wears the trousers magazine


2007 reviews dump: k

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

_______________________________________________________________________

Lucy Kaplansky
Over The Hills •••
Red House

Having graduated from the early ‘80s New York folk scene that brought us Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, Lucy Kaplansky’s star has been a long time rising. But after a longstanding live collaboration with Colvin, the recording project Cry Cry Cry with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, a period as a highly sought after backing vocalist, a career as a clinical psychologist and a string of five well-received solo albums, she is now regarded as one of the most able singers in the Americana market. Over The Hills further cements this hard-earned reputation and shows her increasing development as a deft and sensitive songwriter. The 10 country-tinged songs on her sixth studio album include a selection of numbers written by Kaplansky and husband

Richard Litvin and some well-chosen covers, most notably the Bryan Ferry-penned Roxy Music love song ‘More Than This’, her take on which could not be more tender.
Many of the self-penned songs on the album deal with family. “The moon’s shining on her too; she’ll see it and she’ll think of you” from opener ‘Manhattan Moon’ is Kaplansky’s reassurance to her adopted daughter about the feelings of her birth mother. ‘Amelia’ is another song about her adopted daughter, but just as you’re worried that the album might wander into drippy sentimentalism, Kaplansky niftily sidesteps a quagmire of schmaltz with a jaunty cover of ‘Ring Of Fire’. Her warm vocals are perfectly suited to this country standard, and Kaplansky captures June Carter’s sentiment as well as anyone but Johnny himself.

A veteran of many longstanding collaborations, this is an artist who really knows how to pick her guests and instrumentalists. Former bandmate Richard Shindell lends guitars and vocals, while the mellifluous vocals of Eliza Gilkyson harmonise beautifully with Kaplansky’s throughout. And the instrumentation is spot on. That said, the absolute standout is ‘Today’s The Day’, a stripped-down solo lament for Kaplansky’s dead father.

Without ever being showy or overwrought, Kaplansky’s voice is always expressive and sensitive – traits that have made her a popular backing vocalist. With Kaplanksy having leant her talents to Nanci Griffith recordings in the past, to let the similarity between their vocal styles go unnoticed would be remiss. Akin in phrasing and tone, though slightly less idiosyncratic than Griffith’s, Kaplansky’s voice lacks some of Nanci’s flair, but has no problems bringing life to her own tender songs and the covers. For all that, when up against the ever-enthusiastic Buddy Miller on the cover of ‘Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go’, penned by Miller’s wife Julie, she seems a little lacklustre.

For all its merits, perhaps Kaplansky’s greatest problem is her association with other artists. Aside from Griffiths, her association with Shawn Colvin elicits comparison with a singer-songwriter against whose work tracks such as ‘Swimming Song’ and ‘The Gift’ seem to be clunky metaphor, while her collaborations with Dar Williams bring to mind the twee failings of her former bandmate – this album is certainly not without its saccharine moments: perhaps there’s just one too many song for her daughter, and one too many over-sentimental paean to her family. Yet, despite invoking such comparisons, she generally stacks up pretty well. Moreover, where former releases have suffered from heavy-handed production, the bare acoustic nature of Over The Hills is light and suits the songs and Kaplansky’s voice well. Mostly heartwarming or moving, Over The Hills is, if not quite up with the best country-flavoured Americana you will hear this year, the sound of a talented artist who continues to develop and refine her craft.

Peter Hayward

_______________________________________________________________________

Rose Kemp
A Hand Full Of Hurricanes ••••
One Little Indian

Have you ever been so far from home, speaking on the telephone, hearing the pain in the voice on the line when it says it misses you, feeling so desolate when you realise that there is nothing you can do to make it better apart from give the promise you’ll be home soon? The standout track on A Hand Full Of Hurricanes, Rose Kemp’s second solo album, ‘Sister Sleep’ is the perfect mix of heartbreak and hope, the reassuring breath on the back of your neck in the middle of the night, a folk-inspired a cappella prayer to the mystics which is, quite simply, worth the price of this album alone. Fact.

