wears the trousers magazine

incoming: patty larkin

Patty Larkin

[Signature Sounds; March 8]

To celebrate 25 years in the music biz, Patty Larkin got 25 of her friends to help sing 25 of her favourite songs from her extensive back catalogue. And what friends they are! Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dar Williams, Erin McKeown, Janis Ian and Jonatha Brooke are just some of them, artists Patty says she has “admired and been inspired by…Renegades and troubadors, humorists and historians, these are singers who have stopped me in my tracks and made me aware of beauty and passion and joy.” The guests were sent ‘live’ acoustic studio recordings of Patty’s songs over which they sang and played their own parts then mailed the recordings back to her. “Every package that came back was like a message in a bottle.  Something exotic and wonderful, and new. A surprise,” says Patty. “It often brought tears to my eyes to hear their voices with mine, to listen to their musical minds at work creating beauty. It has made me grateful and humble, ready to listen – to begin again.”

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thea gilmore: recorded delivery // shawn colvin: live (2009)
June 18, 2009, 2:37 pm
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , , ,

g_lp_theagilmore_09 c_lp_shawncolvin_09

Thea Gilmore
Recorded Delivery ••••

Shawn Colvin
Shawn Colvin Live •••

In this modern age, when a concert can end up on YouTube just a few hours after its occurrence, you might expect the live album to have been deemed to have outlived its usefulness. In fact, it remains a surprisingly popular form, particularly for those artists who are less comfortable in the studio, whose music only really lives and breathes in front of an audience, and whose fans desire some kind of official, decently mastered record of their concert work. While it’s unlikely that these two releases – Thea Gilmore’s first live document, Shawn Colvin’s second – will make much of a dent beyond the artists’ usual constituency of admirers, each is a pretty satisfying listen. Despite the differences in their ages and approaches, Gilmore and Colvin’s work bears comparison. Both are sophisticated, literate songwriters working in the roots-rock idiom, whose music combines intelligent observation, introspection and social comment. 

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shawn colvin strips back on new live album
May 15, 2009, 10:00 am
Filed under: news, trouser press | Tags: , , , ,

wie_shawncolvinEven the title is unfussy

We first reported about Shawn Colvin’s upcoming live album back in January when it was a sketchy little nameless thing with barely a factoid to boast of. Now it has a release date (June 22nd), a cover, a tracklist, and goes by the rather prosaic name of Live.

The 15 tracks that make up the album were culled from a trio of sold-out solo acoustic shows at the relocated Yoshi’s in San Francisco last summer. Co-produced by Shawn and her longtime collaborator John Leventhal, the album spans her 20-year solo career from 1989’s Steady On to 2006’s These Four Walls. As well as tracks from her five proper studio albums, Shawn revisits Robbie Robertson’s ‘Twilight’ and Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be The Place’ from her 1994 collection Cover Girl, with a third cover represented by her brooding version of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ (previously a digital single).

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trouser shorts: patty griffin, shawn colvin, deerhoof


Patty Griffin is rumoured to be recording (or planning to record) a new gospel-influenced album in a church with good friend Buddy Miller on production duties. The follow-up to 2007’s Children Running Through is expected to be out later this year. Before then, the pair head out on a short US tour with Buddy’s wife Julie Miller and Shawn Colvin as a preview of the Millers’ upcoming collaborative album – their first to be attributed to both spouses since 2001’s self-titled album – Written In Chalk, which features Patty on ‘Don’t Say Goodbye’ and ‘Chalk’, and Emmylou Harris on a cover of Leon Payne’s ‘The Selfishness In Man’. It’s out on March 3rd in the US; UK release unconfirmed. Find out more here.

* * *

Shawn has an album coming out too – an as-yet-untitled live collection, her first in a 20-year solo recording career – and is currently writing fresh material for the follow-up to 2006’s These Four Walls. That album may hit the shops by the end of 2009 if we’re lucky. She’s also in the middle of writing her memoirs, to be published by Collins in 2010, which she says will be a natural extension of the intimate, personal and often hilarious stories that she weaves into her live shows.

* * *

Lovable strangelings Deerhoof are set to release an iTunes exclusive live EP on February 3rd, featuring versions of ‘The Tears & Music Of Love’, ‘Blue Cash, ‘Buck & Judy’, ‘Makko Shobu’, ‘Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back’ and ‘Milk Man’. Just one song from Apple O’ then. Speaking of ‘Buck & Judy’, a new animated video for the song premiered yesterday on the BLURT website.

* * *

More video goodness, this time embeddable, this is the video for the new Emmy The Great single, ‘First Love’, the title track of her long-awaited debut album, out February 9th. Right now, if you pre-order the album from the Rough Trade webshop, you can get an exclusive edition featuring a bonus disc of acoustic performances of some of the album tracks. The single is out on February 23rd.

