Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: clare byrne, gaggle, i hear flies, interview
As a choir of 22 women dressed in tribalistic coloured robes singing anthemic, assertive, multilayered choral harmonies about love and loss, getting drunk and being a woman in a male-dominated world, Gaggle is certainly not something you see every day. Wears The Trousers sat down with Deborah Coughlin, formerly of 586 and Gaggle’s founder and leader, in the George Tavern in London’s East End (the “spiritual home” and rehearsal space of Gaggle) to ask her what it’s all about. The majority of the other members, flushed with delight after another epic rehearsal, joined us over a few beers and chipped in as we went along.
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: clare byrne, interview, music, my brightest diamond, shara worden
words in edgeways with my brightest diamond
If you were lucky enough to see Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise tour in 2005 then you will almost certainly have had an experience much like this: the incomparable Mr Stevens will have come on stage and personally introduced the opening act as My Brightest Diamond. He will then have left you peering quizzically at a tiny person alone on a huge stage. Said tiny person will have then knocked the breath from your body with the biggest voice you have ever heard outside of an opera house. After the show, you will have been desperate to possess this voice on a compact disc of your very own, only to find out that said disc does not exist. You will then have been very sad. Until now…
Despite having been available in the US for almost a year, and during that year having racked up an enviable array of plaudits and gushing critical swoons, My Brightest Diamond’s debut album, Bring Me The Workhorse had not been officially released on these shores until last week. Having toured relentlessly with Sufjan as herself and as part of his own all-singing, all-dancing band the Illinoisemakers, and then with The Decemberists earlier this year, Shara Worden has more than paid her dues and refined her dramatic live persona into something quite unique and unmissable. Clare Byrne grabbed a chat with Shara ahead of her latest UK dates, including an appearance at this weekend’s End Of The Road festival.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: adrina thorpe, alan pedder, alex ramon, bryn williams, clare byrne, corrina hewat, cortney tidwell, emiliana torrini, gem nethersole, jane taylor, june tabor, kathryn tickell, kt tunstall, loria near, maria taylor, mia doi todd, robbie de santos, rod thomas, rosie thomas, russell barker, stephanie heney, susy thomas, tagaq, tegan and sara, tender trap, the tiny, tiffany daniels, tilly and the wall, trespassers william, vienna teng
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
At The Wood’s Heart ••••
Following 2003’s stunning An Echo Of Hooves and this year’s wonderfully diverse and comprehensive boxset, Always, June Tabor returns with another excellent collection of material that extends and transcends folk music boundaries. Rather than the focused, intimate balladry of …Hooves, the range of song choices on At The Wood’s Heart better recalls those of her earlier albums Angel Tiger and Aleyn, mixing songs both ancient and modern, all of which are given cohesion by the performances of Tabor and her musicians Huw Warren (piano), Martin Simpson (guitar), Mark Emerson (viola/violin), Andy Cutting (accordion), Tim Harries (double bass), Mark Lockheart and Iain Ballamy (saxophones). This accomplished ensemble brings a loose and fluid jazzy texture to the arrangements and sensitive accompaniment to Tabor’s always spot-on vocals.
Though considerably less bloody than the death-soaked …Hooves, shades of darkness abound on the majority of these dozen, mostly traditional songs – the bitter lovers’ quarrel in ‘Johnny, Johnny’, the agony of a lost love in ‘Ah! The Sighs’ and the pain of betrayal in ‘She’s Like The Swallow’. On the McGarrigles’ enduring ‘Heart Like A Wheel’, Tabor turns the “wreck a human being” lyric into a chilling refrain, making the song sound a good deal bleaker than any previous version. Light relief of sorts is provided by a spirited Chaucerian roundel (‘Now Welcome Summer’) and a splendid rendition of the Duke Ellington standard, ‘Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me’. The album rarely strays from a sense of vulnerability however, and the closer ‘Lie With Me’ is a touching and heartfelt plea for romantic reciprocation.
Tabor’s ability to blow the dust from decades-old ballads and standards is evidenced throughout. Her sense of drama and the authority of her singing remain unequalled on the contemporary folk scene – no-one delivers a line like “Stand off for you are deceitful” (on ‘The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses’) with more magnificent, withering disdain. At the same time, her interpretation of a gorgeous new Bill Caddick song, ‘The Cloud Factory’, is one of the warmest, most moving songs she’s ever performed in her 30-year career. An engrossing and beautiful album then, At The Wood’s Heart is another distinguished addition to her exemplary catalogue.
originally published October 18th, 2005
The traditional Inuit practice of throat singing, a form of vocalisation that uses the timbres of the windpipe to create unusual rhythmic sounds, is often considered to be a whimsical pastime by those who indulge. Not so for Tanya Tagaq Gillis, born in the Nunavut province of Canada, whose unique abilities have been championed by the likes of the Kronos Quartet and Björk. While a typical throat singing setup would involve two women standing face-to-face, close enough to feel one another’s vibrations and singing rhythms in a kind of round, Tagaq was forced to develop unprecedented methods of emulating these rhythms as a soloist after moving away from Nunavut to study in Nova Scotia. With no partner to practice with, she would spend hours attempting to cure homesickness by copying the throat singing audio tapes her mother would send from home. While traditional practice dictates that throat singing should be completely emotionless, Tagaq’s modified rounds were propelled by instinct and feeling. Her unique style subsequently heralded her arrival on the experimental music scene before being thrust out of obscurity when, in 2001, a keen-eared Björk proclaimed her to be “the Edith Piaf of throat singing.”
By personal invitation, Tagaq then accompanied Björk, experimental duo Matmos and harpist Zeena Parkins on a number of dates for the Icelandic singer’s 2001 Vespertine world tour. They collaborated again in 2004 where Tagaq played a pivotal role on Medúlla. These triumphs have led to her debut solo album, Sinaa, an Inuktituk word that translates to ‘edge’. It’s almost certainly unlike anything you will have ever heard before, displaying Tagaq’s art in all its glory, range and intricacy. Few instruments appear on the album, the most commonly used being the txalaparta, a percussive instrument that often sounds like wooden wind chimes and has little musical structure. Indeed, most of the rhythms are created by Tagaq herself and sometimes seem inhuman.
Recalling by turns a wide range of sighs, growls, clicks, yelps, whispers and yells, it’s harsh and guttural, and parts won’t even sound like music to the casual listener. But it’s also interesting and incredibly atmospheric. Much like Björk did on Medúlla, Tagaq recognises that instinct and emotion are the most powerful driving forces in all of us, and she tries to explore the places inside us where these concepts reside. On ‘Still’, the only song in English, the lyrical theme is the inner workings of the human body. Elsewhere, ‘Qimiruluapik’ is a traditional throat song in which Tagaq performs the parts of both participants, sounding like a factory floor production line with her rhythmic growling and buzzing.
The album centres around ‘Ancestors’, an atmospheric duet with Björk that also appeared on Medúlla. As Tagaq’s vocals undulate and pulse, the raw emotion invested is clear. It’s a magical combination. Although Tagaq also attempts regular singing on three tracks, displaying a warm voice admirably soft and deep, the closest she gets to a pop song is on ‘Breather’, one of the only songs to feature noticeable programming. It’s an unexpected and glorious finale in which her vocals and the chimes of the txalaparta are cut up into a rhythmic but organic dance tune. A hidden track at the end seems to consist of her baby daughter Naia, to whom the album is dedicated, crying softly in the background.