But there’s more. Often falling steadfastly between a deep and powerful PJ Harvey and the supernatural quality of Regina Spektor, I suspect that it’s not often you find a 22-year-old from Carlisle who makes songwriting something so magical. Of course, her stellar folk pedigree helps. The daughter of Steeleye Span luminaries Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp, Rose has a genetic advantage.

A world away from her early folk releases, Kemp is almost witch-like in her ability to hold you in thrall of her pure feminine angst, commanding the raucous melée of sound with enviable superiority. Last year’s single, ‘Violence, displayed a vocal so powerful it could knock you off your feet and throw you into a wall, while the beautiful ‘Tiny Flower’ is the musical equivalent of kissing it better.

A Hand Full Of Hurricanes certainly makes for an apt title. The songs here twist and turn in and away from a despair so strong it could whip even an angel into an all-out fury in a single stamp of a guitar pedal. This really isn’t a storm in a teacup. It’s really very good.

Anna Claxton

_______________________________________________________________________

Chaka Khan
Funk This ••
Warner Bros.

With eight Grammy awards and a handful of gold selling albums to her name, Chaka Khan could quite justly be considered one of the all-time greats of R&B. And doesn’t she know it! Despite having spent the last nine years mired in compilation album money-spinning exercises and pretty much just resting on her laurels, you might think that the commanding title of Khan’s 12th album signifies a triumphant return to her 1970s heyday. And, in a way, it does. Much of Funk This sounds like it could have been recorded 20 or even 30 years ago. Trouble is, the scene has moved on. Modern R&B is a genre where Kanye West can remix Shirley Bassey and someone like Nelly Furtado can go from the whimsical pop of ‘I’m Like A Bird’ to the vamp crunkess of ‘Maneater’ in a few short years. Khan just can’t cut it in the face of such competition.

It’s not as if she doesn’t try. ‘Disrespectful’, featuring Mary J Blige, is a clear standout with its pure Motown feel and handily sounding a bit like Amerie’s monster hit ‘1 Thing’. ‘Ladies’ Man’, too, is good – a slow-burning jam with a protruding chromatic chant of the title bubbling beneath Khan’s soulful vocal. Though it works quite well here, there’s a tendency to over-rely on a backing chorus line on other tracks. The appealingly quirky intro of ‘Will You Love Me?’ fizzles into nothing as Khan gets carried away with adding in voices blander than her trademark throaty purr. There’s really no need; vocally, she sounds as great as ever.

Still, you can understand why Khan has stuck to what she’s known to be good at; so many artists who try to update their sound meet with limited success. But a little pushing of the envelope, even a small one, would have been good. Nothing on Funk This sounds inventive or original. It’s as if she’s copied and pasted a template of what used to work and hoped for the best. There are obvious influences of funk, soul, jazz and classic power balladry – see the emotionally powered ‘Angel’ if you like that sort of thing – and to her credit Khan can work the different genres well. But Funk This is not slick. It’s not sexy. It won’t make you want to get your groove on. It may have sounded more remarkable had it been released all those years ago, but in 2007 it’s dated, tired and little more than mediocre.

The sworn Chaka faithful and those who love their prescription diva fare will no doubt lap it up, but anyone else would do better to just funk off and forget about it.

Michelle Ruda

_______________________________________________________________________

Angélique Kidjo
Djin Djin •••
EMI

For want of a better phrase we’ll call it ‘doing a Carlos’. Ever since the respected but (until then) commercially overlooked guitarist Carlos Santana invited his showbiz chums to play and sing on his Supernatural album, sold a gazillion units and cleaned up at the Grammys, the guest celebrity album has become all the rage. Now it’s world-music genius Angélique Kidjo’s turn and, frankly, it’s an approach that’s only partially successful for her. Kicking off with the joyous ‘Ae Ae’ makes for a glorious start, displaying all the best elements of what is often stereotyped as African music – complex rhythms, intricate jangling guitar lines, impassioned vocals; it’s all in there. The title track keeps the standard high as Branford Marsalis weaves his soprano magic across a languid track that Bebel Gilberto would be proud to call her own. Alicia Keys shows just how good a singer she is here, holding her own and complementing the duet perfectly (though the song could really have done without her sub-Fugees “uh huh, one time”-ing on the outro).

