Tag Archives: Torch singers

Album review – Franka de Mille: Bridge the Roads

10 Jun


Fluid, assured and with an underlying catch of vulnerability: Franka de Mille sings “Gare du Nord” unplugged

Bridge the Roads: a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons

Bridge the Roads: a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons

The influence of the chanson doesn’t always cross easily into British musical sensibilities, which tend to favour a more ironic or cynical approach when it comes to exploring gut-wrenching emotion in song. But occasionally, a singer emerges who revels in the shape and form of an art-form with a commitment that transcends the reservations and embarrassments of tastes that might be more naturally drawn to the bleak introspection and political nuances of folk noir.

Franka de Mille’s album, Bridge the Roads, delivers such a revelation – a collection of atmospheric, melancholy chansons about separation, longing and atonement which disarm the listener with their honesty.
The lyrics don’t dissemble. Cradled by discreet strings, shimmering mandolins and yearning accordions, they spin raw tales of hurt in which the story-teller reaps the consequences of deception – not least in the album’s centrepiece, “Gare du Nord”, which details the devastation of parting with an existential frankness that harks back to Juliet Gréco at her most mesmerising.

Fluid and assured, with an underlying catch of vulnerability, de Mille’s voice is the perfect vehicle for a journey that begins with the upbeat, country-tinged incitement to “Come On” and the fiddle-enhanced self-realisation of “Fallen”, before things grow increasingly dark and contemplative with “Solo”, a lament that plays cleverly with the song title. “Birds”, punctuated by a wail of anguish that could come from the heart of the Balkans, later picked up in the visceral pain of “So Long”, is a deeply affecting exploration of a father/daughter relationship.

Occasionally, the sun shines through the gathering clouds, hinting at the possibility of healing from these bruising experiences: “Bridge the Roads” itself is a number which sets out the defiant promise of survival and resilience just in time. A complex, rewarding blend of European influences and evocative song-writing.

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Radio interview: Piers Ford talking about torch singers and life as a jobbing journalist

4 Jun

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On 23rd May 2014, I was a sofa guest on BBC Radio Suffolk, chatting to Chrissie Jackson about this blog, among other things, and why there are plenty of female singers who deserve much greater media coverage – and why now is the right  time to get on with writing a book that’s been germinating for 20 years. This is a conversation-only version of the interview, with music and radio bits edited out (thanks to my brother, producer Julian Ford).

Album review – Anita Wardell: The Road

11 Feb

“But Not For Me”: Anita Wardell in recital with Ed Cherry (not on The Road)

The Road: Anita Wardell's lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

The Road: Anita Wardell’s lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

For every Jamie Cullum there are a dozen highly talented British jazz singers who beaver away on the circuit to the delight of the cognoscenti, making critically acclaimed albums and commanding the respect of their peers without the benefit of a profile that might bring a wider audience to hear them.

Anita Wardell is a case in point. With a career dating back to the 1990s, she has enjoyed more than two decades of success. Last year, she was pronounced Best Jazz Vocalist at the British Jazz Awards, leading a shortlist that indicated the sheer depth of talent in this diverse field (Claire Martin, Liane Carroll, Val Wiseman and Clare Teal).

She has earned an international reputation for the scat-singing which has become her trademark, as well as the sensitivity with which she handles ballads and standards, discovering fresh nuances in familiar lines with the lightness and flexibility of her touch. She is one of the most innovative performers on the scene, but she could probably stroll through the Soho heartland of London jazz unrecognised.

Perhaps she’s happy with that. But given the quality of her recent album The Road, it seems a crime that her name isn’t more widely known beyond the glass walls of the jazz world. And I say that as someone who isn’t the greatest fan of scatting. But only a tin ear could fail to appreciate her musicality and subtlety in this department – by no means the only skill on show on this exciting record.

Belying the rather bleak and wintry scene on the album’s cover, The Road ripples like a sophisticated summer evening, particularly in Wardell’s nimble treatment of “Frevo em Maceio” and “Voca e eu”, both redolent of warm Brazilian nights, and her distinctive handling of an old favourite, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”.

A Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays mash-up  of “Travels” and “The Road”, with Wardell’s own lyrics, sets the scene for a journey across some nicely-chosen terrain, which includes a sensuous “You’re My Thrill”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” and a thrilling take on “Without a Song”.

