Tag Archives: Torch Singer

Album review – Claudia Brücken: Where else…

5 Oct

Nevermind: Literate lyrics over a throbbing techno-beat

Where else... the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken's shines in a new set of self-penned songs

Where else… the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken’s voice shines in a new set of self-penned songs

It’s nearly 30 years since the melancholy purity of Claudia Brücken’s voice first came to wider attention as one of the main elements of Propaganda’s punchy, cinematic brand of electronica. Three decades on, the German singer’s third solo album Where Else… acknowledges the ongoing significance of electronic music in her career – not least in the throbbing beats of “Nevermind” and “Letting go”, overlayed with literate, earworm lyrics – while drawing subtly on a broader range of influences.

Apart from a pristine version of Nick Drake’s “Day is done”, all the tracks are written by Brücken and the album’s producer John Owen Williams, who has established a strong track record for getting the best out of his female collaborators in the studio (he was also the force behind Petula Clark’s recent success, Lost in You).

Their well-crafted songs are built around strong journey-like narratives which tell tales of shattered trust, reconnection, and optimism rising from adversity, reflecting Brücken’s decision to move away from the synth bank and try out the guitar – an instrument she learned to play during the making of the album – as the central plank of her song-writing. “Walk right in” shimmers with echoes of English folk, while “How do I know” and the funky, guitar-driven “Moon song” are each, in their own way, invitations to intimacy.

The combination of a sharp, contemporary musicality and her preference for story-telling, which also reflects a lifelong admiration for great European artists like Piaf, Dietrich and potent American singer- poets such as Patti Smith and Lou Reed, is fascinating.

Beautifully integrated, delicate layers of sound cradle and support Brücken’s lucid vocals as she explores the complex territory of the troubadour and the chanteuse réaliste. Williams’s skill is such that hints of Velvet Underground darkness blend easily with Abba-esque riffs, creating a bittersweet world in which the emotional climate is never settled for long.

Duel: Brücken’s 1980s stint with Propaganda remains a key influence on her music

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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 Dimbleby and friends: Love Comes Again

16 Aug

She’s gonna live the life… Kate Dimbleby gives it some of that Mahalia soul

Love Comes Again: fabulously eclectic and not a single bum note

Love Comes Again: fabulously eclectic and not a single bum note

Imagine, if you will, a voice with a light jazzy edge reminiscent of Peggy Lee. Then throw in a dash of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, burnish it with Joan Baez’s molten serenity, and you’ll end up with something like the sound of Kate Dimbleby.

After 20 years  at the mic, of course she’s her own woman and comparisons can be fatuous. First and foremost, she sounds like Kate Dimbleby. But I just wanted to give a sense of the range and texture that she has developed during that time – and offer the suggestion that despite her dynastic moniker, she is one of a considerable band of British female singers who should be much more widely known than they are.

That’s the curse of a recording industry that is still dominated by a few big labels, a handful of over-powerful executives, and relentlessly compartmentalised marketing. But Dimbleby says that during the course of putting her new album – Love Comes Again – together, she quickly realised that she doesn’t make records or perform for the money. 

Thankfully, this hasn’t precluded previous success; she has been widely acclaimed for her interpretations of Peggy Lee and Dory Previn songs, in particular. But there is a sense of liberation in an eclectic set of tracks that embraces Simon and Garfunkel, Mahalia Jackson, Rupert Holmes, The Divine Comedy, Cab Calloway and that doyenne of renegade singer/songwriters Kirsty MacColl, without striking a single bum note.

This is an album of sparkling quality, presented by Dimbleby ‘and friends’ who include Malcolm Edmonstone on a defiant version of Jackson’s “I’m Gonna Live the Life I sing About in my Song”, and The London Quartet on the sparklingly humorous “Everybody Eats When They Come to my House”- a number that rings with Lee-like inflections.

Love Comes Again is a celebration of great song-writing, selected by a singer who is completely at ease with the material. The mood shifts eloquently from regretful shades of blue (“Hello Always Ends in Goodbye”) to that poignant plea for compassion, “Be Not Too Hard”, and on to the gloriously swelling cynicism of MacColl’s “England 2 Columbia 0”. In Dimbleby’s hands, this tango ballad becomes a triumphant anti-torch song.  The penultimate track, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, is not the carol but a rich, complex look at the human condition with music by Dimbleby herself. Fabulous.