Overall, while Sinaa conjures up feelings of longing and dreams of other lands, it never quite stirs the want to leave your home. In that respect, for something so daring and original, it’s a safe, introverted way of exploring the broadness of human capacity for emotion and imagination. In a traditional game of throat singing, the loser is she who breaks the rhythms through either tiredness or laughter. As with all no-frills declarations of honesty and humanity, there will be sceptics who tire easily of such unembellished purity, there may even be some who laugh, but those who enjoyed Medúlla or have a wider interest in the voice as the ultimate instrument will find something to admire here.
originally published July 16th, 2005
Some artists might consider it a disservice to be compared with another, but despite the difference in locality (Texas vs. Bristol), there are definite hints of Nanci Griffith in the sweetly disarming voice of Jane Taylor. Her lovely light tone combines with carefully crafted, often biting lyrics in a manner that avoids the saccharine pitfalls of many of her peers. Admirably keeping a true sense of self, Taylor appears to be a woman with no time for affectation, holding no truck with vocal cultivation for the sake of marketability; as a result, Montpelier showcases a reassuringly individual sound that holds the spotlight throughout.
Taylor’s interest in people and their lives is one of her strongest assets, and this is nowhere better displayed than on ‘My Street’, a French-flavoured number that recalls Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’. Taylor creates imagined worlds for the people on her street as she decides that there is a girl who is “really an alien”, a woman who is “really a duchess” and a man with a briefcase who has a “painted left toenail but don’t ask him why”. The transcendence of ordinary scenes to extraordinary status has a tragicomic effect as the mundane reality of the street is evidently too gloomy to believe in. Fiction creates something remarkable that simultaneously satisfies Taylor’s curiosity and provides an intriguing little ditty that unravels more details of each concocted tale with each and every hearing.
‘Fall On Me’ will tug at all the right heartstrings, daubing a portrait of the singer as a sensitive, insightful observer of life and emotions who excels at bittersweet love songs. Many of the songs are romantically idyllic, but these secret shared smiles are underpinned by censorship of love and the assumption that happiness might dissolve at any second. Only in ‘Hit The Ground’ does Taylor express these images not in terms of possibility but of certainty. Elsewhere, ‘Chef’ and ‘Mirror Mirror’ herald the arrival of a distinctly darker tone to the album, the former with a distinctive, jazzy feel with plucked double bass that racks up an exquisite tension that Taylor cuts and runs with, shortening the middle or ends of certain words, giving a curiously clipped texture to the song. As you might expect, ‘Mirror Mirror’ goes some way in creating a twisted fairytale with discordant strings and a piano motif that sounds like a music box. Its central message that the quest for perfection is a futile aspiration seems wise rather than trite, and is delivered with a subtlety that’s utterly charming.
Standout track ‘Blowing This Candle Out’ is a breathtakingly self-aware dissection of the end of a relationship, each event replaying in the mind as Taylor wrestles with heartbreak and the acute hurt of knowing that the best way out is to totally extinguish the flame of love that she’s still maintaining. ‘Landslide’ comes close to being equally brilliant as yet another exceptionally well observed depiction of the day-to-day effects of overwhelming pressure on a person who is desperately trying to prove that they’re not “inside out… [in] a landslide with no time out”. Anxiety, insomnia and imminent destruction – it’s all there and portrayed with alarming accuracy.
To describe Montpelier as a rollercoaster ride through emotional minefields and heart-warming dramas just wouldn’t be sufficient. It’s so artfully arranged and sequenced that every song comes on like a freshly enriching experience in which the essences of life’s most significant moments seem to have been melted in a crucible, the gold dust extracted from each one and then sprinkled over the music. Much of this is compulsive listening that really shouldn’t be missed.
originally published August 22nd, 2006
On this, her debut solo album, Saddle Creek staple Maria Taylor sings as if trapped behind a veil. As a result, too many of the songs enclosed herein hold all the sensual suggestion of a whisper but lack the electrics of touch to fulfil their heady promise. Certainly, there are many bewitching melodies at work in the rear, but Taylor’s vocals are often at best lethargic and, in places, even monotonous. The opener ‘Leap Year’ is a prime example – Taylor intones impassionately over a complex but undistinguishing mess of instrumentation, leaving an unfortunate sense of so what? This is not a newly acquired trait either. Certain songs in her band Azure Ray’s three-album oeuvre have fallen equally flat.
Tellingly, the most vital songs here are the ones uplifted through guest star turns by her bright-eyed boyfriend and Saddle Creek label boss Conor Oberst (‘Song Beneath The Song’) and her Now It’s Overhead cohort Andy LeMaster (‘Hitched’). Remarkably, ‘One For The Shareholder’ is a decent enough stab at dancefloor bothering, but it jars enormously with the rest of the album and is perhaps best listened to when taken out of context. The veil is lifted a little on simpler tracks such as ‘Two Of Those Too’, ‘Nature Song’ and ‘Speak Easy’, and these carry greater a emotional impact as a result, though the two former are perhaps overlong and don’t really go anywhere.
The production by LeMaster and Mike Mogis, another Saddle Creek regular and sometime member of Bright Eyes, is partly to blame for the album’s overall unwelcome detachment. The instruments, and particularly the strings, seem to flounder too low in the mix, adding to the absence of immediacy. Although 11:11 does thaw slightly with repeated listens, Taylor’s ambition is used too sparingly and spread a little too thinly to make this anything more than just a pleasant listen.
originally published August 28th, 2005
Tegan & Sara
So Jealous •••½
By virtue of their alt-folk roots and association with the Lilith crowd, Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quinn have often been awkwardly shoehorned into a genre packed with more acoustic, earnest types by some quarters of the music press. On this, their third album, the duo go all out to put that stereotyping to bed, serving up a simultaneously modern yet thoroughly retro feast; it’s post-punk New Wave seen through a glistening, contemporary filter. So while there are acoustics and harmonies aplenty, its references diverge from those of Sarah McLachlan, the Indigo Girls and the like. Instead, So Jealous evokes fond memories of Blondie, the Buzzcocks, Martha & The Muffins, ‘Til Tuesday (before they went electro), early U2 and even the Ramones, and yet many of these songs would not sound out of sorts on a record by Avril Lavigne.
Spiky rhythm guitar, authentic New Wave beats (courtesy of Chris Carlson’s clanking bass tones and Rob Chursinoff’s metronomic drums) and, perhaps most crucially, subtly hummable tunes are sprinkled liberally throughout. The production by fellow Canadians and occasional New Pornographers Joan Collins, David Caswell and Howard Redekopp gleefully nails the contradiction of a lo-fi vibe in crystal clear sound, perfectly matching the modern retro ethos. ‘You Wouldn’t Like Me’ eases us in gently with folky rhythm guitars, but these rapidly transmute into a driving pulse that any classic New Waver would be proud of. ‘Take Me Anywhere’ continues yet further into such territory, seasoned with a healthy dose of lyrical self-loathing.
Despite many of the songs using deceptively simple and repetitive chord structures, they deftly sidestep monotony through their clever use of arrangements, vocal interplay and dynamics. A good example is ‘Where Does The Good Go’, a song that builds hypnotically until the twins wind up trading lead vocals on a round using the song’s signature melody. First single ‘Speak Slow’- welds Buzzcocks guitars onto a Nirvana-esque chord sequence, setting them off with a sing -a-long bubblegum chorus recalling Toni Basil’s ‘Mickey’. Other standout tracks include the multi-layered title track, the poppy ‘Downtown’ and the sweetly mellow ‘I Know I Know I Know’.
The sisters take turns with the lead, though they interweave and double their parts so often that the question of ‘lead’ becomes somewhat moot. The vocals, with their oddly seductive nasal tones and dissonance, work particularly well in the context of the pop-punk arrangements and attractively blend when one is bouncing off the other. This natural voice distortion persists throughout and works to temper the shock of the few songs where the feat is achieved by electronic means. Elsewhere, guitarist Ted Gowans and former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp’s Moog synth add further nice touches and texture.