And then it’s back down to earth with a bump as Joss Stone demolishes an abysmal cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ with her unfocused warbling. Gimme shelter? Gimme strength! Ziggy Marley’s contribution passes all but unnoticed in a haze of cod reggae before Santana himself puts in an appearance doing what he does on ‘Pearls’ and helping Josh Groban overcook an unsubtle “I-am-woman-hear-me-roar” ballad. I’m sorry, but encapsulating the plight of dispossessed Somalians with the line “…and it hurts like brand new shoes”? Where’s Mariah when you need her for a quote?

It’s interesting to note that the most effective contributions come from artists who truly understand music beyond the Western pop canon. Peter Gabriel is stunningly good duetting on ‘Salala’, a track that approaches the best of either his or Kidjo’s work. It’s a truly worthy inclusion. Similarly, ‘Senamou’, which features the Malian husband-and-wife team of Amadou & Mariam, hits all the right notes. Infectious and affecting, it’s one of the album’s brightest highlights. With the collaborations out of the way, the six tracks where Kidjo goes it alone are equally strong and diverse, blending African rhythms with influences as diverse as Arabic music, super-freak funk and classical as the album closes with a stunning take on Ravel’s ‘Bolero’.

Ultimately Djin Djin is an album of 13 tracks that merits three stars when had it featured only 10 it may have deserved four. Ach, the price of celebrity.

Trevor Raggatt

_______________________________________________________________________

Diana Krall
The Very Best Of ••••½
Universal Classics

“I feel like I really don’t have to prove anything at this point other than what I’m doing…I work very hard at being the best musician I can be because I love it.”

So said Canada’s finest jazz export, Diana Krall in 2001 upon the release of her eighth album. Six years, four albums, an Order of Canada and a marriage to Elvis Costello later, Krall is now seemingly unassailable; so much so, that we are now treated to that well-worn retirement gift, a ‘very best of’. Thankfully, Krall is not about to pop on her slippers and buy a rocking chair. Let’s face it, when you’ve won two Grammies (Best Jazz Musician in 1999 and Best Vocal Jazz Record in 2001) the desire to continue influencing, performing and accruing gold-plated desk ornamentation is pretty strong. This release does not signify an imminent farewell tour or eye-poppingly cringeworthy ‘Audience With…’ TV special; if anything, it’s a chance for the recent mother-of-two to take a well-earned rest.

The Very Best Of Diana Krall is at once an accessible album for jazz starters and an impressive treat for Krall’s legion of fans. ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ is a great example of her vocal prowess and stylistic flair. She treats Frank Sinatra’s well-worn classic to a thorough revamp, replacing the recognisable swing sound with a dreamier composition, laden with sensuous vocals and mellifluous strings. Similar in tone is the first of three previously unreleased inclusions, ‘Only The Lonely’, for which the word ‘languid’ must have been invented: a voluptuous fantasia of strings, piano riffs and Krall’s thoughtful musings on solitude, this song gives her a chance to show off the depth and rich expressiveness of her voice.

