wears the trousers magazine

wears the trousers albums of the decade #75-51

part one part threepart four

Here’s the second part of our albums of the decade countdown, running from #75–51.

* * *


Róisín Murphy

[EMI, 2007]

Of all the critical droolfests that failed to ignite on the commercial front this decade, Róisín Murphy’s second solo album is among the most inexplicable damp squibs. The ex-Moloko frontwoman may have shed the avant-garde experimentalism of her solo debut Ruby Blue in favour of full-on disco diva mode, set against a backdrop of thumping, shimmering state-of-the-art production, but it seems the world wasn’t ready to accept even Murphy’s toned down personality quirks. That’s a real shame for although Overpowered is not without its flaws, there is a sense of playful grandeur here that can easily toe the line with Goldfrapp at their most teasing.

Chris Catchpole

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lucinda williams heads exciting cambridge folk festival lineup

090808_lucindawilliamsTickets go on sale in May

Now in its 45th year, the Cambridge Folk Festival continues to be one of the most popular festival weekends in the calendar, usually selling out before you’ve even had time to hit speed dial, and this year’s lineup really won’t change that. One of the biggest draws will be triple Grammy winner Lucinda Williams, who will make her Cambridge Folk Festival debut – her only UK festival date this year – with other big names including the legendary Buffy Saint-Marie, Malian superstar Oumou Sangare, Irish folk singer Cara Dillon, blues artist Susan Tedeschi, plus Eddi Reader and Beth Nielsen Chapman.

Wears The Trousers favourites Imelda May and Alela Diane will be there too, along with brilliant Californian world music alchemists Rupa & The April Fishes, Crooked Still, Diana Jones and up-and-coming young folkies Megan & Joe Henwood, Bella Hardy and The Shee.

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lucinda williams: little honey (2008)
November 3, 2008, 7:36 pm
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , , , , ,

Lucinda Williams
Little Honey •••
Lost Highway

The last we heard of Lucinda Williams was the affecting title track of 2006’s West, which ended with the protagonist calling upon a new lover to join her in emotional commitment, encapsulated in the invitation “come out West and see”. If you were wondering just how things turned out for this pair then ‘Real Love’, the excitable opener to Little Honey, provides the conclusive answer: “Very well!”

While the popular notion that Williams has dealt exclusively in misery across her previous eight albums is not an entirely accurate one – remember the joyful dash-to-a-lover in ‘I Just Wanted To See You So Bad’ or the optimism of ‘Crescent City’? – it’s true that Little Honey represents a generally (though certainly not exclusively) more positive perspective on romance than we’ve become used to from her. Helping to sustain the somewhat merrier mood, the album finds Williams enlisting some new collaborators alongside regulars Doug Pettibone and Jim Lauderdale, with Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs providing backing vocals, Chet Lyster on guitars and Butch Norton on drums, plus a couple of big-name male cameos. The result is an album that’s a little rockier and rougher in texture than West – dig those ‘spontaneous’ instructions-to-the-band intros! Quality-wise, however, it’s a similarly mixed bag.

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lucinda williams has a bone to pick with the republicans
October 23, 2008, 6:40 pm
Filed under: news, trouser press, video | Tags: , , , , ,

New EP of protest songs on the way from “yellow-dog Democrat”

Exactly two weeks after her latest album Little Honey hit the shops and exactly one week before the US presidential election, Lucinda Williams is set to release a four-song digital EP of politically charged live material including a previously unreleased original track and three well-chosen covers. The new song, ‘Bone Of Contention’, was recorded at Summerfest in Milwaukee this past July and, as Williams told Billboard in a recent interview, was originally earmarked for Little Honey. “The track didn’t come out the way I wanted it to [in the studio],” she explains. “We went out to do some shows, as I played the song by myself…it just came out killer.”

The covers sound pretty killer too, and pretty diverse at that. Recorded live in Greensboro, North Carolina, in September 2007, the songs include Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters Of War’, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ and the Thievery Corporation/Flaming Lips collaboration ‘Marching The Hate Machines (Into The Sun)’. And in case you’re still wondering whose side she’s on after reading those titles, this quote from another interview (with Rolling Stone) caught my eye: “I’m a yellow-dog Democrat, which is a Southern expression that means you always vote Democrat. I love this country, and I’m concerned that people aren’t going to be looking at the issues. Like, ‘I’m gonna vote for the cute babe who hunts.'” 

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trouser press: lucinda williams, pj harvey and more

– Lucinda Williams cheers up on Little Honey 
– new PJ Harvey single out next month
– Tracy Chapman looks towards the future on new album
– copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Mary J. Blige 
– Amy Winehouse ‘stars’ in online game
– Laura Barrett announces debut album

* * *

Once famous for taking her time between albums – there was an 8-year gap between her second and third releases – Lucinda Williams has made good on her promise to make a swift follow-up to last year’s West with a new release scheduled for October. Little Honey not only collects some of the leftover songs from West that didn’t fit into that record’s heavy themes of death and betrayal, but also includes some much older songs that never made it out of the studio such as the 23-year-old ballad ‘Circles & Xs’ and ‘Well Well Well’, a fresh recording of an old demo Lucinda cut for her 1992 album Sweet Old World.

Though it is most striking for its considerably more upbeat feel than much of her recent material – largely due to newfound contentment with fiancé Tom Overby, who co-produced the album with Eric Liljestrand – Little Honey also features some star guest turns. Paste Magazine have already heralded her duet with Elvis Costello on ‘Jailhouse Tears’ as among the top five all-time greatest country/rock duets, while bluegrass singers Jim Lauderdale and Charlie Louvin give a new flavour to ‘Well Well Well’. Elsewhere, ‘Little Rock Star’ was improbably inspired by Pete Doherty – or as Lucinda puts it, “an empathetic look at self-indulgent, little-brat rock stars” – and features Susanna Hoffs and duet partner Matthew Sweet on harmonies.

Perhaps even more improbably, the album ends with a cover of AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)’. Little Honey is released on October 13th through Lost Highway.