* * *

Speaking of Rough Trade exclusives, if you pre-order the new Alela Diane album, To Be Still (out February 16th), you get a 12-track bonus disc called Calm As The Owl Glides: Songs For Stillness featuring songs by other artists handpicked by Alela herself, including tracks by Mariee Sioux, Cat Power, Karen Dalton, Kate Wolf, Fairport Convention and Jackson C Frank. Here’s the link.

* * *

Lastly, here’s a bit of a hit out of leftfield. Diana Krall and her band are producing the new Barbra Streisand album – her 63rd! Completion of the as-yet-untitled album is due any day now and may be packaged and promoted in time for a May release. Diana and Barbra have recorded a duet – inevitably – and some of the songs will feature a full orchestra.

* * *

Alan Pedder

trouser press: portishead, juana molina and more

– Portishead in working-on-new-album shocker
– Juana Molina to release her fifth album in October
– Polaris Music Prize shortlisted nominees announced
– All-star tribute to Judy Collins out in August
– Leonard Cohen’s touring partner Sharon Robinson to release debut album
– Ladyfest Manchester 2008 fundraising compilation goes on sale
– Joanna Newsom and Feist immortalised in a children’s activity book

* * * 

Perhaps buoyed by the astonishingly positive reception afforded to their comeback album, Third, Portishead have reportedly begun working on a follow-up. Speaking to BBC 6Music, guitarist Adrian Utley said the band were already “getting a bit of a plan together,” adding that the limited touring behind Third was so that the band could focus on other projects and spend more time with their young families. His bandmate Geoff Barrow had already expressed a desire to write some new tunes in a blog posting in May; Beth Gibbons, as ever, has maintained a dignified silence on the matter.

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shawn colvin: “what draws me to art is the ability to ask questions”
July 1, 2008, 8:39 pm
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , ,

words in edgeways with shawn colvin

Any musician who works hard to be heard and sets aside the mundane stuff of life long enough to light up a room with a deft turn of phrase and well-judged sequence of chords is right up our alley. Shawn Colvin is one such an artist. Paul Woodgate caught up with the Anglophile intent on her next Madras ahead of tonight’s appearance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, her latest promotional outing for her seventh studio album These Four Walls.

* * *

Often standing on stage with naught but a guitar and a mic, the singer-songwriter is a hardy soul, willing to lay the glue that holds them together before an audience, wrap it in melody and wordplay, and do it in such a way that generates the gamut of human emotion in the listener. To achieve the task once is admirable; to achieve it every night over a twenty-year career is an act of Sisyphean effort, often going unnoticed by all but the most switched on. For longer than that, Shawn Colvin has delighted audiences with her honest storytelling and ‘read between the lines’ messages, whilst building a catalogue of songs unparalleled by all but her most notable peers. Artists of Colvin’s stature are often unfeted by the mass music-buying population; it’s likely you know more than a few if you take a moment to think.

Although Colvin is something of a household name in the more discerning dwellings of the United States – she’s won three Grammys after all – she remains a largely unknown quantity in the UK outside of a small but fiercely loyal fanbase. Not that it bothers her in the least: “I love the UK, it has great taste in music. I love to see what’s in the charts, there’s always something unexpected.” Anything else? “The curry! And the weather, believe it or not!”

So, how has Colvin arrived on these shores, once again, with an album so complete it’s a wonder it isn’t all over primetime media instead of the odd slot on Whispering Bob’s Radio 2 show? The answer becomes clear when you reach back into her career and appreciate what it’s taken to get to this point. Shawn’s early musical career followed well-trodden paths. Self-taught on the guitar from childhood, her dues were paid singing in local rock bands before making her way to New York in 1983.

At the time, the city was a hotchpotch of new wave and new romantic synthesisers, the dying rumble of ’70s rock dinosaurs and the surface sheen of America’s AOR stalwarts. As so often happens in music, one of the reactions to this melting pot was the resurgence of a naturally pared down, acoustic underground that quickly attracted the ‘new folk’ label in the songwriter workshops and coffee houses of downtown Manhattan. The sound grew purely on the craft of the musicians, with little theatre or histrionics, and maintained its visibility through repetition – the artists that eventually made their way from Bleecker St. to the wider world did so after hundreds of gigs and years of travelling.

Colvin was one of them, building an early following in New York and Boston on college radio. Momentum led to a growing profile and what the media likes to call a ‘lucky break’ and the rest of us call the rewards of hard work; asked to sing backing vocals on a single by a contemporary of the same circuit, she ended up contributing to Suzanne Vega’s worldwide hit ‘Luka’. That it was this song that first brought Colvin to a wider audience is interesting, not least because its upbeat melody and troubled lyric is indicative of the territory Colvin would later mine in her own songwriting. Colvin toured extensively with Vega, her first taste of larger venues and sell-out crowds.