For those who seek something a little less philosophical, ‘Frim Fram Sauce’ is Krall’s demonstration of her ability to match Nat King Cole’s hard-edged voice with her own brand of cheeky freestyle jazz. The Live In Paris performance of ‘East Of The Sun (& West Of The Moon)’ is another case in point: a funky ensemble whose double bass foundation and virtuoso soloist cello bridge are both perfect foils for Krall’s smooth-as-cream voice. The list goes on; suffice to say, the only criticism worthy of repeating is that, on occasion, Mantovani-style string accompaniments descend worryingly close to a muzak nightmare. Thankfully, Krall’s charismatic performances consistently prevent her songs from heading for a future in elevators, but a little more funk, á la ‘Peel Me A Grape’, certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

For an artist as varied, successful and influential as Krall, choosing which tracks to include on such a compilation must have been a formidable task. Thankfully, this album is a near-perfect cross-section of the oft-honoured singer’s remarkable repertoire. It is indicative of Krall’s excellent self-analysis, too: she really doesn’t need to prove anything any more. As long as there’s more to come.

Andy Wasley

_______________________________________________________________________

Alison Krauss
A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection ••••½
Rounder

This collection of 16 tunes by veteran bluegrass artist Alison Krauss presents the reviewer with something of a dilemma: how on earth to describe it? It’s certainly not a ‘best of’ – how could it be when it ignores all her Union Station output? Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’. Sure, it may include the acclaimed ‘Down By The River To Pray’ from the ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack, but with a quarter of the tracks previously unreleased ‘A Collection’ is the only fitting appellation. And what a collection it is! Krauss’s versatility is displayed in all its glory as she takes on and masters a number of styles far beyond her beloved bluegrass roots. The duet with Jon Waite on his enduring classic ‘Missing You’ shows just how far she can stray stylistically and still nail the song. No wonder so many of the artists Krauss is heard duetting with here have called upon her to add a layer of class and sophistication to their own songs.

Unsurprisingly, the five previously unreleased songs collected here all prove to be present on their own merits. These aren’t the usual studio floor sweepings which haunt so many collections but worthy explorations of the folkier fringes of country. A particular treat is the mandolin, banjo and fiddlefest ‘Sawing On The Strings’, recorded live at a Country Music Television awards ceremony. Other highlights are found in songs already famous for gracing movie soundtracks, including ‘The Scarlet Tide’ and the Oscar-nominated ‘You Will Be My Ain True Love’ from the epic ‘Cold Mountain’, the latter being a duet with Sting who mercifully limits his contribution to background texture. Final mention must go to ‘How’s The World Treating You?’, a collaboration with James Taylor taken from a Louvin Brothers tribute compilation. A perfect blend of these two eminent voices, it’s a laidback affair that nevertheless suggests that if they ever decided to stretch out to a full duets album Wears The Trousers would be first in the queue at HMV.

A Hundred Miles Or More is a fitting testament to an artist acknowledged as one of the voices of her generation. The very fact that this collection has been compiled only from recordings created away from her day job with Union Station only serves to underline the breadth and depth of her brilliance.

Trevor Raggatt

_______________________________________________________________________

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Raising Sand ••••
Rounder

Say you were to compile a list of duets album dream teams. Some combinations wouldn’t spring readily to mind. For instance, pairing the darling of modern bluegrass with a hairy-chested rock behemoth. Evidently someone has a better imagination than you (possibly the same person who last year teamed Mark Lanegan with Isobel Campbell). And it works. From the ominous opening chords of ‘Rich Woman’, guitar swaddled up in layers of tremolo and reverb, it’s clear that something special is about to happen to your ears.

But, you might wonder, how can Krauss’s gentle, country voice ever blend with Plant’s million-decibel roar? That’s the power of programming, you see. So ubiquitous is the rock iconography of Led Zeppelin that it’s easy to forget that their range went far beyond the likes of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Immigrant Song’, or that Plant’s formative years were spent singing roots-based music. Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut was essentially a blues album, albeit cranked right up to 11.