If a complaint is to be made, it’s that despite being scattered with hooks and quirky melodies, the songs aren’t always instantly ingratiating. On the positive side, this means that So Jealous is not only an easily accessible collection of songs, but it also gives itself room to grow in your affections. Originally released in the US last year, it’s high time that UK audiences discovered why So Jealous made so many Best Of 2004 lists. With a generous 14 tracks spread across the album’s 45 minutes, Tegan and Sara amply prove that the glorious art of the three-minute pop song is alive and well and residing in America’s northernmost neighbour.
originally published November 7th, 2005
6 Billion People •••
Twee queen Amelia Fletcher returns with the long-awaited second album from Tender Trap, a band that includes her cohorts John Stanley (bass) and Rob Pursey (guitar), both of whom have been with Fletcher since her days fronting the much-loved ‘90s indie band Heavenly and their second incarnation Marine Research. The addition of drums from The Magnetic Fields’s Claudia Gonson gives the album a fuller feel than its stripped back, electronic predecessor, 2002’s Film Molecules. If anything, 6 Billion People sees Fletcher reverting to type, being closer to Heavenly in style than the glossier sounds of Marine Research. Having said that, the title track veers closer to the latter, with a touch of doo-wop gracing the shuffling rhythm and Fletcher’s coy vocal bemoaning the difficulties of finding a perfect partner for her friend, unselfish to the last. Indeed, when it comes to her own love life, she just gets all tongue tied and starts ‘Talking Backwards’. Yet by the time we reach the self-assured and sultry ‘I Would Die For You’, things are becoming a mess of contradictions.
While ‘Applecore’ isn’t the new genre that you might be hoping for, it’s something slightly different for Tender Trap, closer than they’ve ever come to avant garde. The skin-and-bones chorus displays an art-rock element and fits well as a centrepiece double with ‘Fahrenheit 451′, as despairing and sombre a thing as you’ll hear all year. Revelling in the success of these musical departures, Tender Trap prove themselves adept at mixing it up across the rest of the album, the experiments being the highlights. ‘(I Always Love You When I’m) Leaving You’ is another dark number, one you can imagine soundtracking the lead from a black and white movie as they lurk and dart through the shadows. Elsewhere, ‘Dreaming Of Dreaming’ evokes memories of the spirit of Ride, being a hazy phase offering that falls somewhere lovely between shoegaze and post-rock.
Fletcher and her friends have delivered yet another solid album, and indeed there’s something inherently reliable about any project she’s involved in. Whilst her albums will almost certainly fall short of changing the face of music, the world would be a much duller place without them.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Warm Strangers ••••
Classically trained pianist Vienna Teng initially discarded her instrument of choice as a means of making a living, but after graduating with a computer science degree and enduring a stint as a cubicle-bound software engineer, it somewhat inevitably called her home. With the help of the internet, Teng soon made a name for herself on US college campuses and websites, and in 2002, her debut album Waking Hour was released in North America to critical acclaim. Whilst that record was certainly characterised by beautiful melodies and well-performed, haunting autobiographical pieces, at times it seemed to suffer from its own pomp and pageantry. The ethereal music was formulaic and the songwriting loose and occasionally repetitive. It’s safe to say then that Teng has grown further in the intervening months, and Warm Strangers (originally released in the US in 2003) shimmers with elegant and tender songs illuminated by their intelligent and imaginative lyrics.
Poetic opener ‘Feather Moon’ starts off with prominent but simple minor key piano, much in the vein of Little Earthquakes-era Tori Amos, before Teng’s beautiful voice is allowed to gently envelop the listener. Elsewhere, however, Teng lets the piano take a lesser role in many songs, becoming part of the blend rather than the focus. Most notably on ‘Hope On Fire’, the album’s rhythmic centrepiece, she steps up to the plate primarily a vocalist and a pianist second, with positive results. So while her main strength still lies in her skilled musicianship, Teng is growing as a vocalist and is certainly no lightweight as a songwriter. Throughout the album, the finely detailed orchestration is diverse and adds considerable strength and force to music that in previous efforts has smacked of preciousness.
Lyrically, too, Warm Strangers is a clear progression. Whereas Waking Hour was filled with personal vignettes, Teng stretches herself to explore the stories of others; so while ‘Shasta’ tells the tale of a pregnant woman, ‘Homecoming’ puts her in the shoes of a preacher. Most affecting, however, is the devastatingly beautiful a cappella track, ‘Passage’. The story is spun from the viewpoint of a woman who is killed in a car crash but watches as those she loved move on through the mourning process. Each lyric follows her lover, mother and sister through various forms of grief, from: “my mother trembles with the sobs whose absence seems absurd, my sister shouts to let her see through the cloud of crowd surrounding me” to the heart-wrenching conclusion of “my lover hears the open wind and crawls blinking into the sun” and “my lover very much alive, arms wrapped now around his wife.”
On the downside, Teng still slides from time to time into the well-trod lighter fare of latter-day Sarah McLachlan, and Tori Amos aficionados might recognise a number of the chord progressions and vocal tricks. Emotionally, too, Teng’s clear and distinct intonations sometimes feel removed from the feelings that she is attempting to express. Yet, in spite of these minor caveats, Warm Strangers is a treasurable album of undeniable talent from an artist becoming less tentative in finding her own voice.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Dreaming Through the Noise ••••
After two solid piano-based albums – 2001’s Waking Hour and 2003’s Warm Strangers – former computer programmer Vienna Teng unexpectedly found herself gazing at a crossroads. Her self-described chamber-folk had won a small but loyal following and she was touring with notable acts such as Over The Rhine and Joan Osborne, yet she struggled with her sound. “I was sitting at the piano,” she mused in a recent concert, “trying to come up with something that didn’t sound like what had come before.” Dreaming Through The Noise, produced by Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux), accomplishes that and then some.
Lyrically, Teng has come on leaps and bounds and Dreaming… boasts several well-written, layered pieces of prose, appealingly ripe for different readings, though neither overly pretentious nor horribly contrived. Retaining her piano as the musical centrepiece, Teng dips her oar into the sometimes murky waters of jazz but admirably raises her game, coming up sultry and smoky, much more than simply afloat. ‘Love Turns 40′ is a fine example, an emotional infusion in which the narrator sombrely speaks of the realness of aging (“we were once cinema gods in the light / and now all we’ve got is lunch-hour light / where nothing photographs well”), while the simple piano melody of ‘I Don’t Feel So Well’ belies the possible cynicism of the lyrics.
A native San Franciscan, Teng plays homage to her hometown in the jaunty ‘City Hall’ in honour of the February 2004 announcement by mayor Gavin Newsome that the city would recognise gay and lesbian marriages. Instead of writing a celebratory song focusing on ‘them’, Vienna sings the song from the view of ‘us’, as a protagonist making the journey to that “seaside town” where “me and baby stand in line” to get their chance after 10 years to proudly show their union, poignantly stating that “if they take it away someday, this beautiful thing won’t change”.
Less of a political statement than a mournful reminiscence, more a tender observance than a damning indictment of failure, ‘Pontchartrain’ provides the album’s emotional core. Named after the lake whose salty waters broke through the levees and flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the song digs deep and bars no holds. Her deep voice resonating with feeling, Teng describes the heartbreak and disaster to spectacular effect, singing: “Sunday: dark water draining north / the heat swells and bursts like a plague / Lake Pontchartrain is haunted, bones without names / photographs framed in reeds / darling, what blood our veins are holding.” The slow piano and eerie string arrangements are accentuated chillingly by the incantations of a lamenting choir, possibly constructed by 32 Tengs overlaid – “Lie as darkness hardens / lie of our reunion / O lie if god is sleeping / O I believe you now.”
