wears the trousers magazine


2007 reviews dump: u v w

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Uncle Earl
Waterloo Tennessee ••••
Rounder

If you are searching for a single word to describe Uncle Earl then ‘energy’ wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Close in the running would be ‘harmony’, and ‘integrity’. From the opening notes of ‘Black-Eyed Susie’ it’s apparent that this girl-group is something special. Theirs isn’t the usual Girls Aloud world of push-up bras, thongs and stumbling out of the Ivy at two in the morning. The g’Earls’ muse is somewhat more authentic. They’re practically a next-gen bluegrass supergroup, bringing together the fiddle of Rayna Gellert and guitar/mandolin talents of KC Groves with Abigail Washburn’s banjo and the guitar, fiddle and feet (yes, feet!) of renowned clog dancer, Kristin Andreassen. Individually, any one of these four accomplished musicians could command respect and admiration from their listeners. In combination, the effect is nothing short of awe-inspiring and, for that matter, foot-tapping too.

On this album all four further show their versatility by sharing vocal duties, and such is their understanding of the music that modern originals rest seamlessly alongside traditional tunes. And of course all of this is cosseted in the foursome’s glorious vocal harmonies. Bluegrass and old-time music hasn’t loomed large in the public consciousness since the year 2000 when the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack made it temporarily flavour of the month. Uncle Earl are here to remind us just what we’ve been missing. In Waterloo Tennessee we encounter all kinds, from the infectious dance tunes of ‘Wish I Had My Time Again’ to tender folk ballads like ‘My Little Carpenter’ and ‘My Epitaph’. The performances are beautifully captured by the production skills of former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, which present a smooth and accessible sound that still preserves the energy, honesty and rawness that brings this type of music alive.

If you’ve never given bluegrass or old-time music a chance up ‘til now, there couldn’t be a better introduction than Waterloo Tennessee, surely one of the most joyous and infectious albums you’ll hear in 2007. Better still, catch the g’Earls live the next time they grace these shores. You won’t regret it. You might even agree with Wears The Trousers that the time is finally ripe for a good ol’ British bluegrass revival. Preach it, sisters.

Trevor Raggatt

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Laura Veirs
Saltbreakers ••••
Nonesuch

Nature girl Laura Veirs continues to move through the elemental album cycle she’s engrossed in. After paying her tribute to fire, earth and sky, Veirs arrives at the seaside with her sixth album Saltbreakers. As well as the by now customary change of theme, it also represents a move away from the singer-songwriter feel and into a more spectral sound that’s very much en vogue. This is shown most evidently on the light touch of the Feist-like ‘Pink Light’, where Veirs sounds as if she’s dancing on air as she sings, and on ‘Don’t Lose Yourself’ where she shows Imogen Heap just how to pull off the trick she’s been attempting for a while now.

The whole album is beautifully played, constructed and sung, and is by far her best work to date, something that, at this far into a career, is a great achievement. There are plenty of deft touches to keep enough variation within the album to retain your avid attention. ‘Ocean Night Song’ sounds like Kate Bush adrift in the Orient, ‘Drink Deep’ is a dreamlike waltz and ‘Nightingale’ is wonderful slumber pop that rouses itself now and again with gentle brushed drums and northern sounding horns.

A little call-and-response vocal play works well on a brace of tracks. The juxtaposition of her singing the single word of the title track and being met with a wordy response that barely squeezes into the line is delightful. ‘To The Country’ simplifies the trick, but using a choral response means it’s no less effective. Two other tracks are worthy of a mention – the upbeat ‘Phantom Mountain’ which is as feisty as Juliana Hatfield and the gorgeous acoustic closing number, ‘Wrecking’.

This is a marvellous album – Veirs’s best to date in fact – and more than worth its salt.