Little Honey
01 Real Love
02 Circles & X’s
03 Tears Of Joy
04 Little Rock Star [feat. Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs]
05 Honey Bee
06 Well Well Well [feat. Charlie Louvin & Jim Lauderdale]
07 If Wishes Were Horses
08 Jailhouse Tears [feat. Elvis Costello]
09 Knowing
10 Heaven Blues
11 Rarity
12 Plan To Marry
13 It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock N’ Roll)

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2007 reviews dump: u v w

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


Uncle Earl
Waterloo Tennessee ••••

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt


Laura Veirs
Saltbreakers ••••

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

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

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

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

Russell Barker


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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Wasley


Lucy Wainwright Roche
8 Songs EP •••½

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Wasley


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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt


Beth Waters
This Little Piggy ••••
Mermaid Mafia

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt


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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Hayward


Fiona Wight
The Last Rose •••½

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt


Lucinda Williams
West •••
Lost Highway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Ramon


2005/06 reviews dump: w

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.


Amy Wadge
No Sudden Moves •••½ 
Manhaton Records

If just a single word were to sum up the career to date of Bristol-born, Cardiff-based singer-songwriter Amy Wadge, it would probably be ‘almost’. After the richly promising start of gritty mini-album The Famous Hour, her debut album proper, 2004’s WOJ, was an overproduced error of judgement and went mostly unregarded. Even so, Wadge has twice managed to trump the likes of Cerys Matthews and Charlotte Church at the Welsh Music Awards, yet despite working with and supporting some of the most respected names in the business and representing Wales as a cultural ambassador, Wadge has somehow failed to filter into the realms of public recognition outside of blessed Cymru. If a mixture of talent and hard work alone guaranteed anything in the music industry, she might already be a household name. So does No Sudden Moves have the legs to right this sorry inequality?

You know, it really just might. Sticking to the blueprint of its title, the album provides a baker’s dozen of likeable, mellow, middle-of-the-road cuts, but this in itself should not be taken as damnation with faint praise. The songs here may be accessible and easy on the ear, but they are not by inference bland or undemanding. Lyrical preoccupations include intelligent musings on life and love with the odd wink at social politics; take, for instance, the first two single releases. The first, ‘USA, We’ll Wait & See’, was released late last year in both Welsh and English language versions and explores that all too human tendency of running away to find meaning and significance when those things were already at hand, if you’d only taken time to look. The second, soon to be released is an exquisite cover of the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘A Design For Life’. From the moment Wadge’s bare and exposed vocal intones the lyric “Libraries gave us power, then work came and set us free / what price now for a shallow piece of dignity?” backed only by skeletal right-hand piano, you realise you’re in for something truly special. Stripped of the Manics’s raging guitar onslaught, the song loses none of its power. Indeed, the aching passion for righteousness and a decent life for the ordinary person in Nicky Wire’s lyrics are thrown into even sharper relief.

It has never been in doubt that Amy Wadge possesses a voice of astonishing strength and beauty. Smoky and seductively sibilant, each performance drips with feeling and is delivered at either a visceral or higher emotional level depending on the context. While the production takes an open, acoustic approach that complements the vocal performance nicely, No Sudden Moves is not an exercise in minimalism. On the contrary, acoustic guitars, piano, double bass and other instruments such as strings and muted trumpet conspire to create a lush soundscape that envelops the listener whilst allowing the music to breathe. Bringing to mind the work of Mary Black in the 1990s, these songs are smooth but not soulless, produced but still organic. Some songs recall the arrangements of Julia Fordham; others are stripped back to the bare essentials of guitar or piano and lovely harmonies (‘No Sudden Moves’, ‘Worry About You’).

Readily grabbing the ear with a subtle immediacy, No Sudden Moves nevertheless retains enough appeal to reward digging deeper and repeated auditions. It’s an album that should attract the attentions of stations like Radio 2 and a listenership that responds to well-written, well-sung songs. Neither tortoise nor hare, No Sudden Moves is the sound of moderate progression and a sturdy bid for wider recognition.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published March 31st, 2006 


The Wailin’ Jennys
Firecracker ••••½
Red House

Dear Wears The Trousers reader,
Have just found Canada’s female answer to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Would love to go into more detail, but that would prevent me from listening to them.

Your critic.

P.S. Did I mention they were wonderful?

P.P.S. It seems they started out working in a guitar shop in Winnipeg. Their previous album, 40 Days was a Juno award winner, after which they lost founder member Cara Luft to a solo career. Remaining members Nicky Mehta (mezzo) and Ruth Moody (soprano) met Annabelle Chvostek (alto); the result is Firecracker.

P.P.P.S. You want more? Alriiight. Firecracker was produced by David Travers-Smith (Jane Siberry) and is a quantum leap from 40 Days, which, though equally lovely, was a little too twee in places. Firecracker is aptly named; each song literally fizzes with moments that raise the hairs on your arms, whether it’s Nicky’s beautiful solo on the lament ‘Begin’ (“when are you going to learn things sometimes turn instead of turn out”), the rolling country-folk melody of ‘Things That You Know’ or Annabelle’s haunting rising octave changes on ‘Apocalypse Lullaby’ when she sings “earthquakes break the walls / oceans rise, empires fall”. You may have noticed that I’ve been able to pick out songs written by all three; each member contributes four songs, lending additional weight to the diversity and talent on offer. The only traditional arrangement is the stunning a cappella ‘Long Time Traveller’.

The icing on this particularly tasty cake is the way their voices blend together. On ‘Swallow’ they are so much a bird on the wing you can practically feel the rushing wind through their feathers, while ‘Starlight’ finds them “shattered under midnight” and it’s almost unbearably sad. Then there’s the finale, ‘Prairie Town’, as perfect an evocation of longing to lose your origins as you’re every likely to hear and one of the best songs I’ve heard in… well, ever really: “when it rains it snows in this prairie town / and we just watch it fall to the ground / and wait for love to come around”. Ah, me, that was it, I was undone.

Recent live shows in the UK and throughout the US appear to have had the same effect on the crowds as Firecracker has had on me. It’s genuinely difficult to be critical of anything here, it’s simply magnificent. If there’s any justice, Nicky, Ruth and Annabelle’s acoustic assault on the plastic people will conquer; in reality, we may have to settle for the best-kept secret north of the Great Lakes. I deny anyone not to drown in this achingly beautiful record; it’s what your CD player was invented for. Now, please, leave me alone, I need to hit repeat.

Paul Woodgate 
originally published September 17th, 2006


Martha Wainwright
Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole EP •••••
Drowned In Sound

Some voices were just meant to be heard, and at 29 years of age, Martha Wainwright has kept us waiting long enough. But who can blame her? Growing up among a family consisting of a notoriously fractious singer-songwriter/part-time Hollywood actor father, Loudon Wainwright III, a scene-stealing brother in the ubiquitous Rufus Wainwright and the liberal-thinking folk heritage of her mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, could not have been easy. Certainly, at least one of these is brought to account on this, her debut UK release. (Canadian fans may be more familiar with her after three self-released EPs – Ground Floor, Martha Wainwright and Factory.) Having contributed backing vocals to each of Rufus’ albums, a smattering of Loudon’s and singing lead on two tracks of 1999’s The McGarrigle Hour, this EP represents a deft familial sidestep that is poised at last to put the spotlight on Martha.