In 1988 Colvin met and began writing with John Leventhal, writer, producer and future husband of Rosanne Cash. Their partnership bore early fruit, the combination of Colvin’s lyrics and Leventhal’s music securing a deal with Columbia and the debut album Steady On. The Grammy Award committee paid the pair swift attention and 1989’s Best Contemporary Folk Album gong went to Colvin, marking for posterity her ability to marry folk sensibilities with a pop and rock edge. Tracks like ‘Shotgun Down The Avalanche’ and ‘Cry Like An Angel’ became favourites still requested in concert today, but it was the more reflective ‘Stranded’ and the naïveté of ‘Something To Believe In’ that marked her out as a songwriter to watch. Vega returned the earlier favour and sang on ‘Diamond In The Rough’, the perfect metaphor for a promising start.

Colvin’s writing partnership with Leventhal has endured through to the present day and clearly forms an important element of Colvin’s musical chemistry: “Writing with John gets better and better,” she enthuses. “It’s a partnership, with a lot of history, and we’ve grown together. We challenge each other – there’s a short-hand to the way we work that makes the process a pleasure.”

Though he co-wrote some of the tracks, Leventhal’s involvement in 1992’s follow-up, Fat City, was largely behind the production desk. Colvin quickly made it clear she could stand on her own two feet amongst her songwriting contemporaries, and confirms she’s always been happy to look outside of her comfort zone if she deems it necessary, even more so at this stage of her career: “I’m sure I’ll work with someone else – I love different approaches and different sounds and Fat City is a favourite for a lot of people.”

Production-wise, Fat City was leaner, more commercial, and included the pop-led single material of ‘Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)’. It also marked a big leap forward in the element of her songwriting that has helped her to endure – a reflective melancholy and a knack of skewering the minutiae of our lives with a well-aimed word or line, as ‘Polaroids’ and the raw, unflinching ‘Monopoly’ show. Colvin has been quoted as saying the latter makes her feel vulnerable because it’s so personal, but as an example of what makes her writing so accessible to her listeners it’s rarely equalled. The irony is not lost on the singer: “Writing can be a painful experience – yes, it’s difficult. I’m not really inspired to write happy songs; if I feel happy, I don’t want to sit down and write songs. I like melancholy, I like bittersweet.”

Colvin has been surprisingly open about the on/off bouts of depression she has suffered since childhood, going so far as to apologise to her fans on her website for gigs “…where my illness has cheated you”. It’s a testament to her survival instincts in one of the most cutthroat industries around that her songs never sink to the level of dirge and self-pity – rather, their natural pathos often results in the listener feeling strangely uplifted, a marriage of emotions Colvin has successfully repeated throughout her studio and live career. “Life is tragic and there’s so much we can’t control, but there’s so much beauty too – being a parent, having a daughter. It’s all there.”

If Fat City was a solid step on from her debut, 1996’s A Few Small Repairs seized the ante, brushed it down and smacked it into next week. The single ‘Sunny Came Home’ entered the Billboard Top 40 and led to her second and third Grammy wins, for Song and Record of the Year, in 1998. A perfect combination of her first two albums, the folk rhythms of ‘If I Were Brave’ and ‘I Want It Back’ sat handsomely and comfortably alongside the rockier ‘Get Out Of This House’ and the darker tones of ‘Suicide Alley’. Cue another fallow period, before 2001’s Whole New You, an album built upon Colvin’s most powerful set of lyrics to date, the results of some deeply personal and painful experiences for the singer in the interim that manifested themselves in disturbing numbers such as ‘Bonefields’ and ‘I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now’.

Colvin admits that it was a hard record to make: “Whole New You was tough. For me it was a flawed record. I could not find the poetry – it just didn’t come. I’m glad if people liked that record, but there were reasons.” Certainly, the songs were vying for attention with some weightier priorities: “Both John and I had newborn babies and we were a bit scattered. I felt a certain lack of connection to it.”

Five years on, Colvin makes no excuses for the material, admitting still now that some of the songs are muddied, even to her: “Some of the songs give me pleasure to play live, which I hopes comes across, but I don’t play ‘Another Plane Goes Down’ – it’s a dark one and I’m not sure where it comes from. It’s a heavy one to throw out there if an audience doesn’t know the record – but I’m proud of it.”

Whilst diplomatic, there is also frustration in her voice when discussing the lack of support Whole New You received from Columbia. It’s apparent that a difficult gestation period wasn’t matched by the label’s marketing effort, and the album became her last for them. Given the relative success of A Few Small Repairs, was it an amicable parting of the ways? “Yeah, I guess it was amicable – we didn’t really talk about it. I just wanted off.