Russell Barker

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Kate Voegele
Don’t Look Away ••••
MySpace Records

Jimmy Wales, whose foundation of Wikipedia effectively gave birth to the oft-analysed phenomenon of Web 2.0, famously said, “we make the Web not suck”. Bear with those syntactically mangled words for a moment; Web 2.0 truly is a modern social leveller, a global forum where the talented, dumb and downright insane all have equal access to public consciousness. It is this equality of access that led to the foundation of MySpace Records, a label that aims to find the newest musical talent on the web via MySpace’s overwhelmingly popular personal profiling site. To date its best achievement has been to sign Ohio-based singer-songwriter Kate Voegele.

A 21-year old Art Education student who quotes her influences as Eric Clapton, Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell – among others – Voegele is proof that for all the Web’s inanities it can still uncover some truly phenomenal talent. Voegele’s debut album, Don’t Look Away, is a comprehensive showcase of her impressive skills as a singer-songwriter and maybe – hopefully – the start of a long career. Dominated by a belting voice clearly influenced by Sheryl Crow, Voegele’s music takes in genres as varied as solid rock set pieces (‘Chicago’), Hammond-laden gospel blues fusion (‘Devil In Me’) and refreshingly simple guitar pop (‘Might Have Been’), an eclecticism so wide ranging as to be remarkable for such a young artist.

In addition to its range of genres, the album’s emotional range is also notable; ‘Might Have Been’, a funky rock piece with a stadium-friendly appeal and classic sounding guitar riffs, could have come straight from T in the Park and is typical of Voegele’s harder-edged work. At the softer end of the scale, ‘It’s Only Life’, which delicately combines a piano and glockenspiel ballad melody with a seemingly incongruous rock percussion, is Voegele’s nod to Joni Mitchell’s influence. Similarly, ‘Wish You Were Here’ enables Voegele to tackle a mature and deeply poetic country song with the sophistication of kd lang and the passion of 1960s Dusty Springfield. Clearly, this girl doesn’t want to be tied to any one genre, or to be compared with any one artist.

The most powerful piece on the album belies Voegele’s understated yet clear passion for her Christian musical heritage (her father, Will, is a prolific writer of modern Christian music). ‘Kindly Unspoken’, a theatrical combination of gospel-style piano riffs and Voegele’s vocal power, clearly takes its influence from hymnal music and is by far the most sophisticated of her work. Reminiscent of LeAnn Rimes at her best, it is further proof, were any needed, that Voegele’s talent is primal, compelling and astonishing.

All of which brings us back to Jimmy Wales’s assertion about Web 2.0; Kate Voegele is one of those rare products of the Web that serve to make it “not suck”. It is probably too much to expect many more artists of her quality to appear in the near future; for now Don’t Look Away sounds like reasonable advice to anyone interested in Voegele’s debut.

Andy Wasley

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Lucy Wainwright Roche
8 Songs EP •••½
Self-released

If musical talent is hereditary, Lucy Wainwright Roche is a lucky girl indeed; she is the daughter of Suzzy Roche, herself a member of a musical family, and Loudon Wainwright III – humourist, actor, singer-songwriter and progenitor of yet more musical magnificence in the form of the absurdly talented siblings Martha and Rufus Wainwright. Blessed with such a musical family, it should hardly be surprising that Lucy would eventually add her own voice to the melodic clamour.

Readers familiar with Roche’s family and its members’ various, often theatrical, musical styles will be surprised by the simplicity of 8 Songs, her debut EP. Roche has opted for a simple collection of guitar-and-voice songs whose influences vary from traditional Scots ballads to modern folk-rock. The traditional side is well represented by the beautiful Scots ballad ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. Ranging from a husky alto to a soaring soprano, Roche’s crystal-clear voice sweetly encapsulates the song’s yearning for the ancient magnificence of heather-clad mountains and youthful adventures. The EP’s second traditional ballad, the oft-interpreted ‘Barb’ry Allen’, proves to be a perfect opportunity for Roche to show off her emotive voice a cappella as she laments the song’s lovelorn characters with faultless, ethereal clarity.