Here, Plant’s approach is more delicate than you might have foreseen. Indeed, his vocals harmonise perfectly with Krauss – he supplies the gruff bluesiness while Krauss covers all the bases between angelic and seductive. The pair also mix up their tactics. On some tracks, such as ‘Killing The Blues’, they sing almost in unison or interweaving countermelody; on others, one provides the lead while the other fleshes out the texture with mellifluous oohs and aahs across the stereo spectrum (witness the beauty of ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’, written by Sam Phillips, aka Mrs T-Bone). The way the pair have tackled each treatment is almost instinctive, as if it all just magically fell into place.

But, of course, this is partly the hard work of a stellar band of backing musicians (including drummer Jay Bellerose, lap steel player Greg Leisz and none other than Mike Seeger on autoharp) and the production skills of iconic roots producer T-Bone Burnett. A constant presence (and pleasure) is guitarist and jazz virtuoso Mark Ribot, whether Plant and Krauss are tackling Louisiana swamp blues, tender lovelorn country or moments that would not seem out of place at the bluesier, more psychedelic end of the Zeppelin canon. From the Zeppelin-esque throb of ‘Fortune Teller’ to the grind of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin’, from the roots and country of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s ‘Trampled Rose’ and Gene Clark’s ‘Through The Morning, Through The Night’ to the zydeco tinges of the Everly Brothers’ ‘Gone Gone Gone’ or ‘Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson’, Raising Sand convinces and entrances with immediate effect.

Raising Sand is no celebrity novelty piece, it’s a serious artistic achievement. Drawing from the pens of some of our greatest songwriters and lovingly crafted by two supremely talented singers, it’s an unexpected delight.

Trevor Raggatt

_______________________________________________________________________

Chantal Kreviazuk
Ghost Stories ••
Nettwerk

About 10 years ago, I’d just arrived in Toronto on holiday with my parents and before leaving the hotel room I flicked on a music channel. At that fortuitous moment, the video for Chantal Kreviazuk’s ‘Wayne’ was airing; I completely fell in love with the song and couldn’t get it out of my head for months. Eventually I found her debut album Under These Rocks & Stones back in the UK and thought I’d found an artist who was going to be huge. Two albums later and UK awareness of Ms Kreviazuk’s music seems to still be almost non-existent, save those few people who bought her touching cover of John Denver’s ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ from the ‘Armageddon’ soundtrack. Ghost Stories, her fourth release, clearly has its work cut out if it hopes to bring her music to a wider British audience.

Unfortunately, Ghost Stories continues to whittle away at what made Kreviazuk stand out from the crowd in the first place. The passion and raw energy of her debut are very much spectres on this record, which is so far from Under These Rocks… she’s virtually unrecognisable. Fair enough, she’s now happily married to Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida, has two baby boys and a successful second career as a behind-the-scenes songwriter (Kreviazuk and Maida co-wrote most of Avril Lavigne’s 2003 album Under My Skin), but with each of her albums becoming progressively glossier and jumping up the rungs of shimmering, slick production, the spark is dimming.

Just looking at the song titles uncovers a certain cliché or laziness to the record – ‘Mad About You’, ‘Waiting For The Sun’, ‘Asylum’, ‘Wendy House’ etc. – and the lyrics are too imprisoned in rhyme and very predictable trajectories. For example, “I don’t know why the winter’s long / it wears me out, it goes on and on” is a pretty lame effort for an artist who was once so inventive. That’s not to say that there aren’t any moments of interest on the album; ‘Spoke In Tongues’ is very good. It’s a bit more disjointed and mercifully less coffee table than the rest of the album, but again it’s overshadowed by the endless use of stock phrases and tired images (“leaves blew away” for ageing; “when you’re at a fork in the road” for…well, I don’t even need to say do I?).

Really, all there is to say about Ghost Stories is that it’s not an awful album, it’s just not that great. It’s well below par for an artist who once promised great things. The conviction has gone from her vocal delivery and it seems that the desire has left her music. Whereas before she was easy to fall in love with, now she’s easy listening. But then, while I’m disappointed as a fan of old, maybe new ears unaware of her older work will have the same experience I did when I first saw that video.

Rod Thomas

 

Advertisements