“I got a new manager and he agreed it was the right thing to do. I think there was some arguing but I wasn’t really privy to what happened and he got me off. I had some great experiences [with Columbia], but unfortunately, Whole New You was so under-promoted and, I guess, partially as a result, under-bought.”

So what had changed? “There was a fair amount of time between the hit with A Few Small Repairs and Whole New You – I was five years older and they just clearly weren’t interested any more.’

Now, single again and newly signed to Nonesuch, the very proud mother of daughter Caledonia, who gets a mention at least once a gig (any musical talent there? – “too early to tell”), Colvin has joined the current home of her earliest influence Joni Mitchell. The label also boasts artists as diverse as Emmylou Harris, kd lang, Laura Veirs and Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Amongst such strong, successful and, dare we say it, mature female performers, could we suggest she is in the right place? “I agree! I mean, I don’t mean to be immodest. They’re all doing interesting work that isn’t easily categorised – Nonesuch really doesn’t care about that and I like that.”

Talk of contemporaries leads to some of the artists Colvin has played with and the sense that she is as much a listener as the rest of us. “If I knew I was going to meet, let alone work with some of the artists I have…James Taylor, Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter – as a fan, a connection has already been made, but to be able to be on a stage with them, what could be better? It’s a thrill. They’re some of the proudest moments I have in my life.

“I’ve loved many of the tours I’ve been on. The Lyle Lovett tour was a great one, Jackson Browne…but the tour with Richard Thompson, because I opened for him and then was in his band…oh! I worked real hard for that one. I lost fingernails opening for Richard. I’m a real fan. I grew up falling in love with music and I’m still falling in love with it.”

The respect is seemingly returned and Richard’s son Teddy even crops up on These Four Walls, lending his lungs to the perky survivalist anthem ‘Let It Slide’. “Oh, that guy can sing!” she beams. “His album is fantastic! Rufus Wainwright’s another. So amazingly talented.”

Still, in the face of these and numerous other young contenders, Colvin says she doesn’t ‘feel’ old, even if society says it must be so, though it’s clearly a factor in the imagery surrounding her new album: “Whatever 50 is supposed to be, I’m fine with it.”

Other than a deep vein of wisdom and experience and her customarily clever ambiguity in the music and words of These Four Walls, Colvin sounds as fresh and as vital as any up-and-comer: “I’m accepting of being in this body until I die. At some point in your life you start to look backwards as much as forwards – you start to come to terms with your boundaries, what they’ve been, what they might have been and may be in the future – it’s kind of pleasant actually. It’s important for me to give [my music] the truth. What draws me to art is the ability to ask questions and express emotions that are hard to articulate.”

To articulate the truth may be painful and come at a cost, but when you can do so with such élan, when you feel the road in front of you will be as rich and rewarding as the one you’ve left behind and the need to tell stories about it remains, it would be a crime to stop and a crime for others not to listen when the chance is offered. Lend her an ear.

Paul Woodgate
originally published June 17th, 2007


‘These Four Walls’

2007 reviews dump: c

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


Vanessa Carlton
Heroes & Thieves ••

Poor piano-popster Vanessa Carlton might have felt the sting of inevitability about her second album, Harmonium. Coming off the back of her smash hit debut it was a relative commercial and critical failure, peaking at a lowly 33 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Part of the problem was that the whole album sounded too much like her debut single ‘A Thousand Miles’; basic, boring piano-pop with no innovation or flair for variety. Carlton soon found herself receiving a cold “thanks, but no thanks” from her record label, A&M. All was not good, until R&B supremo Irv Gotti (Ashanti’s backer) decided to take a chance on her by producing her third album, Heroes & Thieves.

Carlton’s frustration with A&M bubbles to the surface in the album’s first number, ‘Nolita Fairytale’. Immediately recognizable as standard Carlton fare, its lyrics (“Take away my record deal / go on, I don’t need it”) might strike some as being somewhat petulant; sadly, that is by far the least of the song’s problems. Although it is competent, it is certainly nothing special; despite Carlton’s powerful voice (reminiscent of a young Sheryl Crow), her enunciation is so weak that it’s something of a strain to distinguish between words and understand the song’s heartfelt lyrics. This is a shame, because Carlton’s skill as a lyricist is actually pretty good. Next track ‘Hands On Me’s tale of youthful, unrequited love works well with Carlton’s yearning vocals, although it feels somewhat overwhelmed by a intrusive percussion – a common problem throughout the album, as it happens, and something Carlton would do well to avoid in the future.