For the modern songs, Roche has selected four of her own creations and two covers. Her ballad ‘Long Before’ is a lovely blend of rich vocals and poetic lyrics, while the more sophisticated ‘Bridge’ provides her with an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of her voice’s emotional quality, sweeping effortlessly from a breathy storytelling intensity to a brighter and more melodic chorus. Fleetwood Mac’s ’80s classic ‘Everywhere’ receives an interesting reinterpretation, while ‘Next Best Western’, Richard Shindell’s hymnal tribute to the faith and hope of travellers, is perhaps the album’s best song.

All that said, 8 Songs is not without its faults. In attempting to find a unique style, Roche occasionally over-embellishes her voice with harmonic or counter-melodic layers. A lesser singer could make great use of such techniques, but in Roche’s case they simply detract from her voice’s elegance. ‘Rather Go’, beset by needless enharmonic layers and a weak melody, does little to showcase her talents.

Although Roche has shunned the histrionics present throughout her family’s various styles, her album is familiar Wainwright stuff – rich, intense and beautiful. Reminiscent of smoky fireside singalongs, 8 Songs marks the entry of a new force in modern folk. Keep an eye on her – if this short collection proves one thing, it’s that Roche is just getting started.

Andy Wasley

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Dinah Washington
Evil Gal: The Imperious Dinah Washington ••••
El

In case you’re wondering whether the world really needs yet another knock-off ‘best of’ collection from jazz icon Dinah Washington – and let’s face it, there really is no shortage of shoddily compiled releases – set your mind at ease for Evil Gal is different. For a start there’s not a single one of her signature tunes; no ‘Mad About The Boy’, no ‘Unforgettable’, no ‘Call Me Irresponsible’…not even ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ rears its sumptuous head. Panic not, however, for straying from the well-beaten path proves much more rewarding than you’d expect.

Mining her later career, Evil Gal finds Washington in her 1950s incarnation, performing with smaller jazz combos rather than the large swing bands of Lionel Hampton and the like. Sitting squarely in the happy transition period between big band schmaltz, we find Dinah comfortably among piano and rich Hammond organ riffs with horns providing solo counterpoint, an endearing blend of soft bebop and distinct doo-wop influences in her vocal. Whatever the style, the constant is the quality of Washington’s singing, and one thing’s for sure – there isn’t a single duff track to be found.

Even the quirkier pieces of fluff such as ‘One Arabian Night’ (“don’t rub your eyes / that’s no surprise / it’s a real-life camel in my garage”) or ‘TV Is The Thing This Year’ (channel surfing never sounded sexier!) have a charm that earns their place. However, the highlights are the standards scattered across the album – ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’, ‘Blue Gardenia’, a great live version of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and the truly imperious eight minutes of ‘A Foggy Day In London Town’ where the Queen of the Blues trades licks and lines with piano, trumpet, double bass and sax.

It’s not for nothing that Dinah Washington is considered to be one of the greatest voices of the 20th century (and a great loss to music at only 39 years of age). The quality of the transfers throughout is outstanding, particularly considering these recordings are 50 years old. Other compilations may have more well known songs but Evil Gal is still a great introduction to an amazing singer who, alongside the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, was a Girl Power heroine decades before Geri pulled on her Union Jack mini-dress. A sister doing it for herself indeed.

Trevor Raggatt

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Beth Waters
This Little Piggy ••••
Mermaid Mafia

I must confess that it took me a little while to get into Beth Waters third album, This Little Piggy…a full 39 seconds to be precise because that’s when, after the brooding, unsettling opening of ‘White Dogs In The Moonlight’, the first of Waters’s gloriously luminous choruses kicks in. From that point on this reviewer was sold on this uplifting album. Whether it’s self-realisation, commitment phobia, escaping from an abusive home or the road to self-destruction, Waters infuses her subject matter with rays of musical hope. And it’s this ability to lift the song with an infectious singalong chorus that raises Waters above your average introspective singer-songwriter.