The highlight of the album is “With Every Breath I Take”, which Wardell turns into an elegant, thoughtful torch song. The way she holds the note on the word ‘break’ is a lesson in the virtue of restraint over grandstanding vocal gymnastics.

Album review – Gwyneth Herbert: The Sea Cabinet

5 Jun

Gwyneth Herbert talks about the genesis of The Sea Cabinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album review – Liane Carroll: Ballads

1 May

You’ve Got a Friend: Liane Carroll and Ian Shaw in concert

Ballads: grown-up standards delivered with class

Ballads: grown-up standards delivered with class

Liane Carroll’s new album Ballads leaves you utterly wrung out in the best possible way.  Her soulful treatment and sublime phrasing discover previously uncharted nooks and crannies in this elegant selection of standards and torch songs, interspersed with a bit of Todd Rundgren (“Pretending to Care”), Carole King (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and Buddy Holly (“Raining in My Heart”).

Like a plume of smoke rising from a midnight cigarette, her voice sends these much-loved lyrics spiralling into the air, where they mingle and conjure bittersweet images of love and loss – mainly loss, it must be said – that vibrate with authenticity.

As a vocalist, Carroll is emphatically her own woman. Instinctive and inventive, she laces familiar words with underlying melancholy, and barbs of experience and wisdom, inhabiting the melodies and teasing them in unexpected directions. If I draw comparisons with Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, it’s only because she clearly belongs in such exalted company.

Under James McMillan’s production, her talents are brilliantly matched with spacious yet intimate, modern arrangements – mostly by Chris Walden – and an eloquent band that includes pianist Mark Edwards and saxophonist Kirk Whalum.  The chemistry between Carroll and her musicians is well illustrated by “Calgary Bay”, a sweeping original number by Sophie Bancroft.

“Here’s to Life” and “Only the Lonely” become epics with an almost cinematic quality. “My One and Only Love” and “Mad About the Boy” are reinvented as languorous threnodies. Strings abound, but discreetly, never overwhelming Carroll’s voice as she steers a steady, assured course through each number. Not for her the frills and melismatic swoops that pass for singing in most 21st-century pop music. So when she does let rip – in a devastating take on “Pretending to Care”, for example – it is thrilling to hear, and deeply affecting.

There is more dark than light in these choices. The pace is thoughtful and serious, absorbing, rolling with disappointment and betrayal rather than railing against it: grown-up readings which take a 360-degree view of the lyrics, opening them up into a tapestry of life experience.

The year is yet reasonably young, but it will take a lot for another album to beat Ballads for sheer  class and simple artistry.

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.

Album review – Deborah Shulman and Larry Zalkind: Lost in the Stars, The Music of Bernstein, Weill & Sondheim

23 Dec

Mack the Knife: Shulman and Zalkind whip up a little vortex of menace

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars is a classy little jewel of an album. It takes a couple of listens for the sheer quality and uncluttered lustre of Deborah Shulman’s vocals to take hold, so understated and subtle are they. But once they have you in their thrall, they yield refined treasure.

The album is based on songs from a trinity of musical theatre composers – Weill, Bernstein and Sondheim – who need no further introduction. The delight is in the ease with which Shulman teases out nuances and revelations from numbers that you might think you know inside out.

There’s an eerie, unsettling version of “Mack the Knife”, for example, which sweeps you up into a little vortex of menace, light years from the bravado that most singers ladle on. And if “The Ladies Who Lunch” replaces the traditional self-scorning attack with a more observational, modulated treatment, it’s certainly a fresh approach to some of Sondheim’s most visceral lyrics. That clarity extends to “Children will Listen”, a lilting “I Feel Pretty” and an assured, stark and mournful “Losing My Mind”.

Shulman’s restraint pays such dividends that it almost seems a shame not to hear how she might handle “My Ship”, here an elegant instrumental solo for her brother-in-law, the trombonist Larry Zalkind, whose contribution to the album is equally fascinating. He leads an accomplished band of accompanists who provide Shulman with some intriguing counter harmonies to work against. The texture they bring to the gently swinging “September Song” and the washed-up, after-hours blues of “Ain’t got no Tears Left” is sublime. Serious without once sounding earnest or worthy, this is an album of standards for grownups.