Although most of the tracks sound rather samey, there are a few standouts. Carlton’s multilayered vocals in ‘The One’ take on a rich close harmony that could tie the Puppini Sisters in knots, and ends the song with a remarkably wistful coda. ‘My Best’ shimmers with a lullaby feel, filled with the sweet chimes of an electric piano to create a very pleasing track, and proving that, when she tries, Carlton can be very impressive. However, what should have been the album’s best number – ‘Home’ – fails to live up to its potential; at first Carlton eschews percussion, opting for a simple, near-perfect combination of piano, violin, harp and voice. Sadly, this quiet mastery is shattered by needless drums for the last two minutes, wrecking what could otherwise have been a welcome recognition that innovation is at least as important as convention.

Unfortunately, it seems that the pull of ‘A Thousand Miles’s success is just too strong, leading Carlton to return to the same, sterile sound again and again. Sometimes this sort of dependence on a tried-and-tested formula works well; it certainly hasn’t done J-Lo any harm. However, she has international fame and a somewhat slavishly devoted fan-base to rely on, whereas Miss Carlton is – for now, at least – dancing at the fringes of being a one-hit wonder.

So, will Heroes & Thieves see her storming back from her long holiday from public recognition with a smash-hit single? Unlikely. Vanessa Carlton might not be over and done with, but if she wants to justify Gotti’s faith – and prove A&M wrong – she will have to throw in a little more variety and forget the winning formula of ‘A Thousand Miles’. It’s had its day; one hopes that Carlton now chooses to look to the future rather than depend upon the past.

Andy Wasley


Neko Case
Live From Austin, TX ••••
New West

I admit it; I grew up with old school country music. My mother had a coveted collection of Patsy Cline 45s and my father spent Saturday nights attempting to get an old AM radio to tune into a Nashville radio station that would broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. So as I grew up in music, I learned to appreciate that which Austin City Limits has as its beginnings. Fast forward to 2007. Country music has become mainstream pop and the Grand Ole Opry has become somewhat of a caricature of itself. While in recent years, ACL has moved way from being a country and folk showcase into more current and relevant music, it still keeps to its roots of strong performances and is more successful today than ever.

So it was with pleasure that I picked up the live disc from Neko Case at Austin City Limits in Austin, TX. Neko has been something of an indomitable force in music through the last few years, both as sometime accompanist to Canada’s New Pornographers as well a stellar solo artist. Most recently, Case shined with one of the most well deserving critically acclaimed albums of 2006, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Selections from three earlier albums, Blacklisted, Canadian Amp and Furnace Room Lullaby are showcased in this set of 14 songs recorded in August of 2003.

Fans of Case will ask, didn’t she already do this with 2004’s The Tigers Have Spoken? Well, they would be partially correct. Tigers… was released with the help of full band, The Sadies whilst this album scales back the performance to a minimal backing band and one backup singer. Where The Tigers Have Spoken showcased a grand scale of musicianship and range, Live from Austin, TX puts Neko herself square into the spotlight.

Not surprisingly, this minimalist formula works extremely well. Neko has one of the strongest set of pipes in the music business, and they soar here. From the moment her voice takes flight on opener ‘Favorite’ to the closing rolling steel guitar in ‘Alone & Forsaken’, she takes control of each note flawlessly. The setlist appears to be chosen specifically to highlight her strengths, including an interesting selection of covers. What might be sacred ground to many artists becomes artistic license to Case, as she takes classics by Dylan (‘Buckets of Rain’) and country legend Hank Williams (‘Alone & Forsaken’) and gives them a tender twist. The band, Jon Rauhouse and Tom Ray with Kelly Hogan on backing vocals, accent Case with sparse yet substantial steel guitar and banjo.

Released as a DVD both in the UK and Stateside in 2006, the disc’s audio companion is slimmed down from the original performance, cutting to 40 minutes from 90. Perhaps it’s this production choice that at times makes the recording feel a bit rushed. With little to no banter between artist and audience, or even artist and bandmates, the recording lacks the depth normally standard of Case’s live performances. The production is at times touch and go as well, with Neko’s overwhelming vocals pushed so much to the forefront it occasionally drowns out everything around it.

Despite these minor problems, Live From Austin, TX shows the depths of an artist who was just coming into her own skin when she stepped on that stage in 2003. It is here you first hear ‘Maybe Sparrow’, which evolved just slightly for inclusion on Fox Confessor…, and gives the listener a hint of just what Neko was to become.

Loria Near


Mary Chapin Carpenter
The Calling ••••
Zoe / Rounder

From the opening piano chords of ‘The Calling’ it’s clear that New Jersey’s finest country export is back. When Mary Chapin Carpenter’s distinctively smoky voice makes its entrance a few bars later it’s clear that she’s back with a vengeance. And vengeance may just be the appropriate word. While sonically the album contains all Carpenter’s signature sounds there’s a distinct change in lyrical content. The songs still inhabit the contemplative side of the psyche that is so typical of her songwriting but with a newfound edge, exploring the big questions which the events of the last few years make increasingly hard to ignore. Faith, racism, commitment, bigotry, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the jingoism which led to the Dixie Chicks’s trial by radio, personal responsibility and free will…each steps into the spotlight across the baker’s dozen of songs presented on the disc.