It’s fantastic, of course. If there’s a better song than the title track this year then we should all be excited to hear it. Aside from the title, ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ is the kind of song that grabs you by the vernaculars and leaves you slightly slackjawed and drooling. Like Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’, the result is an instantly memorable experience. Coming on like a slightly nutra-sweetened solo Kristin Hersh, Wainwright sings with unflinching command of her struggle to find her calling through the thick fog of family talent, and in particular the barbed machinations of her dad. It’s the catch in her voice that gets you.

Fans who picked up a copy of the EP at her support slots for Rufus may be surprised to find that the official release has just four tracks instead of five. Gone are the Loudon cover ‘Pretty Good Day’ and the charmingly soulful ‘When The Day Is Short’, and in their place is the raucous and raw ‘It’s Over’. Of course, nothing else here has the immediacy of the title track but ‘I Will Internalize’ is equally devastating and ‘How Soon’ similarly yearning. Overall, this is impressive stuff and an excellent precursor to her self-titled full length debut album.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 15th, 2005 


Martha Wainwright
Martha Wainwright ••••
Drowned In Sound

When writing about Martha Wainwright, youngest progeny of the McGarrigle / Wainwright dynasty, it has become standard fare to open with family trees, domestic wounds and sibling rivalry. Releasing her debut album within months of father Loudon Wainwright III’s Here Come The Choppers and brother Rufus’s acclaimed Want Two, Martha has avoided trying to emulate the theatrical excesses of her elder sibling as this assured debut’s musical roots are closer to the country-tinged folk rock of mother Kate McGarrigle. In the McWainwright’s hermetically-sealed world, writing songs about family members is perhaps one of the more creative forms of psychological catharsis. While Loudon was still reeling from Rufus’s ode to paternal absence, ‘Dinner At Eight’, Martha provided the killer blow with last year’s ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’, an acid-tongued riposte to a father who once wrote that his daughter was “just a clone of every woman I’ve known.”

Turning 30 next year, Martha’s first album proper is the culmination of over seven years of songwriting that may have endured a long gestation, but for fans of her live sets, this album reads like a ‘best of’ collection. Having spent these formative years opening and backing for Rufus, Martha has acquired many fans of her raw, whisky-coated vocals over earnestly strummed guitar strings. Now at last rewarded with a record deal on independent label Drowned In Sound, the songs translate well to disc without compromising their heart-on-sleeve simplicity. For instance, ‘Don’t Forget’, complimented here by Kate McGarrigle’s dreamlike piano, is a beautiful realisation of a live favourite. Cousin Lily Lanken also contributes, not only with honeyed backing vocals, but also the paintings that adorn the inner artwork of the sleeve. Rufus returns Martha’s many favours by cropping up, albeit with far less of his usual gusto, on ‘Don’t Forget’ and ‘The Maker’, particularly impressing on the latter as their two voices interweave along a precious swirling melody.

While Martha admits that many of her songs fall into the ‘woe is me’ vein, the album itself has many faces and one album is almost too little to contain the number of voices fighting for attention. ‘Far Away’ and ‘Whither I Must Wander’, a traditional cover, bookend the album and find Martha at her most sensitive and subdued, while ‘Ball & Chain’ is infused with all the resentment, hurt and resignation of a lost love. With a lyrical candour that recalls fellow Canuck Alanis Morissette, Martha places herself firmly at the centre of her songs, and while her voice takes centre stage here, the harmonies complete the musical landscape far beyond the horizon. It’s not all plain sailing however. The album’s MOR low comes with the anaemic lyricism of ‘This Life’. “This life is boring”, she begins with an uncanny accuracy. However, normal service is resumed with latest single ‘When The Day Is Short’, and, alongside the achingly good ‘BMFA’, the album subsequently scales one peak after another.

On his latest album, Rufus sings on ‘Little Sister’ a tale of paranoia at being eclipsed by his talented sibling. Martha, however, should not be so concerned with such familial one-upmanship when her strongest competition is evidently with herself.

Stephen Collings
originally published July 16th, 2005 


Tamsin Warley
Wide Open Sky ••••
Pure Passion

The last few years has seen a resurgence in the mainstream of female singers unafraid to let it rock, at least politely. Whether it’s the sk8er ‘punk’ of Avril Lavigne, the big vocals of Anastacia and Kelly Clarkson or Michelle Branch’s more acoustic offerings, there’s clearly a market for well-written pop songs with guitars aplenty. It’s into this particular arena that Lancashire-born, London-based singer-songwriter Tamsin Warley has firmly planted her feet, her debut album setting out a stall packed with attractive produce.

Overseen by Tamsin herself, in cahoots with former SnowDogs Ville and Mat Leppanen, at East London’s Atomic Studios, Wide Open Sky is no shabbily recorded portastudio fodder; from a technical point of view, the results are mighty impressive. The rockier numbers are imbued with a mixture of modern angular guitar sounds mixed together and shaken up with an almost subliminal retro sheen, while the keyboard flourishes recall some of the great pop songs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but never drag them back through a time-warp. And while this remains a thoroughly contemporary pop album, the excellent production would be largely irrelevant without decent songs and a great performance. Fortunately, Warley really delivers on these counts too. Her vocal style is perfectly suited to this type of music, clear and rich with the strength to impose herself during the louder moments but tender enough to convince in the softer lulls.

The quality of the self-penned songs is thankfully equal to the delivery. While dealing with fairly universal themes of life, love and the search for significance, they are a million miles from the usual pop platitudes – there is a real depth to Warley’s lyrics. The writing is observant and insightful, picking up on the minutiae of life (…but when I found her text to you / there was nothing else to do / ‘cause I’d lost you once and for all…) which are so often symbolic of the broader picture – a technique so well exploited by the likes of Ulvaeus and Andersson. ‘Macefin Avenue’ looks back to a life that never was in a Manchester suburb to ponder the effects of the choices we make in love. Even when delivering the classic breakup song, Warley’s emphasis is never on self-pity but on a woman learning from her mishaps and moving on to something better.