Across the 10 original numbers the standard of songwriting is uniformly high and ably matched by the musical presentation and the quality of the vocals. Stylistically, This Little Piggy is a diverse collection with audible influences ranging from the likes of Sarah McLachlan and Gemma Hayes to The Barenaked Ladies and, in one instance, Latin beats. This shouldn’t be taken as indicating a lack of coherence or a butterfly mind. Rather, each song is linked through the silky and sensuous sound of Waters’s voice and the production, which subtly merges traditional keyboards and rhythm section with well-placed electronica.

The songs on This Little Piggy mix immediately accessible melodies and multilayered complexity which rewards repeated listening and deeper investigation. One could use expressions such as ‘mature’, ‘adult’ or ‘sophisticated’. but somehow that fails to capture the mixture of intelligence and enjoyment this collection grants the listener or their simultaneously intimate and cinematic scope. Previous Waters tunes have been picked up for TV soundtracks and one could imagine any number of these being used for the wistful section at the end of an episode of ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ where Meredith gazes out a rain-drenched window wondering if she ever will get her Doctor McDreamy.

Waters chooses to close the album with a couple of delightful curveballs. ‘Afraid Of Love’ mixes lyrics exploring the dilemmas of love with a lounge bar bossa nova and cannot fail to raise a smile. What could have been a taste faux pas is instead a catchy tour de force. She follows this with a beautifully downbeat cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, which eases the album to a mellow conclusion. One thing’s sure, if This Little Piggy reflects the kind of output that we can expect from songwriters in 2007, the bad news for the competition is that Beth Waters has already set the bar perilously high.

Trevor Raggatt

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Simone White
I Am The Man •••
Honest Jon’s

Advertisers’ obsession with alternative folk music has become almost a cliché. First it was mobile phone ads taking up Vashti Bunyan and Devendra Banhart, but the past couple of years have seen left-of-centre folk whimsy deployed on commercials for everything from perfume to banks to televisions, and now cars. You’d recognise Simone White’s ‘Beep Beep Song’ instantly from the Audi commercial, it goes “Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep go the horns in the cars in the street / we walked away from the lovers leap”. If this pleasing snippet has piqued your interest, before you jump into your hatchback to rush to the nearest record shop, have a read of this review.

The 13 tracks on Simone White’s sophomore album are a collection of intimate minimal torch-song folk. With simple guitars, sparse percussion and sparing use of other instruments, White’s voice is the star of the show. On the opening track ‘I Didn’t Have a Summer Romance’, the vocal is pure liquid autumn sunshine. A song as gently delightful as can be, it’s a wistful take on the old saying that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The instrumentation, while slight, is pleasingly part jangly folk and part jazz. Warm trumpets close out the song and lead into a gentle brushed cymbal percussion of ‘Worm Was Wood’, the lyrics of which are jarringly, studiedly weird. “Worm was wood / the snail was an ocelot” smacks of trying a bit to hard to be quirky, although kudos to Simone for shoehorning an ocelot into a song.

While the instrumentation and production are pretty much faultless throughout the album, the songs themselves do occasionally leave a little to be desired. From the aforementioned studied weirdness to the almost trite Bush-bashing dissent of ‘The American War’ and clunky anti-capitalism sentiment of ‘Great Imperialist State’ (sample lyric: “I cannot kill my meat nor grow the food upon my plate / I’ve never walked a mile to the well”. The mawkish expression of this song combined with the overly anguished strained voice is, and it pains me to say this, reminiscent of Dido.

Fortunately, for the most part, the intimate vocals are more akin to those of Hem’s Sally Ellyson, Kathryn Williams or even, on the more affected occasions, Stina Nordenstam. However, the songwriting lacks the finesse of any of these acts and the undoubted vocal talent seems wasted on tracks such as ‘Sweetest Love Song’ and ‘Only The Moon’, on which White tells us that the “the one I love is like the moon, unattainable”, which are lyrically and musically trite. It’s a shame, because some tracks, the aforementioned ‘I Didn’t Have a Summer Romance’ and the delicately jazzy ‘Mary Jane’ hint at a talent for storytelling that is otherwise untapped. And the title track, which closes the album, far more ably achieves what ‘Great Imperialist State’ failed to do when she proclaims, “In my own government I am the president”.