As a whole, The Calling is a magnificently mature statement, demonstrating music’s unique ability to move and evoke a feeling of empathy, however difficult the subject matter. The album also represents a range of watershed moments of the artist. It’s her first album for Rounder Records and her first Nashville-recorded album. In addition, along with her regular collaborators she’s also thrown a couple of Music City studio legends into the mix in the form of veteran and drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Dean Parks (allegedly the most recorded guitar player in the history of modern music).

And the quality shows. The Calling is perhaps a little mellower overall than some of her best-known songs – there’s no ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’ nestling among the set. However, the restraint perfectly complements the mood and it doesn’t betray some form of mid-career ennui. Even where the songs do up the BPM count a dignified spirit remains; again, the word ‘mature’ springs to mind. That said, there are still plenty of moments to get the foot tapping – ‘We’re All Right’, ‘It Must Have Happened’, ‘Your Life Story’ and ‘One With The Song’ all supply the janglesome country pop that has become a Chapin Carpenter trademark.

Careful not to leave proceedings on a down, the album closes with a pair of uplifting ballads – ‘Why Shouldn’t We’ and ‘Bright Morning Star’ – which speak of empowerment and hope. A fitting conclusion to this artist’s most mature and thoughtful collection yet.

Trevor Raggatt


Heartland ••••
Loser Friendly

Back in the mid-1990s, a Yorkshire lass by the name of Sarah Blackwood hit the pages of the NME fronting indie-pop trio Dubstar, whose debut album Disgraceful notched up two Top 20 singles (the rather brilliant ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now’) and found them surrounded by weird and wonderful dolls, flowers, dogs and anything else vaguely psychedelic they could put on their artwork without finding themselves on the wrong side of kitsch. Sadly the hits dried up all too soon and the band’s millennial demise went virtually unnoticed.

Not long after, the mysterious Client emerged from the shadows shrouded with intrigue, its two unnamed members referred to as simply ‘Client A’ and ‘Client B’ and their faces left out of the press shots. Still, it was hardly a secret that Blackwood was involved, especially given how distinctive her vocals are. Client are certainly a far cry from Dubstar and who would have imagined such a transition? Gone are the slightly twee stylistics; now it’s PVC, slick photography and black as the new black. Oh, and ‘electro’ displaces ‘indie’ as the prefix to ‘-pop’.

Previous albums Client and City were surrounded by substantial media buzz (in certain circles at least), included collaborations with ex-Libertines members (spawning their only Top 40 hit, the rather uninspiring ‘Pornography’ featuring Carl Barat) but resolutely failed to ignite any real interest in the general public. The problem was that they were marketed as a slightly pretentious electroclash outfit when in fact, they themselves claim they were surprised to “find themselves relevant”. Whether or not their intention was to front this so-called scene, the result was that they didn’t quite deliver what seemingly was promised. Heartland, however, is quite another matter. While earlier songs such as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine’ or ‘Radio’ were fantastic in essence, but quite sketchily produced, just short of the spark they needed to be surefire hits, the sound on Heartland is much tighter, the vocals infinitely more honed and, on the whole, the songs much stronger. Finally, Client have produced an album that shows them off as a force to be reckoned with.

Successfully aping the ‘80s (and ‘90s come to think of it) and slightly camp, Client’s sound on Heartland is essentially what more of their first release should have sounded like. It’s slick, often catchy and achingly cool. ‘Drive’ and the fantastic ‘It’s Not Over’ are relentlessly hummable, while ‘Monkey On My Back’ and ‘6 In The Morning’ are suitably strange, risqué and provocative, with enough tongue in cheek lines to add a certain edge that keeps them serving the darker side of pop. There are obvious allusions to Goldfrapp on ‘Lights Go Out’, which sounds like a homage to ‘Train’ (although it is in itself rather good), and comparisons with acts that have already achieved success with a very similar sound is unavoidable. It’s a shame that the initial batch of songs in 2003 hadn’t sounded as full as this, as by now Client could have been pretty big.

The album isn’t without its downfalls. As was more evident on previous releases, Client sometimes revert to clichéd lyrics that are lazy and predictable. ‘Where’s The Rock & Roll Gone’ is dull and, bizarrely, lead single ‘Zerox Machine’ is one of the least interesting tracks on the record. Instrumental ‘Koeln’ is an odd inclusion on an album dominated by strong vocal hooks, although not a wholly unwelcome one. Despite its weaknesses, Heartland is a largely good album and even if their earlier efforts left you cold there’s a lot to enjoy here. Blackwood’s vocals are truly back on form, pop gems are in abundance and it makes you feel like dancing. At least just a little bit.