The faster songs are similarly inspiring; opener ‘Drive For Miles’ is the quintessential top-down, foot-to-thefloor classic, while ‘Dance Like No One Is Watching’ is a glorious hymn to the pleasure of surrendering to the moment. In a softer gear, Warley subtly recalls the better aspects of Beverley Craven, but when cranked up the comparisons are harder to pin down. There’s perhaps a touch of Annie Lennox with Chrissie Hynde’s attitude; elsewhere, maybe a hint of Shawn Colvin’s rockier side – but Warley is never indistinct. That said, much of Wide Open Sky wouldn’t be out of place sat at the top of the charts in the hands (or rather, the tonsils) of the aforementioned Ms. Clarkson or Newkirk. With a good publishing deal and contacts, a comfy retirement fund could certainly be assured. However, with the right backing, opportunities and a side order of luck, there’s no reason why she couldn’t take the songs there herself. The pop music market may be crowded and cut-throat, but Warley could be one to succeed in that particular den of fiery dragons.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published February 15th, 2006 


Abigail Washburn
Song Of The Traveling Daughter ••••½

For someone who never set out to be a musician, let alone a bona fide recording artiste, Nashville resident Abigail Washburn has created a spectacular debut in the wistfully-titled Song Of The Traveling Daughter. A beautifully layered, heartfelt ode to well-trodden American folk traditions, it is nevertheless just as surprising and quirky as one might expect from an adventurous, Mandarin-fluent, banjo-playing political activist.

Born in Illinois, rather more than a stone’s throw away from the Appalachias whose music infuses this record, she took her time in finding her calling. Unusually, a college trip to China was the catalyst – “It had a profound effect on me,” she explains, “I discovered a Chinese culture that was so deep and ancient; it changed my perspective on America.” Sure enough, on her return from Chengdu, she invested in a banjo and began a journey that led her back to her native country’s traditional roots.

Okay, so it was a fairly long journey. She barely touched the banjo for years until fate intervened and she found herself performing at short notice on an Alaskan tour with friends. Later, she joined the string band Uncle Earl before finally inking a deal of her own. Encapsulating the spirit and grit of the journeywoman, Song Of The Traveling Daughter positively sparkles with jewel after jewel of song. ‘Red & Blazing’ and ‘Deep In The Night’, for instance, may seem simple on first audition, but listen back and they reveal layer after layer of emotion and astonish with their sheer expressiveness. The more unusual ‘Eve Stole The Apple’ is packed with longing, folksy strings searching for meaning in an ever-evolving travelling rhythm. It is broody and full of character and texture, Washburn’s vocals tearing right through the dramatic arrangements.

Co-produced by banjo supremo Béla Fleck, this is an album that focuses on the singer and the song in the purest sense. Washburn’s voice is showcased in all its extraordinary versatility – sometimes soothing, sometimes overwhelming and often childlike, full of hopes and dreams – while the clever arrangements support rather than interfere with the simple song structures. It’s a moving tribute to America’s traditions that also takes things one step further, blending roots and building bridges. As Washburn says in her own words: “I want to learn more about Chinese folk traditions, so I can integrate them into my music and continue to be a part of the development of a more universal language” – a noble sentiment indeed.

Anja McCloskey
originally published May 19th, 2006


Jane Weaver
Seven Day Smile •••½
Bird/Cherry Red

It has been four years since Mancunian Jane Weaver last charmed our ears with the unjustly ignored mini-album Like An Aspen Leaf, a record that nonetheless made an indelible impression on those who actually heard it. Since then she’s released an album under her ‘girl group’ alter ego Misty Dixon and continued to tour with Andy Votel and members of his Twisted Nerve label collective.

However, despite the long gap, Seven Day Smile is not to be mistaken for a brand new album. It was actually recorded way back in the early Nineties when she was signed to Haçienda co-founder and former Joy Division manager Rob Gretton’s label Manchester Records. Also affiliated with the label were dance outfit Sub Sub, who later blossomed into acclaimed indie rock band Doves, and it’s with these esteemed collaborators that much of Seven Day Smile was committed to tape. After Bretton died of a heart attack in 1999, the label went down with him and the songs remained unreleased, until the bright sparks at Cherry Red Records allowed Weaver to release them on her very own imprint.

So was it worth the wait? On balance, a definite yes, though Weaver herself will be the first to admit that there are moments that could have been bettered, but as a statement of a time and place it’s more than adequate. Various tracks have cropped up elsewhere (most notably ‘Starglow’) but none have been easy to find and all still sound fresh and appealing. Weaver’s instrument of choice, the Farfisa organ, pipes up throughout and lends a slightly kitsch feel to the otherwise highly personal and sometimes serious goings on.

Weaver might sound sweet but there’s a dark streak at her centre for sure, and rather infectious it is too. ‘You’re A Riot’, for example, is a meaty, mostly acoustic beauty that exemplifies her special brand of unsettling tranquility (see also ‘Once You’d Given Me Up’). The rising and falling notes of ‘In Summer’ are effortlessly lazy yet suck you in completely, but one true standout number is saved for last in the form of ‘Gutter Girl’. Collaborating with Votel, Weaver allows his electronic bleeps, burps and trickles to run free all over the place as she tells an anguished tale of unrequited love and passion. The song’s second half has her singing as if she were underwater, which sounds silly but works well.

Despite its long shelf-life and slight imperfections, Seven Day Smile is a highly listenable album. The better tracks are musically diverse and interesting, mixing lush melodies with Weaver’s headmess of lyrics. It’s a real pleasure that these songs have finally had a chance to see the light of day as a proper, if somewhat brief album, to stand alone as something truly original. If you’re looking for music that seriously messes with the singer-songwriter status quo, then look no further than this.

Helen Ogden
originally published August 23rd, 2006 


The Weepies
Say I Am You ••

Mellow folk-pop duo The Weepies claim to have touched on “a more complex sort of joy” with their second album, Say I Am You. That may be true on a personal level, but there’s little evidence of the real-life lovebirds going that extra mile to impress. There are so many bands out there doing this sort of folksy pop that gone are the times when a few guitar strokes, predictable drumming and some harmonious vocals, albeit quite lovely, warrant much attention.

Not all of their contemporaries have such a sweet background, however; independent singer-songwriters and mutual admirers Deb Talan and Steve Tannen first met four years ago at a show in Boston where Tannen was playing in support of his debut album. They clicked immediately and consequently fell in love, moved in with each other and formed The Weepies. An independently released album brought them to the attention of Nettwerk, who set them to work on this follow-up.