Unafraid to be heavy and fearsomely ambitious, Teng’s weightier numbers are easily the album’s focal points, yet Vienna lightens up from time to time, particularly on the thoroughly enjoyable, if a little obtuse, ‘1BR/1BA’. Written almost entirely using language from a newspaper advert, Teng gets percussive with her beloved piano to add an extra dimension to this tale of searching for that first apartment. A true tapestry of emotion and sound, Dreaming Through The Noise is an engaging body of work that should elevate Teng to higher regard and a wider, more adoring audience.
If Songs Could Be Held •••½
The songs of Seattle native Rosie Thomas can bear such disarming simplicity that some might be tempted to write her off as simply saccharine fodder for Radio 2. But to do so would be a grave disservice to both the listener and the artist, whose softly-softly approach and tender earnestness is one of her greatest assets. That said, If Songs Could Be Held, her third album for Sub Pop, is considerably more complex and layered than anything up to this point in her career, and it is clear that she has gained in both confidence and skill. It’s no surprise then that Thomas made a concerted effort to add some extra strings to her bow, moving to Los Angeles, away from her immediate circle, and forcing herself to try new things. From the first moments of opening track ‘Since You’ve Been Around’, the stylistic leap from 2003’s Only With Laughter Can You Win becomes blindingly obvious. Delicate and lyrical, it’s an unequivocal success, the instrumentation and vocals jostling to be the most adored like the sides of a diamond held up to the sun.
Despite the new compositional complexity, Thomas doesn’t stray far from the highly personal subject matter that’s been her stock in trade. As she herself sings on the raw but focused ‘Guess It May’, she is “still learning what love is”, and one gets the impression that this has always been her concern, that her music is a constant exploration of the nature of love. As ever, Thomas’s multi-faceted voice surprises and delights throughout. Highlights include ‘Let It Be Me’, a warm and sweetly sung duet with UK singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt, and the closing track ‘Tomorrow’, in which Thomas’s simple, fragile vocal is complimented by a minimal yet strong arrangement.
As is the case with her previous albums, a few of these songs find the music itself unequal to her lyrics and vocals. For instance, ‘Loose Ends’ is a wonderful extended metaphor set to an underwhelmingly gentle country backing, while ‘Time Goes Away’ is a poignant reflection on the fleeting nature of love and happiness that’s set to an unfortunately clunky piece of piano. However, in both cases, Thomas’s shining performance leaves these lacking arrangements firmly in the shade, allowing the listener to linger long and savour a strong impression of beauty.
originally published November 7th, 2005
In The Morning ••••
Portsmouth expat Susy Thomas has crammed a quite remarkable amount into her tender years, working with the likes of Dave Stewart, Michael Kamen and Bob Clearmountain, among others. So it’s no surprise that her debut album, In The Morning, is a superb and confident collection of mature, intelligent pop songs. From the first sparse, acoustic chords of ‘Never Far’ and Thomas’s intimate, confessional vocal, your ear is well and truly snagged, the stripped-back arrangement giving her sultriness room to impress with its inviting vulnerability. On the similarly skeletal ‘Because You’re Near’, Thomas portrays a longing that’s both palpable and personal when she intones “I wanna touch you tonight / like I’ve never wanted to touch anybody before in my life” – heady stuff indeed!
As well as these handsomely simple numbers, In The Morning offers several songs that are finely dressed in richly textured arrangements, ably applied through smooth but subtle production values. ‘Make The Grade’, for instance, conjures a subliminal Bacharach and David influence with muted electric piano, flute and trumpet motifs, while debut single ‘Mirror For Me’ is as uplifting as it is laden with hooks and inspiring lyrics about how those we love can be a looking glass to reflect upon our own merits. Picking further album highlights presents an unusual problem, since the dozen songs offered up are consistently strong and arresting. If pick we must, however, then the intensity of the title track and the sublime pop of ‘Love Fools’ deserve special mention, not only for their emotionally literate depictions of modern relationships, but also for their stubbornly addictive melodies. Also worthy of a nod are ‘Time’ and ‘I Believe’, both of which tap into a somewhat funkier vein but to broadly similar effect.
If you’re a fan of classically soulful pop/rock then Susy Thomas delivers the goods in generous measure. In a just society, these songs would be staking a sizeable claim on every radio playlist, but why not start with your iPod? Add In The Morning to the top of your personal listening list ce soir not à matin.
originally published September 20th, 2006
On Elusive, Californian singer-songwriter Adrina Thorpe delivers an impressive debut album, packed with thoughtful songs that are beautifully written, beautifully arranged, beautifully performed and beautifully sung. Drawing deep from the well of a host of great singer-songwriters, from Carole King through to Tori Amos, Thorpe succeeds without ever freefalling into the all too common trap of imitation. Rather, the album portrays a noble interplay of heritage and influence, and it’s to startling effect. Musically, the songs range from intimate piano ballads, with their hints of her classical training, to more up-tempo pop songs, whilst lyrically touching on the all-encompassing concerns of life and spirituality.
Opener ‘Fly Fly Fly’ is a slice of well-crafted pop, boasting the creamy production skills of Dave Bassett (Lisa Loeb, Jane Wiedlin) and Phil Swann (Lee Ann Womack), kicking the album off in uplifting fashion. The remaining nine songs then ebb and flow through moods and experiences ranging from the difficulties of being seen as more than just a daughter in ‘More Than Seventeen’, through loss and regret (‘Wistful’, ‘Sorry’ and ‘Correction’ – the latter finding Thorpe in dependable Sarah McLachlan piano ballad mode, not surprising given that the Lilith era figurehead is Adrina’s musical idol), to hope and redemptive love in ‘Elusive’, ‘Never Meant’ and ‘With Hope’.
In the album’s gentler moments, Thorpe’s delicate piano playing weaves memorable harmonies and melodies around the poignant and heartfelt words, before soaring above the tight full band arrangements on the bouncier numbers. Though her vocals are both pure and clear, they bear an attractive hint of breathiness that makes for a very intimate sound. The production is entirely complementary to both the singer and songs, with the vocals sitting forward in the mix but still meshing well with the backing. Having been composing since the age of six, Thorpe has had plenty of time to get her debut just so, and indeed it is a strong start, made all the more impressive for being independently produced.
originally published September 27th, 2005
On Night •••½
Perhaps as a response to a bombastic, punishing age, these post-millennial years have seen a resurgence of interest in quiet, meditative albums. These records, made equally by male and female artists, may be personal or political (or both), narrative or impressionistic (or both), but they share a number of distinctive characteristics. Unashamedly acoustic, fragile, spare and intimate, they’re a little bit country and more than a little bit folk, whilst colouring outside the lines of both genres. The most effective of these records, however, use their quietness strategically. Recognising the value of restraint, they conceal layers of emotion under their apparently serene surfaces, forging a reflective space for the listener and sometimes inspiring fervent, devoted followings as a result. But these records should never be confused with easy listening; they function instead as a confident rejoinder to the bluster and hype of the contemporary mainstream music scene.
At its best, On Night, the debut album from Sydney shopgirl turned singer-songwriter Holly Throsby, achieves this feat. Reminiscent of Kathryn Williams and Beth Orton, but with a gentle, distinctive Australian twang to her vocals, Throsby has been forging a solid reputation in her native land and elsewhere, playing shows with such neo-folk luminaries as Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Recorded in producer Tony Dupe’s house up on Saddleback Mountain in New South Wales (with the windows open for added atmosphere), Throsby’s tales of rue and relationships are, for the most part, poignant and well observed. The instrumentation is typically sparse – acoustic guitar, a dash of cello and piano – forcing Throsby’s sleepy-sounding voice right up front, making even her more self-consciously poetic lyrical flights sound conversational. Constructed from a limited but effective palette of recurrent motifs (birds, dogs, references to time), the result is a record preoccupied by the challenges of sustaining a relationship through the day or night.