Rod Thomas


The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn ••
Touch & Go

Never an outfit to unify the listening public, CocoRosie may have produced their most divisive album to date with the their characteristically quirky and surreal third album. The Brooklyn sisters appear to have taken a similar turn to fellow eccentric Patrick Wolf in producing a record that simultaneously harbours their most radio-friendly moments (‘Rainbowarriors’ as a prime example) and also their weakest work. Though it’s as varied and obscure as any previous outing and contains a similarly vast array of “instruments” (take this noun as freely as possible – coins, scissors, bicycle bells and pretty much anything else that was close to hand plays the part of percussion), the problem is that it’s just not as interesting third time around. To give the sisters credit, brains have well and truly been wracked in order to orchestrate the songs with as diverse a selection of sounds as possible, but there are other forces at work here.

The main problem with the album – admittedly a standard feature of their work – is the vocals. Now, a certain amount of leniency is allowed for artistic expression, but Bianca’s vocals on ‘Japan’ are, for want of a better word, repulsive. The song itself is an unforgivable assault of unfunny references to rape (“but you like it / so say thank you!”) and pseudo-political views topped off by one of the most excruciating vocal deliveries of recent times with Bianca’s scratchy brat-like vocal, hammed up even further with cod-patois tones, decimating everything in its wake. It’s hard to believe that anyone can naturally sing in such a manner, and the need to adopt this tiresomely impish affectation escapes me. It might seem an unfair point of focus, but now more than ever it’s a very, very thick layer of ice to dig through to appreciate what lies below.

On initial listens, tracks such as ‘Werewolf’ and ‘Promise’ are fine background music if not paid too much heed. Then, when more attention is finally given and lines such as “I suck dick” ruin any ambience created, are we supposed to be shocked? Or impressed at their intelligence? This is the album’s core irritation – that beauty is promised but destroyed at birth by mercilessly contrived lyrics and indescribably grating vocals. I really wanted to fall in love with CocoRosie and so much of The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn begins to offer the opportunity before they spin around and spoil it by doing something woefully insubstantial.

Superficially, CocoRosie are incredibly talented as the album’s production values clearly display but their creative vision is riddled with flaws. Their lyrical images are often mundane, and even when more obscure they are predictably so, almost in the manner of a caricature. In a strange way, CocoRosie appear to have embellished the vices of their previous work and positioned themselves as very easy targets for criticism.

As harsh as the evaluation sounds, fans of previous work will likely find moments, even minutes, of beauty in this work. Many songs are decent enough efforts, but for an outfit as self-consciously styled as the Casady sisters, you might expect better. Even the presence of Devendra Banhart’s writing on ‘Houses’ offers little benefit to the equation. Occasionally glorious composition is shot dead by thoughtless lyrics; Sierra’s gorgeous operatics are strangled by Bianca’s painfully overwrought vocals – ultimately, while trying too hard, it is far too lazy.

Rod Thomas


Live at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, Salford •••½
June 12, 2007

Some artists paint on canvases metres wide with broad brushes, spattering colour and ideas everywhere. Others content themselves with Jane Austen’s “two inches square of ivory”, finding freedom in restriction. French multi-instrumentalist Colleen is very much in the latter camp, teasing intricate songs out of sometimes as few as four or five tones played variously on the guitar, clarinet, the Baroque instrument, the viol, wind chimes and even music boxes.

Her concert at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, a tiny red sandstone church washed up by the ebb and flow of the Industrial Revolution at the edge of Manchester city centre, to promote her new record Les Ondes Silencieuses (‘silent waves’) was a mesmeric rather than exciting experience. Playing to a respectful, if slightly solemn crowd of people scattered over pews and lounging earnestly on jute mats on the floor, her seven-song set brought to mind the incidental music that accompanies a sinister European fairytale, the kind where the princess gets her hand cut off in the spinning wheel and bleeds to death slowly in the forest.

Employing a sound poised somewhere between French baroque composers such as Rameau, electro-pastoral shoegazers Slowdive and the avant-garde minimalism only to be found after 11pm on Radio 3 means Colleen is unlikely to trouble the charts anytime soon. Yet her sonorous, occasionally stiff, looped soundscapes have an undeniable charm, particularly in her guitar and viol-based work. Her painstaking approach to building songs out of tiny fragments using a pedal loop yields results that make a guitar sound like sleigh bells, and can transform her rather ponderous clarinet playing into something rich and strange.