Whilst there is nothing specifically inaccurate with the PR blurb implying “lush meditations”, “sunny hook-laden tunes” and “dark charmers”, there’s a distinct lack of an original angle. The instrumentation barely varies; ‘Take It From Me’ and ‘Not Your Year’ in particular are drearily uninventive, while ‘Slow Pony Home’ falls short of being great due to a distracting arrangement that detracts from the vocals. Talan is definitely a talented singer but the album doesn’t really allow her the space to show it off. A few calm moments in ‘Citywide Rodeo’ and ‘Stars’ hint at what The Weepies could have achieved if the songs had been given more depth.

There’s potential here, certainly, but you may well find yourself longing for more varied and natural sounds. The almost raindrop-like piano motif in ‘Nobody Knows Me At All’ may be subtle and barely audible, but it’s touches like this that The Weepies should make a much bigger deal of next time. Not everyone falls in love so neatly.

Anja McCloskey
originally published May 22nd, 2006 


Lise Westzynthius
Rock, You Can Fly •••••
One Little Indian

Although you’ve most likely never heard of new One Little Indian signing Lise Westzynthius, Rock, You Can Fly is actually her second solo album, but the first to be released outside of her native Denmark. Looking further in reverse, she was once part of a critically acclaimed band named Luksus who lasted for two albums before disbanding. No wispy-voiced newcomer then, Westzynthius has been admired by many for years, and this album only cemented that status; Rock, You Can Fly won her both the vocalist and album of the year awards at last year’s Prize of Danish Music Critics. Upon hearing the album, it’s not hard to believe; it’s a work of high calibre and incredible beauty.

Westzynthius was first exposed to music by her Finnish grandmother, who was a pianist in Helsinki. During the long Finnish summers, she was exposed to Brahms and Chopin, both of which clearly had a profound effect – the classical influence is prominent on Rock, You Can Fly, with simple piano melodies that take their time to develop, and instruments that complement the entire sound rather than carving their own individual spaces. This is a delicate record, full of subtleties that make for a rich but intimate sound. Take ‘Reparation’ for example; it’s a slow, uncomplicated song that manages to be utterly mesmerising despite barely changing for nearly five minutes.

Breathy and dreamlike, Lise’s vocals make it easy to imagine her as a tiny elfin creature, fragile and helpless. Occasionally, however, she displays real vocal strengths – “She is strong, but in a frail way” she coos early on, perhaps self-referentially. Lyrically, Rock, You Can Fly explores the themes of love, loss, death and Arctic climbs, simultaneously conveying the epic and the deeply personal. First single ‘Séance’ is about a dead lover coming back to whisper comforting words in your ear, and it perfectly conjures up that spooked feeling when you don’t know if what you just experienced was a dream or reality. ‘Northernmost’ is a simple refrain about the cold morning mist, while ‘Cowboys & Indians’ makes turf into playful whimsy and the magic of childhood. Mostly though, the songs deal with loss, or whether you ever really had what you were looking for in the first place, such as on the beautiful ‘Sans Souci’. Her message is ambiguous, however, especially when coupling joyful melodies with heartbreaking sadness on the devastating ‘Mousquetaire’.

The art of creating rich but quiet soundscapes seem to have been perfected by the Scandinavians. Much of Rock, You Can Fly bears a similarity to the work of Sigur Rós, but with a voice more akin to that of Stína Nordenstam. Yet Lise’s music feels a great deal more personal, as if she couldn’t help but tell you her secrets. The album takes you through her joy, her pain, her longing. We’re closer to her by the end of it, as well as closer to ourselves.

Bryn Williams
originally published March 31st, 2006 


Katharine Whalen
Dirty Little Secret ••••

It’s the sound of summer, but not as you might necessarily know it. Cuban beats and slinky sounds saunter through this new solo album from the former Squirrel Nut Zippers frontwoman, hooking up with some intelligent lyrics and creating a fantastic mélange of music that you can dance to one day and cook to the next.

Throwing us headlong into the best phase of the party, ‘The Funniest Game’ strikes up a playful conversation between trumpets, guitars and a hefty percussion section. Be prepared for your dancing shoes to find their own way to the floor and don’t count on being able to leave it ‘til the final song fades for ‘Dirty Little Secret’ is similarly catchy; Whalen’s backing band gets bigger and bigger as the song progresses, each new instrumental addition interspersed with teasing lyrical snippets that neatly preserve at least some of the mystery. Things get even sultrier on ‘Meet Me By the Fire’ with Whalen’s witty wordplay and the buzzing of cicadas adding an appealing sense of transportation out of your surroundings. “Walking on lava / drinking cherry kava kava on ice,” she sings, as if it were the coolest thing ever.

Electronic trickery abounds on the all-too-brief ‘The Garden’, a fascinating ninety second number based on the story of Eden, and the almost gothic underground feel of ‘Angel’, which proudly boasts a gorgeously gutsy, visceral chorus. ‘Three Blind Mice’ throws an electric harpsichord into the mix in a genius tale of Mr Right vs. Mr Tonight where Whalen plays the role of the femme fatale in a clubland parody of the titular nursery rhyme and the pay-off is handsome.

Of Dirty Little Secret‘s less dancefloor-destined moments, the piano ballads ‘Follow’ and album closer ‘Blur’ are worthy listens, though the former suffers from some unintelligible lyrics. No such problem on ‘Blur’, its final lyrics, “I’ve got to be sure it’s not just a blur from a shooting star” exemplifying the tone of all that has preceded it; a desire to find the most fabulous aspect of any given situation. Like them or not, they certainly add an extra dimension to Whalen’s pop/funk hybrid.

This album ought to satisfy most musical tastes to a certain degree, so it’s a good one for gatherings and parties without having to worry that some oaf will clamour for a different selection. Let the good times roll.

Gem Nethersole 
originally published October 5th, 2006


Dar Williams
My Better Self •••½

Brimming with the usual mélange of moods and merriment, Dar Williams’s sixth studio album, My Better Self, comes two years after the acclaimed Beauty Of The Rain snuck up on our hearts. Clearly, she hasn’t been resting on those laurels in the meantime; My Better Self is a confident return, smooth to digest and yet layered beyond its first audition. On this evidence, Williams could hardly be accused of omphaloskepsis (it’s the new navel-gazing, tell your friends!), pausing to deliberate over karma, fated meetings and the ever-sorrier political state of the world. But this is an album of personal growth too, and many songs bear a measure of elegant sadness. Moreover, it seems that Williams may have spent the last two years purposefully ingratiating herself with fellow musicians, perhaps sociably hosting jams and gatherings and making muso friends with a will to collaboration – selected guests include Ani DiFranco, Patty Larkin, Soulive and Marshall Crenshaw. It’s the team efforts here that really shine, and certainly provide some of the mellower moments as joined forces serve up a pair of Pink Floyd and Neil Young covers.