The heartening twilight-folk of I Am The Man should be perfect listening for long winter evenings by the fire with a loved one or for reminisces about the summer over a bourbon in a dimly lit bar. When you scratch beneath the surface some of the songs are lacking in substance, but the ambience created by White’s vocal and the excellent musicianship pull the record through.

Peter Hayward

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Fiona Wight
The Last Rose •••½
Renaissance

You could be forgiven for thinking that Fiona Wight hailed from deepest Donegal. That’s not the case, but this maid of Kent does have twin streams of music and the Celtic spirit running through her engine. And, though The Last Rose is strictly her debut album, she already has an impressive career tucked in her back pocket. Twice heralded as Choirgirl of the Year, best-selling classical soloist, featured singer with Irish chamber choir Anúna and first-call lead vocalist for the UK Riverdance company: the music on The Last Rose reflects all of these experiences.

The dozen songs on the album take in traditional folk tunes, songs by respected modern Celtic composers and tracks co-written with Riverdance musical director Cathal Synnott. The arrangements range from the sparse to the sumptuous, couched in both classical and traditional instrumentation. However, the spotlight remains on Wight’s stunning soprano. Like the music, Wight’s voice forms a perfect bridge between classical, traditional and modern. Possessed of a crystalline beauty and controlled poise, it rises to the challenge of the classical aria ‘Ave Maria’ – albeit presented backed by Celtic harp. However, it contains none of the affectations that can make the bel canto such a struggle for the casual classical listener. Wight’s approach is rather more straightforward; for all her impeccable technique the angelic qualities of her voice betray an emotional honesty so often missing from the classically trained.

Always, the voice is the focus for the listener – whether exposed on the Celtic breeze (‘My Lagan Love’) or wrapped in Synnott’s luscious string arrangements (‘A Blessing’). Each song orbits around a Celtic gravitational centre with whistle, uilleann pipes and harp never too far away, but occasionally Wight throws in some pleasing twists from the world music palette. Even that most British of traditional tunes, ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, gets a new lease of life, transported to a sultry and ominous Seville, dripping with Moorish sensuality as Cora Venus Lunny’s violin weaves a heady gypsy melody around the vocal. Olé indeed! Assured as it is, The Last Rose is thoroughly entrancing. A rare and delicate blossom.

Trevor Raggatt

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Lucinda Williams
West •••
Lost Highway

And so the woman with the voice that Emmylou Harris memorably described as capable of “peeling the chrome off a trailer hitch” returns with her eighth studio album. After years of lengthy gaps between recordings, Williams has become positively prolific since the release of 1998’s classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (recently given the Deluxe Edition double-disc treatment), putting out Essence, World Without Tears and Live @ The Fillmore to ever increasing amounts of critical acclaim. For production duties on West she’s roped in Hal Willner, best known for his work with the likes of Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull, whose bruised 1987 album Strange Weather has been an avowed influence on some of Williams’s recent music. (Indeed, at times Williams seems intent on turning herself into a Faithfull of the South, a weather-beaten, down-but-not-out ‘survivor’).

Willner’s presence has led some critics to describe the new album as an exercise in experimentation, and it’s certainly true that Williams is continuing to move away from the country/folk/blues-infused sounds of her earliest work into ambient rock territory. But, to these ears at least, West sounds less like an experimental record than a synthesis of her post-Car Wheels… output, favouring atmosphere over narrative, the ‘universal’ over the rooted and specific. And, unfortunately, like much of her recent work, the album fails to entirely cohere.