While a couple of tracks do veer into inconsequentiality, even after repeated listens, there are several highlights. Opener ‘We’re Good People But Why Don’t We Show It?’ juxtaposes two lovers’ good intentions with disturbing references to “dead birds on the stairwell” and “the violence when we met”. ‘Some Nights Are Long’ is a truly great song about confusion, with the narrator caught between the desire to “make up my mind and then want to change it,” to “order my days and then rearrange them”. It’s followed later by ‘Some Days Are Long’, in which the uncertainty has been replaced with resolve and the narrator bravely attempts to equate love with emancipation: “I’ll work while I’m still young / Not to hold you down but to let you go.”
Throsby’s songs move through diverse moods with considerable grace and skill. Despite its lovely wry opening (“I get home after one and the dog looks drunk”), ‘Don’t Be Howling’ becomes a quietly desperate plea to be left alone. In contrast, ‘As The Night Dies’ is touchingly resigned, offering a frank and unadorned response to a relationship’s demise: “Is it too much for you? / is it? / well alright”. The narrator anticipates “coffeepots calling / and the sunrise” and is imbued with tentative hope for the new day. This is where the original 2004 Australian release ended, but the European edition is bolstered by bonus track ‘The Dark’ taken from the same recording sessions. With or without it, On Night is an engaging album that draws you into its hushed and measured atmosphere. It may require a little more verve to truly distinguish it from the crowd, but it’s a promising debut and one that marks Throsby out as an artist to watch.
originally published March 18th, 2006
Kathryn Tickell & Corrina Hewat
The Sky Didn’t Fall •••½
The history of bringing two individually renowned and prodigious talents together on disc is strewn with glorious failures. Creative forces are all too often pulling in opposing directions, leading to a product much less than the sum of its parts. Now, there’s no denying the level of talent at work here, nor the regard with which these two musicians are held. Tickell has long been known as one of the UK’s foremost pipers and fiddlers – certainly the premier proponent of the Northumbrian small pipes – while Hewat’s reputation as an interpreter of traditional songs and as a player of the Scottish harp is a formidable one. Luckily for us then, the driving force behind The Sky Didn’t Fall is not ego but a deeply felt love for the music of their respective heritages. Rather than rubbing against the other’s skills, each draws out their partner’s depths and subtleties, all of which blend to create a magical whole.
One aspect of this magic is that Tickell and Hewat have achieved a truly difficult task, to present traditional music, often centuries old, in a way that is contemporary and relevant but completely true to its origins. This isn’t modernised folk. This isn’t Capercaillie’s dance- funk blended reels, Clannad’s ethereal ambient sounds or Christy Moore’s Celtic protest music – no, it’s simply beautiful songs, lovingly crafted, that could fail to move only the hardest of hearts. Tickell’s fiddle playing is as lively and fluid as ever and her piping subtle and moving. Hewat’s harp is equally stunning throughout – sometimes taking the melody, sometimes duelling with reed or string, and often laying down a continuo for the melody. Such is her skill and range on the instrument that I found myself double checking the credits to make sure they hadn’t sneaked in a bass guitar to underpin her chiming arpeggios. Another treat is the inclusion of vocal tracks, with even Tickell tempted up to the mic.
To choose the most remarkable element in an album so tightly put together is hard, but the album’s bookending track ‘Favourite Place’ is certainly among them, providing the perfect frame for the collection. It’s an affecting narration that evokes a simple but idyllic childhood in rural post-war Northumbria, buoyed by a dreamlike Celtic-tinged soundscape and lending an ideal context to the ancient yet timeless airs running through the album. Truly, The Sky Didn’t Fall is a distillation of the best of another time, brought to life for this generation.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Cortney Tidwell ••••
Nashville sure ain’t what it used to be y’all. Where once it stood for clean cut ‘n’ wholesome, perma-grinning cheese merchants, these days we’re hearing a lot more from those on the so-called wrong side of the tracks. But while the likes of Be Your Own PET are doing their best to tear down the planet in a snot-nosed sonic frenzy, fellow Tennessean Cortney Tidwell is conducting a quiet deconstruction of her own. Breaking rules and hearts in equal measure, these six unpredictable, beautiful songs add up to a deeply profound and classy debut, one that creaks and sighs as it drifts into your ears then gorgeously courses and cavorts through your delighted grey matter. These are songs of the kind that touch on familiar constructs but just as quickly morph into their opposite, consequently sounding just as alike as they do unlike what has come before.
On the plaintive ‘Mama From The Mountain’, she’s Laura Veirs without the geeky deadpan cool, replacing it with a morose and eerie stridency. On ‘Hard 2 Tell’, she’s The Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler doing Vespertine-era Björk- like vocal layering over booming scattershot drums. ‘Drink Up’ could be a long-lost Mazzy Star song with its desolate piano and atmospheric, almost narcoleptic vocals that also recall the mournful Southern stylings of Cat Power’s latest offering. Shades of Jana Hunter’s Texan twang filter through ‘The Light’, a pedal steel-drenched moody lament that would give even Neko Case, the queen of country-noir, a week of sleepless nights. Make no mistake about it, these are complex creations, but nothing here is stifled and everything flourishes. For a debut, it’s ridiculously accomplished and sets up a compelling aesthetic that will hopefully be carried over into the forthcoming full-length, Don’t Let the Stars Keep Us Tangled Up, out in July.
In many places, the vocal simply hangs in the air, dangling from invisible strings as strong as every emotion that Tidwell wrings out of her words. Not that you can necessarily hear them all that well – like Beth Orton, she has a tendency to slur her lyrics to a certain degree, but the effect is more mesmeric than smacking of idleness. Besides, songs of such heartbreak and solitude as these often benefit from a muddiness of diction. Tidwell sounds most clear-eyed and purposeful on the heart-bustingly tender, bruisingly nude ‘So I’ll Go Out & Meet My Love’, a devastatingly intimate slow-country weepie that truly shimmers. The sweetly beguiling ‘Fever Queen’ makes for a somewhat more hopeful closer with its dainty percussion provided by chimes and a handy glass of water – perhaps the only instance here where its proverbial equivalent is less than half empty.
originally published May 17th, 2006
Don’t Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up ••••
Upon receipt of her self-titled mini-album earlier this year, some critics have placed Nashville-born Cortney Tidwell alongside the ambient, post-jazz acts that have been sprawling out of America recently and cautiously dubbed ‘New Weird America’. The title of her first full release, Don’t Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up, even suggests the kind of mysterious, open spaces these artists commonly refer to, and her vocals would definitely not be out of place. The difference with Tidwell is that she has been quite literally tangled up in every other great music movement and is clearly not scared of her obviously country background.
‘La La’ is a perfect example of this. Had a band such as Psapp or CocoRosie gotten their claws into it, the distorted organs would have been dimmed down and the backing vocals forced to the fore. But with Tidwell this is not the case. She knows how to control her own music and she does it splendidly, simultaneously giving a nod to the ‘bedsit acoustic’ movement that emerged in Britain during the early 2000s. She even braves some of the less accepted genres: the title track strays into world music territories and comes out not only unscathed but as one of the best songs on the album. That it appears to be about conducting a long-distance love affair with an alien simply adds to its alluring strangeness.
Elsewhere, the more subdued songs such as ‘New Commitment’ may echo styles that have been tried and tried again but Tidwell’s extraordinary vocals make sure that the song is anything other than tired. Collaborations with distinguished artists such as Lamchop’s Kurt Wagner and William Tyler, who perform on the grounded ‘Society’, and Ryan Norris who gives a hand throughout (notably co-writing ‘Illegal’ and ‘I Do Not Notice’) are well placed and dust the tracks off perfectly.