In keeping with her established style, opener ‘Teen For God’ is crammed full of fast-paced lyrics backed by a hyper-melody that bouncily announces Williams’s arrival. Things quickly shift down several gears with the calm and serene ‘I’ll Miss You ‘Til I Meet You’. Featuring a beautiful slow vocal layered over an expansive array of instruments, including melodica, piano, guitars and percussion, it’s up there with the best of the album. The other clear standout is her duet with Ani DiFranco, their take on Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ standing out with grace as a somewhat sobering reflection of the times.

Overall, My Better Self takes the underlying pop current in Williams’s canon and pushes it further to the surface, with the folk:pop ratio almost equal on this offering. Lyrically less playful and ever more mature, she has stitched together songs that combine social and environmental issues with the more personal passions of love and hate. But it never turns didactic, the extra maturity suits her and she’s never seemed more confident. Musically, too, she has stepped up her already well-rounded and appealing delivery, which works well in the context of the plusher instrumentation and welcome collaborations.

So don’t be disconcerted by the album’s lack of a consistent feel – that the moments of calm and beauty rub shoulders with lyric-stuffed dizziness and up-tempo strumming are simply nothing other than charmingly and characteristically Dar.

Helen Griffiths
originally published November 30th, 2005 


Dar Williams
Live at the Exchange, Maidstone •••••
April 30th, 2006

In a quiet street behind the Hazlitt Theatre, away from the hubbub of Maidstone city centre, Dar Williams’s voice floated across the cobblestones in a brief warm-up before she and the band launched into a joyous version of ‘Teen For God’, the lead track from the latest in her long line of quality albums, My Better Self. A select crowd gathered to listen to stolen snippets of magic as we were privvy to a pre-show soundcheck of six semi-songs an hour before the show until the street descended into silence once more. ‘Teen For God’ did indeed open the actual show, and as Dar stepped out of the wings in jeans and a casual top, it was hard to believe that this tiny, beautifully self-deprecating woman on stage with a glitter-edged guitar was the same person who had overwhelmed the air outside. But it soon became clear that these apparently different personas were one and the same as she punctuated each drumbeat with an endearing little jump and highly infectious enthusiasm.

Each song was introduced with an anecdote explaining its origin, and, in one case, even a commentary on the tuning process as her first electric tuner broke and had to replaced. ‘Spring Street’ was Dar’s homage to her boho dreams amid the bustle of New York, while the percussion of ‘Close To My Heart’ was so perfectly arranged it was almost as if the vastness and heat of middle America were transported into the room, cicadas strumming in every corner. Next, she described the plot of Native American movie ‘Smoke Signals’ in which her song ‘Road Buddy’ featured, taking us on the long trip from New York to New Mexico and then “to the third capo and the land of the Jesuit priests” for ‘I Had No Right’. ‘The Beauty Of The Rain’ needed no introduction; the variety of emotions evoked in this single song exemplifies Dar’s massive appeal, imparting so much meaning to so many without ever becoming dogmatic.

The band made a fiery exit with the passionate and political ‘Empire’, its anti-capitalist messages made all the more forceful by their juxtaposition against Dar’s little leaps and glittering guitar. Once alone on the stage, the benefits of such an intimate venue became most apparent, allowing her to chat as if among friends. And while she herself was mortified when forgetting the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’, we forgave her all too easily. I for one had a similar memory blank at the crucial moment, but the song was just as remarkable, even considering the absence of Ani DiFranco who sings on the version found on My Better Self. Ani was the link to the next song, ‘Two Sides Of The River’, which heralded the return of the band as we were whsiked away to America’s Deep South and the balmy humid environs of New Orleans.

After ‘Beautiful Enemy’ and ‘Mercy Of The Fallen’ unleashed the band’s rockier side, the hauntingly poignant ‘Blue Light Of The Flame’ created a clichéd ‘pin-drop’ atmosphere as the audience clung to the song’s painful truths. Written for songwriter Rachel Bissex who died in 2005 from breast cancer, the album version does not do justice to how wrenching the song must be to sing. Yet with lines as jarringly beautiful as “we were the gods that we blamed” and “so this is where it all ends, with flowers by your bed”, we cannot help but want to hear more. Unable to leave the audience overwhelmed by such heart-rending images, ‘Are You Out There’ and ‘Cool As I Am’ were the chosen closing anthems that chased away the sorrow and swelled to a grand finale with stunning solos by each of the band.

Naturally, we were unlikely to allow her to leave so soon and Dar returned alone to perform the wonderfully narrative February followed by a rare and enchanting performance of ‘We Learned The Sea’. The highlight of the evening for most, however, was the final encore of ‘The Christians & The Pagans’ that was met by rapturous applause before it even began. Throughout the evening and particularly the encores, Dar’s humility and sparkle shone. At no point was there a divide between audience and performer, but instead a sharing of experiences; the fact that one person dominated the conversation and that she happened to be the person on stage with a guitar really didn’t seem to matter.

Gem Nethersole 
originally published May 18th, 2006


Kathryn Williams
Over Fly Over ••••½

Kathryn Williams has an unusual habit of naming her songs after her albums. Nothing strange about that you might think, but she does it in such a way that defies usual convention. First, the song ‘Little Black Numbers’ appeared on 2002’s Old Low Light and not 2000’s Mercury Music Prize-nominated album of the same name. Similarly, Over Fly Over boasts a composition entitled ‘Old Low Light #2′, the ‘#2′ presumably a nod to her peculiar little quirk. A minor point, true, but who’d bet against her next album having an ‘Over Fly Over’ of its own? Luckily for us, Williams has other unusual habits, one of which includes constantly improving and bolstering her sound. Where she goes from here though is anyone’s guess – Over Fly Over could well be the first Kathryn Williams Band album, such is the stylistic jump from her previous, more stripped down releases.

After last year’s enchanting major label contract-fulfilling Relations covers album, her self-professed disillusionment with music was vanquished, and she set about making Over Fly Over a renewed woman. The result is a sometimes dramatic, sometimes eerie collection of eleven densely-coloured and lyrically intriguing songs and a typically yearning instrumental. Thematically, the songs continue Williams’s sweet way with the minutiae, with lyrics about Lemsips, watching cartoons and listening to a lover’s compilation in the dark.