Album Review – Violette: Simple is Beautiful

4 Jul

La Vie en Rose: Violette leaves the bal musette behind

Simple is Beautiful: a heady mix of pop, torch ballads, soul and chansons

Sorbonne and Berklee College of Music graduate Violette harnesses a complex range of influences on her third album, which give the lie to its title Simple is Beautiful. Sometimes the mix is so broad that it’s tricky to pin down a specific style or direction: “All I Need”, for example, juggles rhythms and pace like there’s no tomorrow. That’s no bad thing in an age when the music industry seems more determined than ever to categorise artists in easy-to-market boxes.

Here are power ballads, soul shuffles with a hint of reggae and, for good measure, a dash of Piaf. The award-winning singer /songwriter’s jazz-tinged pop songs, mostly self-penned (with Rich Mendelsson), are deceptively light, and underpinned by catchy beats, urgent guitar riffs and earthy harmonicas. Quirky references and rhyming couplets abound on numbers like “Superwoman”, interspersed with reflections on the contemporary life and concerns of a young woman about town.

Violette has a sweet voice that reflects the discipline of her classical training – thankfully, the modern trend for all things melismatic has passed her by – and is particularly suited to ballads such as the title song and the bonus track “Miss Your Company”,  if a little less robust on the up tempo rock and gospel numbers.  There’s a glorious Streisand-style torch song, “Don’t Make Me Beg”, all soaring strings and building key changes, which might have considerably improved France’s recent Eurovision status, if Violette had been tempted to represent her native country.

She lives in New York these days, but there’s a nod to her roots with a couple of French language tracks: “Insomnie”, a swirling love song with an operatic choral backing, and “La Vie en Rose”, a jazz-flecked interpretation of Piaf’s standard that is more Manhattan supper club than Montmartre bal musette, reflecting Violette’s transatlantic transition. Between them she and Mendelsson have produced another album with great clarity. A fourth is already on the way.

Album Review – Mari Wilson: Cover Stories

4 Jul

Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying: Mari Wilson goes all Proustian on us

Cover Stories: a delightful piece of work

The title of Mari Wilson’s new album isn’t just a play on words. Cover Stories takes some beloved songs and gently picks its way through their lyrics, discovering a multitude of unexpected twists and turns, against a subtle backdrop of modern, stripped-down arrangements that make you shiver with pleasure as the tune emerges from each reinvented intro.

It’s bathed in nostalgia but could never be described as just another retro covers project. That’s partly down to Wilson’s sensitive, spot-on vocals which give the album its rather poignant quality. It isn’t that the choice of song is unremittingly sad. Far from it. But as she takes traditionally up-beat numbers like Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to be With You” or the Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and slows them down to meandering threnodies of contemplation, it’s impossible to escape a slight sense of melancholy, of youth seen through the eyes of experience.

I wouldn’t normally expect to describe a new treatment of “Be My Baby” or Gerry Marsden’s “Don’t Let the Sun Catch you Crying” as Proustian, but it’s a measure of the album’s quality, and the thought that has gone into the production (by Simon Hale, who also plays keyboards, and Wilson herself), that its dying chords leave a host of half-memories and elusive dreams hanging in the air, like the scent of autumn on a late summer breeze.

She has chosen these songs very carefully, and with great respect for the writers who have provided her – and us – with such a rich soundtrack of pop music.  And while she connects with them through her own story – much of which will be familiar to anyone who has had the good fortune to spend an evening at one of her gigs – her considerable gifts as a singer render them equally a reflection of the listener’s life. We revisit our own stories in parallel, allowing old, benevolent ghosts another outing. And just as when she sings “Be My Baby” in concert, and your eyes fill with unbidden tears for reasons that you can’t quite put your finger on, it’s a moving experience.

Other stand-out tracks include “Disney Girls” (another concert favourite) and the Gillian Welch number “Dear Someone”, which is treated almost like a sentimental Edwardian music-hall song (more ghosts!) The Gibb brothers are represented by “First of May”, Kirsty MacColl by “They Don’t Know”.  Cover Stories signs off with a soft, jazzy treatment of “Everybody Needs a Holiday”, an acknowledgement of the power and value of support in a relationship. It’s a reassuring coda to a really delightful piece of work.