Comparisons with Björk have become a little over-used, but with such a great wealth of influences backing her up Tidwell will surely find it hard to go wrong. Don’t Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up proves that the music fans who complain that 2006 has had few musical successes are simply not digging deep enough, and hopefully with many future years ahead of her Tidwell will become as prominent as the greats before her.
Tilly & The Wall
Wild Like Children •••½
Tilly & The Wall are a Nebraska-based band who specialise in mesmerising lyrics about, well, getting drunk, falling over and generally being a bit depressed. The more impatient listener may feel inclined to put the album back on the shelf as soon as they realise this – after all, it’s been done and bettered by many other Nebraskan bands well before them but those faithful to the album will be rewarded. Tilly & The Wall’s major strength is Jamie Williams, their (female) tap dancer used in lieu of a drummer, who gives the music an inspiring ethos, quietening any mutters that they lack originality. Musically, the band are a peculiar mix of childhood chants and disastrous relationships; Neely J’s growling vocals can only be compared to a five-year old child who’s just smoked a pack of twenty.
Their official debut album also marks their first material to be released in the UK. ‘Bessa’ and ‘Let It Rain’ give a confusingly folk sound to an arguably antifolk album, while ‘Nights Of The Living Dead’ and ‘Ice Storm, Big Gust & You’ are more akin to Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, who originally produced some of the tracks featured on the album. First single ‘Reckless’ and ‘Perfect Fit’ carry the same stomping (literally) theme, but the band wisely steer clear of the dangerous cliff called We Sound Like Franz Ferdinand (But We’re American, Yeah!). ‘I Always Knew’ stands alone as the song that shows the band’s true potential, mixing all of their talents and sounds in equal measure, while also giving the album a wise and positive edge. The album only really falls short of being a classic because some of their better songs have been overlooked and left off of the album, replaced with ‘Shake It Out’, a mediocre tribute to the other nine tracks on the album.
The truth is, in five years’ time Wild Like Children will be under two inches of dust, because by then Tilly & The Wall will have released an album so stupendously good, so mind-blowingly different and crucial, every album you own will be shoved under the bed or piled on your desk, cases cracked, collecting coffee stains. A second album, Bottoms Of Barrels, is waiting in the wings, but for now, this album is here to taunt you into submission and to patiently remind Nebraska that its artists can do better.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Tilly & The Wall
Bottoms Of Barrels ••••
Tap dancing hardly has an illustrious history in rock. In fact, I’d be pushed to come up with a single occasion it’s been used (cue a slew of emails from prog rock obsessives claiming its appearance on some long-lost Emerson, Lake & Palmer 7″ – sorry in advance). How gratifyingly odd then that Nebraskan quintet Tilly & The Wall have done away with traditional percussion and in its place installed the feet of Jamie Williams, and it’s this unusual feature that gives their second album a delightful flamenco feel, castanets cast aside in favour of metal-plated boots.
Despite releasing their debut Wild Like Children in 2004, the record only reached these shores in March, so while our lucky Stateside friends can enjoy this new offering right away, we’ll be waiting a little bit longer. No doubt there’ll still be an audience for it though; Bottoms Of Barrels fits squarely into the box marked leftfield US pop that’s currently so popular with bloggers and indie music fans alike. ‘Rainbows In The Dark’ falls somewhere between Feist and Sufjan Stevens and features a lovely lyrical refrain in the admission of defeat – “sometimes you can’t hold back the river” – while ‘Sing Songs Along’ boasts a tune that’s every bit as euphoric as something from The Polyphonic Spree. The relentlessly cheery organ and background crowd noise of ‘Urgency’ raise the muffled vocals to a higher musical plane, while ‘Bad Education’ could well have come straight off the soundtrack to a Western, with its big brass horns, tinkly barroom piano and taps like horses hooves.
Tilly & The Wall are at their most delightful when their kookier elements come to the fore, and it’s these precious moments that rescue songs like ‘Lost Girls’ from slipping completely into MOR sludge. There’s a hint of Natalie Merchant in this one, while the soft inflections of ‘Brave Days’s male vocals are reminiscent of late-period Lemonheads, backed with gentle organ and a slight country tinge. Elsewhere, ‘Love Song’ has a brittle beauty, a lullaby duet that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a musical box, while ‘The Freest Man’ evokes its title with airy, minimal backing.
As good as the rest of it is, Bottoms Of Barrels saves the best for last with a genuine masterstroke ending. These days it’s all too common for bands to mistake being epic for grandiose and overblown, but not Tilly & The Wall; ‘Coughing Colors’ is an understated but beautifully grand finale. This is a wonderfully charming, ramshackle album, lurching from one idea to the next with an impressive hit rate. If you’re ever down in the dumps, stick this on and it’s bound to raise a smile.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Starring; Someone Like You •••••
Although preconceptions of yet another Swedish band hitting the market are probably rife, unlike many of their counterparts, The Tiny have recorded an album that will surprise even the most clued-up music fan. Bearing in mind their intention to make a record that’s “grandiose and true to life in a cinematic way, taking each idea to a new level whilst still keeping our tiny personal identity”, one thing becomes immediately obvious: The Tiny write for no one but themselves. The initial and most poignant charm of Starring; Someone Like You lies in its sheer authenticity – no matter how bizarre the songs may become or what may be said, there isn’t a second where you don’t believe them.
A trio, The Tiny combine the childlike but strikingly original voice of Ellekari with the classical training and string arrangement skills of cellist Leo and double bassist Johan. Instead of sticking to a purely orchestral sound, however, innovative combinations of sounds flicker between songs like scenes in a film. Like a candlelit journey through a fairytale forest, god only knows what is going to happen next. The unpretentiousness of the song titles and simplicity of the language used are designed to lure you into a false sense of security. For while effectively elementary instruments are put to good use – strings, a toy piano, a saw – nothing about this album is ‘simple’. Each sound is perfectly placed, each change in mood a natural movement and each song paying compliment to its predecessor.
‘My Mother’ sounds like a spell being cast; vocals circle round gorgeous strings and a bewildering narrative, which then trickles into the equally ethereal ‘Know Your Demons’ – a dark, yet strangely uplifting number, full of haunting pedal organ and piano as the vocals chant “know your demons as they know you, wherever they go you’re bound to”. Without you even realising it, The Tiny will excise you completely from your earthly surrounds. Ed Harcourt makes an appearance on ‘Sorry’, oddly sounding almost more natural here than on his own compositions, while talented Norwegian songstress Ane Brun contributes backing vocals to a number of tracks. Elsewhere, the arrangements vary wildly from upbeat, fast-paced tracks like ‘Dirty Frames’ to the more stripped down sketches of ‘Everything Is Free’ – surely the most unusual cover of a Gillian Welch tune ever – and ‘In Reality’.
At its quietest, Starring… is as intimate as a whispered confession and almost unbearably lovely. At its most energetic, it’s full of life, full of colour and bursting with character. The dynamics work unbelievably well, the ups and downs maintaining interest and continuing to enchant right until the very last moments of final number ‘My Greatest Fear’, perhaps their most spellbinding moment. Going back to the blueprint, it’s clear that their goal has been attained. Cinematic in the way it creates an entire new world, both grandiose and simple, and undoubtedly unique, Starring… marks the beginning of an exciting new talent; somewhere between genius and insanity but totally, totally brilliant.
originally published June 16th, 2006
Mia Doi Todd
La Ninja: Amor & Other Dreams Of Manzanita ••••
This latest full-length release from Californian singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd is both new and not new. Three new songs appear (including a haunting cover of The Beatles’s ‘Norwegian Wood’) but mostly this is a remix album, with versions of tracks from her 2005 collection Manzanita given a treatment from her Plug Research labelmates and others. Oftentimes, a remix of a song can drown out the essence of the original, revealing more about the remixer than the song. It can be argued that a truly good remix (like good production) has the purpose of adding to the fundamentals, interpreting while enhancing rather than swallowing up. Luckily, this is largely what we have here.