As it happens, the album splits almost neatly in half between the new bold sonic adventurer Williams and the quieter, more reflective folkie we’ve grown to cherish. From opener ‘Three’, which features a “bad ass out of tune electric guitar solo”, through to the poptastic climax of ‘Shop Window’, Williams has never sounded so demurely forceful. Hell, ‘Just Like A Birthday’ even contains her first ever swear word – she had previously only alluded to pardoning her French in ‘No One To Blame’ from her debut Dog Leap Stairs. Intriguingly, the song begins with a softly spoken line from Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris’ – perhaps an inside joke? Then, at its pinnacle, menacing strings swoop around and threaten to strangle the song completely as Alex Tustin’s drumming grows increasingly erratic. It’s a defining moment, not just for Over Fly Over as a whole, but for Williams herself. A thumb in the eye for anyone who suggested that her songs lacked drama.

While there is nay a poor song here, other notable tracks include the thoughtful ‘Breath’, the sweetly nostalgic ‘City Streets’ and the existentialist ‘Full Colour’, in which Williams sings “People like you and me could leave this world and go unnoticed in another.” It’s a typical sentiment for her, full of humility and wonder. Over Fly Over proves that she is capable of testing her tether and, yet again, that she’s a sorely under-appreciated national treasure.

Alan Pedder
originally published August 28th, 2005 


Kathryn Williams
Leave To Remain ••••

‘Fragile’ is an adjective too readily assigned to female singer-songwriters of a predominantly acoustic persuasion, and it certainly has no place when appraising the music of Kathryn Williams. She may be softly spoken and embraceably modest but fragile she isn’t. Here is a woman who, even when at her most musically denuded and open, has her head screwed on tight and knows exactly how it is. Tender is a better choice of word, and one that immediately leapfrogs to mind from the very first song on this, her sixth album in almost as many years. Indeed, as the songs keep coming, this tenderness comes to characterise the album as a whole – see her non-sensationalist account of a girl who lives her life through a webcam for a public that she’s too afraid to meet (‘Sandy L’) or her touching portrayal of the late poet Stevie Smith, a striking talent too often misunderstood for her seemingly morbid outlook (‘Stevie’).

Leave To Remain is the record that Williams has always wanted to make; full of remembrance and boasting a subtle but mile-wide playful streak, it’s the kind of album you can put on the stereo and be gently ushered along the cobbles of your own memory lane, into the arms of a past somebody special. It could be the love of your life or simply the best shag you ever had – that’s what makes it remarkable and surprisingly seductive. Opening with the stunningly easy perfection of ‘Blue Onto You’, during which Williams’s lush layered harmonies gently massage and soothe, Leave To Remain raises the bar even higher as it progresses. Tracks like the aching ‘Sustain Pedal’, ‘Room In My Head’ and the nervous sexuality of standout number ‘Glass Bottom Boat’ give voice to the private fears and feelings we can all align with. It’s the aural equivalent of watching someone you love sleep, of tracing their face with your fingertips and feeling familiar and safe. Or perhaps of that moment after what you thought was purely sex when you look into their eyes and realise that what?s staring back is something you?ve been searching for forever.

Though admittedly not something that’s overwrought with variation, Leave To Remain makes a clear, concise effort to be grabbing and enticing throughout. In taking the rather understated route, Williams is almost overwhelmingly endearing in her honest and meaningful presence. Each story told stands testament to how grand a scale relationships can reach if we would only let them, wiping clean away any trace of cynicism and the desperation of the daily grind. As the artist herself claims, “you don’t need to know people to love them” – a fact that she has proved a thousand-fold with this release.

Anna Claxton
previously unpublished


Lucinda Williams
Live @ The Fillmore •••

The Fillmore in San Francisco, California, is the legendary venue from which Lucinda Williams chose to record this, her first official live release and eighth album overall. As was characteristic of the preceding seven, the generous two-disc Live @ The Fillmore set plentifully delivers the charmed smoky hues of Williams’s vocals and beautifully melancholic songwriting. Lovingly presented in a lavish cover featuring one of the famously hand-drawn posters produced exclusively for the venue, the album comprises highlights from a three-night residency personally selected by Lucinda herself.

Her pickings span five out of her seven studio albums and have a definite bias favouring the most recent, 2003’s World Without Tears – 11 of its 13 tracks are included – though this is hardly surprising, given that the set was recorded in November 2003 when Williams was in full swing of the tour behind that album. Indeed, the track selection will excite those familiar with the rich, full-bodied and slightly drowsy World Without Tears, a record that immediately transports the listener into a world of distant hazy memories bereft of names and times – a world to which most would gladly return to in order to replenish those elusive warm fuzzy feelings. With other songs coming from albums such as the intimate Essence and the countrified, career-rejuvenating Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, the album offers a comprehensive selection of Williams’s songcraft spanning a decade.

However, it lacks any real deviations from her preciously polished studio work and offers nothing in the way of narration other than the occasional uttered track title or quick slur of thanks to a surprisingly muted audience, though for many the lack of audience noise will be a welcome feature – with little in the way of whoops and screams, many fans will beam happily as they sit and indulge in the rich depths of the music alone. But surely I am not the only one who appreciates a little artist-audience dynamic in the form of banter and song explanation, even if only once during these 22 tracks. I’m left with the feeling of wanting something more than or at least different to the studio takes.

Despite lacking a new flavour, the set features plenty of strong, tight and mercurial music. The first disc, in much the same vein as World Without Tears, possesses a chilled out, dreamlike quality with songs winding their own sweet way through the speakers. Highlights such as ‘Sweet Side’ and ‘Lonely Girls’ hint at the magic that Williams can generate with her haunting voice, while closing track ‘Atonement’ spotlights some meticulously crafted vocals to great effect. The second disc, with its vibrant and rockier stance finds strength in the catchy and sexily slurred ‘Righteously’, the wounded, naked vocals of ‘Joy’ and the desperate lament of ‘Those Three Days’. The band – Doug Pettibone, Taras Prodaniuk and Jim Christie – add skilful and soulful support with mandolin, harmonica, drums, percussion and carefully blended keys, with musical backdrops cutting through country, folk, blues and rock.