Backed by a sturdy group of musicians (Jenny Scheinman’s violin-playing is particularly noteworthy), including regular collaborators Doug Pettibone (guitars) and Jim Keltner (drums/percussion), Williams traverses (overly) familiar thematic territory throughout West, focusing upon love, lust and loss, travel, time and memory. Opener ‘Are You Alright?’ finds her at her most seductive and accessible, building an infectious melody around a series of heartfelt pleas to hear from an errant lover. Though marred by trite lyrics, the jaunty ‘Learning How To Live’ is a more optimistic, less self-pitying break-up song than we’ve come to expect from her, tempering its regret with a healthy dose of country stoicism and the resolve to “make the most of what you left me with”.

Elsewhere, ‘Fancy Funeral’ could be a sombre companion piece to Kate Campbell’s wry song ‘Funeral Food’, with Williams offering a similarly critical analysis of Southern traditions and a gentle reminder that “no amount of rituals will bring back what you’ve lost”. The fierce ‘Come On’ (a cousin of World Without Tears‘s scabrous ‘Atonement’) features a searing electric guitar part perfectly in sync with Williams’s scary vocal and allows her to fulfil her post-Car Wheels… criteria of including one expletive per album. Finally, the title track closes proceedings on a truly gorgeous note of expectation. Perhaps reflecting Williams’s optimism about her recent engagement, the song is an elegant invitation to a lover that manages to convey both the joy at the opportunity offered by a new relationship and a mature acceptance of its probable transience: “Come out west and see… / I know you won’t stay permanently / But come out west and see”.

In between, however, there are more than a few places in which West goes south. ‘Mama You Sweet’, ostensibly about the death of Williams’s mother, gets bogged down in would-be poetic imagery, while ‘Unsuffer Me’ is a slightly embarrassing litany of desires featuring the torturous (and grammatically questionable) command “unbound my feet”. ‘Rescue’ flirts feebly with Beth Orton, and the wretched ‘What If’ proffers a sequence of asinine speculations about a world in which “dogs became kings” and “birds had bank accounts”. ‘Wrap My Head Around That’ is even weaker, a dour inventory of complaints every bit as awkward as its title and stretched out over an excruciating nine minutes. After the similarly unconvincing ‘American Dream’ on World Without Tears, what Williams really needs is a producer brave enough to tell her that rapping might not be such a great idea.

Listening to these tracks, it’s hard not to feel that the increased speed of her output has resulted in an associated dip in quality, for, ever since Essence, the detailed, narrative elements of her songs have been replaced by more general statements, sometimes of a rather banal nature. Most problematic of all is her tendency to use a similar compositional style; in too many places on West she falls back on repetitious listing song structures that suggest she’s been bitten by the Alanis Morissette bug. Those who make inflated claims for Williams as a great lyricist – a Faulkner or Welty of song – will have their work cut out trying to defend the repetitive structures employed throughout, not to mention some decidedly dodgy rhymes (“eyes” and “guys”, “kid” and “did”, “danger” and “stranger”, “gum” and, er, “bum”). What’s missing is the rich, vivid detail that characterised her earlier slice-of-Southern-life songs such as ‘The Night’s Too Long’ and ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’. There’s no “smell of coffee, eggs and bacon”, no “Loretta singing on the radio” here.

With the lyrics tending toward the uninspired, it’s left up to Williams’s vocals to add complexity and nuance. Blessed with one of the most instantly recognisable voices in contemporary music, she sounds less mannered than of late here, and her elegantly weary slurring and snarling commands your attention even when the words let her down. While Williams’s intention to shake off the traditional roots music shackles is admirable, it’s a shame that she insists upon straying into areas in which she seems less than comfortable. Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, West is a warmer, less abrasive album than World Without Tears and one that features some strong material.

Alex Ramon

 

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[…] Wainwright Roche, the stepsister of Martha and Rufus Wainwright (see our review of her debut EP here). Eddi has a new album coming out through Rough Trade on March 3rd, 2009. It’s called Love Is […]

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