For an artist who predominantly performs with sparse accompaniment – her first three albums were solo acoustic – it seems an obvious move to invite some outside musical interpretation, and the result is quite interesting. The treatment of the songs has fortunately been mostly minimal. A true and tangible beauty lies in their stripped-down nature and in the raw quality of her impressive voice. Indeed, it’s this that makes her music so moving. The songs’ ethereal and poetic qualities have generally been preserved and the remixing done with a gentle rather than heavy-handed approach. Only on ‘Amor’ does it seem to flounder completely, the additional sounds adding clutter and confusion. There are other moments of unexpected distortion, but these are used to good effect. Todd’s unique resonance and deep tones enable her to create distinctive atmospheres extremely well, and a spooky Portishead feel gives an additional edge to her melodic traditional folk.
There are three remixes of ‘My Room Is White’, and while the Reminder edit corrupts the vocals beyond recognition, the Flying Lotus effort creates a quite inviting ambience, complete with submarine echoes and far-off whalesong. Here, instead of drawing away from the vocals, the effects enhance them and Mia reaches near-operatic perfection – she’s classically trained – full of ghostly feeling and chilling restraint. ‘Muscle, Bone & Blood’ evokes a hint of Natalie Merchant but with a matchless mysticism and warmth, and elsewhere, as on ‘Deep At Sea,’ we are reminded of Kosheen’s quieter moments. All in all, Mia’s vocals are utterly unique and warrant only the lightest of treatment.
The only untouched song, the new ‘Kokoro’, is conspicuous in its lack of production, yet its bare bones nature makes it both heartbreaking and perfect, proof that sometimes, less is more. However, what shows through on La Ninja is that the music of Mia Doi Todd has great possibilities and works both accompanied and bare. Like Björk, her strong vocals always manage to retain the listener’s focus, and as Beth Orton has shown in the past, a sensitive remix of a folksy tune can be extremely effective and quite quite beautiful.
originally published June 12th, 2006
The last few years have been eventful for Emiliana Torrini, though you’d be forgiven for not really noticing. Since her disappearance from the public eye following the release of her 1999 international debut Love In The Time Of Science, she has not only contributed ‘Gollum’s Song’ to the ‘Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers OST’ (a video for which can be found as an extra on the DVD), but also found time to pen a number one single for Kylie Minogue in the shape of the slinky ‘Slow’. At last, following a critical standing ovation for her debut and deserved commercial success, albeit not directly in her own name, Ms. Torrini offers up her second album proper to the music world.
Lucky us! Emiliana returns with one of the most captivating folk albums of recent times, combining her delicate but powerful vocals with impossibly good melodies, perfect musical arrangements and a set of songs that place her firmly among the ranks of the best. The dreamy electronica of her debut had been shed in favour of sparse, gorgeous folk with acoustic guitars replacing programmed instruments. The result: Emiliana sounds considerably more comfortable than anyone I have heard in a long time. At last, she seems to have finally found her niche.
In all honesty there is not a bad song on this album and tracks such as ‘Sunnyroad’, the sweet and enchanting first single, ‘Nothing Brings Me Down’ and the outstanding ‘At Least It Was’ make it even more amazing that Emiliana’s talents have not brought her more attention. The title track takes us far away from the city and time of science of her debut into a simple, more homely world where melancholy and sweetness are balanced effortlessly to create an album that is both warming and heartbreaking. The innermost Emiliana comes out on this album. In ‘At Least It Was’, the timid heartbroken girl sings, “I thought I saw you on the train, I hid behind some man. I’d never seen you look so good…” and in ‘Heartstopper’, the self-professed “chick flick song”, the hopeless, daydreaming romantic is allowed to voice her thoughts where “outside your house to make a scene, in my head you grab me passionately”. In almost every way, on Fisherman’s Woman the real Emiliana grabs the reins.
Unlike her debut, the bulk of this album is self-penned, written with new co-writer Dan Carey and shows her maturity as writer and performer. Alongside her own songs, the album features a song written for her by Bill Callaghan (better known in some circles as Domino-signed artist Smog) and a sublime cover of the Sandy Denny classic ‘Next Time Around’. These songs slide seamlessly in amongst her own to complete a near-perfect setlist. Album closer ‘Serenade’ is possibly the most serene moment of her career. The most striking thing about Fisherman’s Woman, however, is its utter lack of pretence. It sounds so completely natural, free from the self-consciousness and artifice that colours so many other artists. All in all then, this is a beautifully honest and human album, and as a nice surprise, even more spellbinding than her debut.
originally published June 9th, 2005
Live at the Passionskirche, Berlin •••••
September 26th, 2005
With her second album Fisherman’s Woman one of the biggest slow-burning, word-of-mouth successes of the year, Emiliana Torrini has firmly established herself as a young, exotic heiress to Vashti Bunyan’s throne of fragile, female folk. It’s somehow fitting then that for her last big tour of the year, Torrini has upped the ante a little, this time playing venues that, while larger than those on her earlier trips, have an ambience more sensitive to her delicate songs. The Passionskirche in Berlin is such a venue; a large, red-bricked church with beautiful stained-glass windows, intricately detailed murals and carved wooden friezes lining the walls, and the best acoustics known to man.
It seems that Germany holds a special appeal for Torrini; it’s here that Fisherman’s Woman has enjoyed the most success and regular radio play. Like Rufus Wainwright and Antony & The Johnsons, she has been welcomed by the German mainstream, while so many other folk artists remain a niche interest. It’s no mistake then that the long queue outside for first dibs on the pews was a mixture of old couples, young couples, indie kids, teenage girls, black-clad Berlin hipsters, groups of women, groups of men… but why labour a point? More interesting is why this may be so, and one possibility is that the multilingual Icelandic–Italian is pretty nifty with the language. Certainly, her German between-song banter is just as charming, if not more, than her English preambles. Everyone appreciates a “danke” here and there, but a whole concert in German with light-hearted attempts to translate song titles into the language certainly endears her to the Berliners.
Despite a fairly rigorous tour schedule, Torrini still suffers from a degree of stage-fright, and one of the most satisfying elements of her live show is seeing her warm to the crowd, her speech becoming less staccato as the night stretches on, her stories longer and funnier. It’s very much more ‘An Evening with…’ than your standard gig; it’s as if she lets you into her world, with the songs imbibing even more meaning as she confides in the audience as if all were close friends sharing a bottle of red wine. Then, as soon as she is finished confiding, she slips back into a consumed and introverted performance, eyes closed, hands twitching with nerves and emotion. It’s in this contradiction that her charm can be said to lie – she is both entertainer and artist, and like the best of butterflies, she can flit between the two almost effortlessly.
Although the set was drawn almost exclusively from Fisherman’s Woman, a few highlights from her 1999 international debut Love In The Time Of Science were thrown in for good measure, each getting an equally rapturous welcome. Closing on her heartbreaking rendition of Jacques Brel’s ‘If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’, an elusive early B-side, Torrini proves her point. She doesn’t need to finish on a single. She could finish on anything and still be guaranteed a thunderous standing ovation. A truly holy experience.
Robbie de Santos
originally published December 7th, 2005
Let’s get things clear, Trespassers William live with their heads in a big fluffy cloud. That’s not to say they’re otherworldly – this particular nimbus definitely sits within the confines of our atmosphere – nor is it to say that they’re deceiving themselves into thinking they’re better than they actually are. Having is far too modest to ever be thought of as arrogant. Trespassers William sound like The Cardigans on tranquilisers, which is a great thing indeed if you want to relax and slip into unconsciousness but not so good first thing in the morning when you’re commuting down a busy road on the way to work. There’s no coffee call in sight; these songs will neither stick in the mind nor wake you from a slumber.