Packed with well-told stories intricately detailed through fine musicianship, Live @ The Fillmore is never a stale listen. Williams’s ability to communicate her experience through music is evident on all 22 tracks. But, as much as it is easy to enjoy this release, it doesn’t come close to capturing the energy of Williams’s live band in the flesh.

Helen Griffiths
originally published July 16th, 2005 


Astrid Williamson
Day Of The Lone Wolf ••••
Incarnation/One Little Indian

It’s been 10 long years since Shetland-born singer Astrid Williamson struck out on her lonesome, forsaking the safety in numbers afforded by indie duo Goya Dress in which she provided the lush, hypnotic vocals. That decade has seen her put in a number of guest appearances and a pair of solo excursions – one on Nude Records, the other self-produced and distributed through the mighty BMG machine. Day Of The Lone Wolf finds Williamson taking the DIY route once again under the auspices of her own label, Incarnation, with indie stalwart One Little Indian taking care of getting it out there.

These days, DIY is no longer necessarily equated with slapdash bodgery or hissy four-track production. Day Of The Lone Wolf is as sumptuous an aural experience as any bigger budget offering and as insightful a soundtrack to 21st Century living as an entire library of US TV series spin-off compilations. On a cursory listen, and as is certainly implied by the title, these intelligent contemporary pop songs hint at a confident, selfreliant woman negotiating her way through a post-‘Sex In The City’ climate with predatory confidence. But Williamson’s songs deserve more serious consideration and scratching beneath the hide of the album sees the veneer of the hunter stripped right back, exposing the loneliness and solitude of a life separated from the comfort and support of the pack. Suddenly the noble hunter seems a little less majestic, rather more flawed, dysfunctional and unfulfilled – and perfectly in tune with life in the urban landscape.

‘Siamese’ kicks off proceedings in a muted manner, musing on the nature of connection and trust. It’s just a little too reminiscent of Laura Veirs’s ‘Galaxies’ but sets the ensuing emotional tone quite nicely. But not just yet; the wistfully uplifting ‘Superman 2′ (the sequel to a song on her previous album) bursts into life after a brief string intro, driven along by fluid piano and charming Wurlitzer. Like Lois Lane jumping into Niagara Falls on faith in her hero alone, Williamson concludes that sometime it’s best to leap headlong into love and to hell with the consequences. ‘Reach’ brings the tone back down with bare acoustic guitar showing that Astrid’s no slouch on the six-string either, her equally exposed vocal counterpointing ‘Superman 2’s veiled optimism. ‘Amaryllis’ continues in a similar vein, her half-whispered vocal teetering on the edges of perception.

Williamson has often courted controversy with her lyric writing, but while ‘True Romance’s striking couplet “Look at me and think of this / all my tangled hair across your hips” has been hotly debated, the song’s meaning goes far beyond veiled oral sex references to explore the twin fires of obsession and dependency. Other highlights include the perky ‘Shh…’ (surely a future single?), the Brion-esque piano étude of the instrumental ‘Carlotta’, and the stunning standout ‘Tonight’, a tender and sensitive plea for companionship.

The informal trilogy of ‘Another Twisted Thing’, ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘Only Heaven Knows’ dares to ask some of life’s bigger nagging questions (no, not whether Brandon Routh makes a better Man of Steel than Christopher Reeve), the latter bowing out with a mixture of cynical resignation and contentment with circumstance. The lyric “sometimes your beauty suffocates me, but I would gladly die and repose” makes for a fitting conclusion to an album of exquisitely beautiful uncertainty. Day Of The Lone Wolf sees Williamson growing ever more confident in bending to meet her muse and in her abilities as an artist. Even if this isn’t the album to establish her as a major talent, all the evidence points to Astrid finally having her day in the not-too-distant future.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published July 2nd, 2006 


Amy Winehouse
Back To Black ••••

First things first, I hated Amy Winehouse’s debut album Frank. The word that springs to mind, written in foot-high flashing neon letters, is ‘grating’: the vocal theatrics, the endless travelling up and down octaves in that overly showy Christina curse / Mariah manner that so often incites the rage in ‘range’. It belonged in a box rather clumsily christened nu-jazz, a chest that was best left padlocked and dropped off the side of a boat at midnight yet was somehow stealthily maneuvered into the charts by Winehouse’s stage school compatriots Jamie Cullum and, to a less jazzy extent, Katie Melua.

So I’m taken aback and frankly a little baffled by the sheer quality of Back To Black. It’s a top-class soul record, less something to play in the background at an Esher dinner soiree and more something to get pissed and dance round the living room to. Gone are the weak jazzy stylings of Frank; from the sounds of Back To Black, Winehouse has been living on a musical diet of ‘50s and ‘60s girl groups and the legends of soul. But unlike, say, The Pipettes (though a hugely fun prospect), Winehouse doesn’t sound like she’s studied these acts in order to imitate them. Back To Black seems much more natural, the sound of an artist entirely at home with her music.

Perhaps this authenticity comes in part from the fact that we know that Winehouse has lived the life she sings about. The shockwaves felt upon first hearing ‘Rehab’ on the radio stem not just from the fact that it’s a truly fantastic song, but because of Winehouse’s extreme lyrical candour. The now-famous refrain describing the two-fingered salute she gave to her former management company (“They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no”) is comic in its gleeful irresponsibility, especially paired with the sexy ‘Brown Sugar’ saxophone and chiming bells. And yet, the song is touching too. In the lines “I’m not ever gonna drink again / I just need a friend”, this danceable song gains a depth and complexity that gives you pause for thought as you move to it with a can of Red Stripe (or a bottle of red wine) in your hand.

Alongside the big brass band and powerful Aretha-esque vocals, Back To Black has a rare subtlety that elevates it up to the next level. Take the closing lines of ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ for example; so softly sighed and sadly sung are they that even if you didn’t understand the lyrics, the weary malaise of the music would be all the clue you needed. Occasionally Winehouse slips back into the mannerisms that made her debut so irritating; ‘Just Friends’ drifts past in a vaguely jazzy, non-committal manner and all that grabs the attention are the oversung vocals where words gain more syllables than you’d ever have thought possible. But these moments can be forgiven when elsewhere Winehouse is singing lyrics like “I’m in the tub, you’re on the seat / lick your lips as I soak my feet” (‘You Know I’m No Good’) set to such classy musical backdrops.

Coupled with her unapologetic and attention-grabbing persona, Back To Black unequivocally shows that Winehouse has the wherewithal and worth to become a big, enduring star. Perhaps not going to rehab was the right idea after all.

Danny Weddup
originally published December 17th, 2006