unhealthy dash of sadism on both sides.

But if the play isn’t always quite the thing, Tracie Bennett certainly is. Her performance alone is worth the price of a plane ticket and a hotel in town. And with an album of songs from the show in the pipeline, this role places her fairly and squarely on the top rung of musical and dramatic stage actors. Whether you are a Garland fan or not, catch her while you can.

CD review: Mary Hopkin and Morgan Visconti – You Look Familiar

27 Dec

Those were the the days: Mary Hopkin sings her signature song on a very strange choice of set

You Look Familiar: Mary Hopkin shakes off the shreds of nostalgia with a fascinating new album

It’s hard to believe that more than 40 years have passed since a Welsh teenager with a melancholy, angelically crystalline voice and a curtain of blonde hair won a British TV talent show – Opportunity Knocks (how quaint that now seems compared with the global machine that is X Factor today) – and secured a substantial chart career that lasted into the early 1970s.

The name Mary Hopkin will be forever associated with the Paul McCartney-produced “Those Were the Days”, a fatalistic traditional folk song, probably originally from somewhere east of the Urals, which gave her a number one hit. Hopkin was an important early signing for the Beatles’ iconic Apple label.

A blast from the past: Mary Hopkin sings Temma Harbour, produced by Mickie Most, on Top of the Pops in 1970

She went on to work with Mickie Most on a number of hits and represented the United Kingdom in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest. But while she came second with “Knock Knock, Who’s There?”, the experience of singing a song that she has never made a secret of loathing only added to her growing distaste for the manipulation of the music industry – and a lack of influence over her own career that was the lot of most young female singers at the time.

Although she continued recording intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s, much of Hopkin’s subsequent work was within the collaborative security of project bands Sundance and, later, with Peter Skellern and Julian Lloyd Webber, Oasis (long before a pair of Mancunian brothers changed the trajectory of British rock with a group of the same name).

Hopkin seemed bent on putting as much water between her and the days of her greatest commercial success as possible. And although there have been occasional snippets of new work in the intervening years, interviews became rare and accordingly, she acquired a reclusive, increasingly enigmatic reputation – not unlike that of Kate Bush.

Now, she has released a fascinating new album (You Look Familiar) written and produced in partnership with her son Morgan Visconti – and it’s a treat from start to finish, not least because those pristine vocals are utterly undiminished by the years. But it is also a work of real, thought-provoking depth that references Hopkin’s folk roots (“Chime” is the most overtly folk-accented track) and influences as she relates a sequence of rounded, modern stories, from the opening track (“America”) with its tale of the young stowaway heading East to the uneasy warnings of “Eve’s Revenge” and the easy, resigned chug of “Dog Eat Dog” – a catchy pub song.

Intriguingly, many of the arrangements are cradled in infectious, synth-style riffs, beats and echoing overlaid harmonies (some courtesy of daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, a singer in her own right) that often create a retro sense of lush 1980s electronic pop.

But don’t be seduced simply by the sound. Piercing barbs lurk in the lyrics, reminders that Hopkin now has the lifetime of experience that she was only able to hint at as the 18-year old singer of “Those Were the Days”. There is darkness and stinging cynicism, too. I don’t know who she had in mind, writing “Heaven Knows”. But even if her target was personal, the stinging words could equally apply to higher, more public figures and I can think of one or two politicians who would be usefully caught in their firing line.

I love “People Say”, a wise and touching account of an unexpected encounter that could lead to something more, the motherly advice of “Walk Like Me” and the epic, hypnotic forebodings of “Pretenders”. With You Look Familiar, Hopkin has emphatically shaken off the shreds of nostalgia and reminded us of a voice and pedigree that have much to offer in 2011. Don’t leave it so long next time, Mary. We’d like some more – and soon.

CD Review – Emma Dean: Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret

26 Dec

“Sincerely Fearful”: a track from Emma Dean’s new album, Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret

Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret: a record with huge ambitions

I know it makes me a failure on so many levels as a gay man but I’ve never really understood the Kylie phenomenon. Those Stock, Aitken and Waterman years were anathema to me. And give or take a couple of genuinely interesting floor fillers since then – and the lady’s occasional flirtations with jazz and Nick Cave – I’ve always found that tiny sliver of a voice totally at odds with her diva status and the outrageous production values of her arena tours. For such a small talent, she’s had a spectacular career. But now that she’s post-40 and has successfully battled breast cancer, she has also earned her ‘show-business survivor’ stripes. So good luck to her, I guess.

Emma Dean is something altogether different: bold, edgy, clearly determined to plough her own creative furrow and to hell with the consequences, and possessed of a raw, outsize talent that will take some steering. And with a new album – Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret – just out, she is in pole position to be Australia’s next big cultural export.
 
This is a record with huge ambitions – epic arrangements (catch those strings on “Sharks”), swooping vocals (that have had some critics reaching yet again for Kate Bush comparisons), lyrics that plunge with vertigo-inducing speed from existential streams of consciousness to the gut punch of rock balladry and the occasional crude verbal laceration.
 
Dean herself says, “It’s [the album] about letting go of all the things I’m normally too afraid and ashamed to speak of and unashamedly airing them in song.” If you have sensitive pretentiousness antennae, they’re probably twitching already. And the album’s concept – Dean spilling the contents of her sub-conscious to the eponymous Dr Dream – is no small hurdle, for a start. But once you get beyond that and start listening to the words, the cascade of characters, dark tales, threats, dangers and sensual motifs, is innovative and promising.
 
It’s a long while since I heard a lyric as challenging as: “Once a thieving scoundrel dared me to steal your underwear. The silk did trickle down your legs to your ankles pink as pigs,” the opening lines to the hymn-like “Thieving Hearts”.
 
Can’t get her out of my head? Well Dean is certainly a bold and refreshing new voice, and there are several tracks I’ll happily have on my iPod. To be honest, I don’t get Kate Bush so much as Sparks (“Sincerely Fearful”) with a dash of  Tori Amos and Berlin cabaret. Dean’s fascinating vocal texture also reminds me very much of Melinda Miel, a performer of dark, bloodstained cabaret material, who captured the imagination of London’s club scene all too briefly in the early 1990s.
 
 
Melinda Miel sings “Delirium’s Mistress”: dark, bloodstained cabaret from the early 1990s
  
Dean has combined idiosyncrasy and a strong, fetishistic visual impact with a promisingly commercial sound, epitomised by one of the best tracks, the anthemic “Thunder”.
 
At the same time, this points to another hurdle: Dr Dream is a character from her alternative cabaret show, and there is sometimes a sense with the album that the listening experience is only giving you half the story. Not all the songs are wholly effective in a pure audio format. So hopefully, she’ll soon be following that well-trodden path to London and we’ll get the chance to see and hear the complete picture.
Meanwhile, if you’re going to be in Australia this summer, you can catch her as Sally Bowles in Zen Zen Xo Physical Theatre’s production of Cabaret in Brisbane.

CD Review – Renée Yoxon: Let’s Call it a Day; plus news of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Girl Talk, Marianne Faithfull and a Sondheim cabaret season

24 Dec

Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!

Wilson, Jungr and Herbert: the new Girl Talk line-up hits London in February

Congratulations to Barb Jungr, whose album The Men I Love has just been named Cabaret CD of the Year by Time Out New York.

Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.

Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.

Horses & High Heels: Marianne Faithfull's new album, out in March

Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.

Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.

Let's Call it a Day: an auspicious debut from Renée Yoxon

Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.

It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.

Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.

Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.

If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.