Opener ‘Safe, Sound’ could easily be paralleled with Broken Social Scene’s ‘Passport Radio’, awash as it is with echo machines and dreamy guitars. But while singer Anna-Lynne Williams croons lovingly over the top, she can’t quite match up to Leslie Feist’s hypnotic whisper. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there, each track unfurling like dribble from your snoring mouth. ‘Weakening’ is so vacant you wonder whether the music is about to disappear into itself, while the title of ‘Eyes Like Bottles’ really speaks for itself.
Elsewhere, ‘Low Point’ almost succeeds in its mission of becoming a table leg to which the listen can cling onto, saving them from the imminent impact with the floor. ‘No One’ and ‘Matching Weight’, however, act like a bat to the back of the head. The end result resembles middle-class junkie heaven: a polished mahogany coffee table, half a cup of nettle tea and an unconscious, neatly-dressed ‘O.C.’ watcher lying face up on the rug.
Trespassers William ultimately prove that too much of a good thing is, well, not so great. There are inspired songs here, absolutely, it’s just that the comatose effect of Having in its entirety means that fewer listeners will come to appreciate the fact. Had the acoustic guitar been turned up just a little and the sound of waves dimmed down only slightly, the whole album would have been saved. As it stands, the only time that having Having will be handy is when you’re finding it hard to nod off.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Eye To The Telescope •••
KT Tunstall is something of an unusual prospect in these parts. Rarely does an artist on a major-label imprint freely admit to having sacrificed their artistic vision to satisfy the commercial demands of the suits, at least not in the dawn of their careers rather than the twilight, let alone profess to writing music that they themselves would not buy. But that is precisely the situation in which the 29-year old part-Scottish, part-Cantonese theatre studies graduate has placed us. Can she be taken at all seriously in light of such revelations? The answer, thankfully, is a large plate of yes with just a small garnish of no.
There is no question that Tunstall is in possession of a disarmingly versatile voice, best displayed here on the proverbial sore thumb that is ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’, a refreshingly odd toe-tapping singalong rooted in swampy blues. As a first single, it’s almost entirely unrepresentative of the album as it stands, though one suspects not of the album Tunstall had in mind before the creases were A&R’d out. Given that her live shows are considerably more engaging than this sometimes samey record would suggest, even garnering comparisons to the more visceral rock of Carina Round, Tunstall clearly has the potential to make an album more vital than this.
That nagging frustration aside, Eye To The Telescope is by no means bad. There are enough moments of swagger and poise to delight a wide audience and the album’s shortlisting for the 2005 Nationwide Mercury Music Prize would certainly have pricked up many a new ear. ‘False Alarm’, the title track from last year’s debut EP, is a fine example of accessible melancholia, and the similarly accomplished ‘Stoppin’ The Love’ is almost downright groovy. Elsewhere, ‘Other Side Of The World’ is her power ballad moment and she handles it with aplomb. Sure it sounds a little calculatedly widescreen, but if Avril Lavigne could get away with ‘I’m With You’, Tunstall’s off the hook. The somewhat Norah Jones-a-like ‘Under The Weather’ and the raspy ‘Miniature Disasters’ are also worthy of attention.
Overall though, despite a number of flourishes and the glaring promise of a prodigious new talent, Eye To The Telescope suffers from a few too many generic contributions. Though it’s tempting to think that had she stuck more rigidly to her original blueprint we’d be listening to a far better album, this is, after all, only the beginning. The true test of Tunstall’s determination to find her sound will come later.
originally published July 26th, 2005
KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza ••••
The acoustic/live session version of a mainstream but ‘credible’ artist’s best-selling album is fast becoming a useful marketing tool (or dare we say it, cash-in) for record companies looking to maintain interest in between albums and tours. So we’ve had James Blunt’s fairly inexcusable The Bedlam Sessions, Maroon 5’s post-Songs About Jane acoustic live CD and the list goes on and on. Invariably, the resulting product is just that – product with a capital P, a marketing expedience rather than a creative experience. Jaded as we are then, it would be almost too easy to approach KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza with precisely the same cynical view. In fact, watching the documentaries on this double CD/DVD package (available exclusively through Tunstall’s own website), there are hints that this might have been just what was on the EMI shareholders’s Christmas wishlist when the project was first mooted. Plans were made and a couple of days were duly booked at the stub end of 2005 in a tiny studio on the Isle of Skye.
Happily, Tunstall’s own cheekily subversive streak meant that corporate plans didn’t go quite as planned. As she states during the making-of documentary ‘Five Go To Skye’, “We all decided last night that, instead of doing the album remake, we’re going to do something a little more unorthodox…which is great…and we’re going to do some B-sides, and a couple of new songs…so we’ve got quite a crazy little setlist that we didn’t expect”. Well, Wears The Trousers rolls up its denims and yells “viva la revolution!” for the end result is something much more worthwhile.
Although Eye To The Telescope was certainly one of the revelations of 2005, many maintain that it was over-produced and that some of Tunstall’s true character was suppressed and sacrificed at the altar of commerciality. Here, that balance is nicely redressed and the rawness of KT’s talent is allowed to shine out with minimal post-production to obscure it. The clear advantage of taking a band straight off a world tour and recording them live in intimate surroundings is the lingering presence of musical ESP between them and that spirit really comes across. Producer Steve Osborne has also done a great job of capturing the sessions, while Tunstall’s singing is as soulful, gutsy and smoky as one would have anticipated.
Of course, all that is rather irrelevant if the songs themselves aren’t up to much. There’s no worries on that score, however. The eight ‘new’ songs (‘Gone To The Dogs’ and ‘Change’ originally appeared on her self-released album, 2000’s Tracks In July) are uniformly strong, while the songs chosen from Eye To The Telescope are perhaps less obvious, neatly avoiding any of the singles yet well worthy of inclusion. ‘Ashes’, an obscene love song of the “can’t live with you, can’t kill you” variety kicks off proceedings with verve in loping acoustic country style. ‘Girl & The Ghost’ and ‘One Day’ are more recognisably Tunstall and immediately likeable – in an alternative reality either would make a sweet little single. ‘Golden Age’, a Beck cover, contains echoes of Sheryl Crow’s ‘Over You’ in its feel and harmonies, while ‘Boo Hoo’ goes country blues on us, breaking out the slide guitar and Hammond organ. ‘Throw Me A Rope’, which first appeared on the pre-fame False Alarm EP, closes out the album in lovely stripped-down fashion.
So, is …Acoustic Extravaganza a better album than Eye To The Telescope? Probably not, but it does give a glimpse into a rawer, musically more honest side to Tunstall and should be considered a must for fans. It surely won’t be long before the tracks included here become firm favourites among her appreciative throng, while the DVD portion provides interesting insights into both the artist and the creative process. The outtakes reel and a fun feature on her now infamous ‘Wee Bastard’ pedal are particularly enjoyable. Perhaps it would have been nice to see some more web content included, such as the solo recording of ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’, or to bundle in the videos from the singles. But that’s just being greedy! As it is, …Extravaganza is a refreshing and lovingly crafted treat for eyes and ears.
originally published June 8th, 2006
Filed under: back issues, feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: 2006, carolyn mark, clare byrne, interview, issue two, music
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Filed under: back issues, feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: 2006, clare byrne, dévics, dustin o'halloran, interview, issue three, music, pete morrow, sara lov
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Filed under: back issues, feature, words in edgeways | Tags: 2006, broadcast, clare byrne, interview, issue four, music