All this, however, pales into insignificance compared to her work layering the sound of chimes or music boxes over one another. Not only do they exemplify her approach to making music, using just a few repeated notes so that the drama and variation in each song emerges at micro level, but the resulting sound is also weird enough to stick in the mind. A single song, in which a distorted music box melody plays backwards and forwards over an Elizabethan-sounding guitar line sums up everything Colleen does best: building wilfully odd art out of fragments.

Chris McCrudden


Judy Collins
Sings Lennon & McCartney ••

There’s no denying the pedigree of Judy Collins, a singer as fine as they come with a career that has thus far spanned nearly 50 years and 44 albums. Throughout the 1960s, she earned herself quite the formidable reputation as a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs – early recordings featured songs by Baez, Mitchell, Cohen, Dylan, Seeger and more, all cosseted by her pure soprano vocal. Given that her landmark 1966 album featured, and took its title from, a Beatles track (‘In My Life’), it’s remarkable that Collins has waited another 40 years before attempting more entries in the Lennon and McCartney canon. Set in this context, an album on which Collins explores the Beatles oeuvre in greater depth should be a cause of the hushed anticipation.

Sadly, the reality is a disappointingly lacklustre affair. There’s no denying the pure beauty of Collins’s still-crystalline voice, but the arrangements and interpretations are inexplicably disastrous. The players on Sings… rank among the greatest musicians the session world has to offer, yet, unaccountably, too many of the songs come over as tiresome jazz noodling that would be below par even in some mediocre Manhattan cocktail bar. Imagine the inspired spoof combo which closed each episode of ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ and you have in a nutshell the Collins takes on ‘And I Love Her’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’.

Some, mostly McCartney-penned, numbers fare a little better. The sweetness (or at least bittersweet tone) of ‘Blackbird’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Yesterday’ acts as a sympathetic context for Collins’s trill. But there’s no escaping the fact that Collins simply doesn’t have sufficient grit, world-weariness or cynicism to convince on tracks like ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’. Elsewhere, ‘Norwegian Wood’ veers way too close to department store muzak fodder for comfort. And ‘When I’m 64’…? Let’s not even go there.

It’s frustrating that what should have been a glorious canter through one of the all-time classic songbooks is such a disappointment. Perhaps another repertoire (Berlin, Porter, Gershwin…even Coward!) and a more engaging production would have reaped better dividends. As it stands, however, this particular collection will remain the preserve of Collins completists only.

Trevor Raggatt


Shawn Colvin
Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire ••••
June 18, 2007

The Shepherd’s Bush Empire is no easy place to play solo. The gaping maw of the auditorium must be daunting for even the most seasoned pro and bands of any number. So kudos goes to both performers this evening for having the cahones to face up to this alone.

Husky, tousled and bescarfed support Jack Savoretti, only slightly showing his nerves, provides a soundtrack of lilting and earnest acoustic numbers that greet the punters. While he seems to be somewhat thrown by the hushed tones between tracks, this is probably a trick of the acoustics as the audience there to witness his set seem pretty grateful to be rewarded for turning up early by a more than half decent support.

There is no danger that Shawn Colvin is going to be concerned about a lack of appreciation. Decked in a shiny plastic patterned halter-neck, blue jeans and platforms, she looks every bit the part of a Midwestern trailer mom casually strolling onstage with just an acoustic guitar. But this unassuming demeanour disguises one of the finest singer-songwriters, which the audience, in appreciative applause before she even plays a chord, knows only too well.

Opening with one of the less popular numbers from her largely forgotten covers album might not be the most auspicious start, but she follows this up with two songs from last year’s These Four Walls. Excellent on record, ‘Fill Me Up’ and the title track are even more poignant live, stripped of any production, the quality of Colvin’s voice and poetry resonating loud.

Having spent a long time touring live and playing the New York folk scene before making a record, Colvin is completely at ease despite her assertion that this is her largest ever London gig. Apologising if the set recapitulates a Union Chapel show from the back end of last year she says that she can’t remember what she played, to which an audience member calls back that “neither can we”, without pausing for breath she retorts “We’re the same age then”.

Culling a set from throughout her career, Colvin has wide-ranging and nuanced perspectives on life, loves and relationships, from the fatalistic ‘Trouble’, which fizzes with venom, to the mournful, glacial and soaring ‘Shotgun Down The Avalanche’. Colvin’s lyrics are deceptively sharp, and coupled here with the raw immediacy of her live vocals, which effortlessly switch from piercing soprano shaking the cornices of the domed ceiling to a desert parched scratch on demand, she entrances the audience before drawing us back from adulatory rapture with between-track quips.

The glorious lovesong ‘Polaroids’, a list of images making a flickbook animation of a relationship and the triumphant tale of escape that is ‘Sunny Came Home’ elicit two of the greatest rounds of applause of the night. But even lesser known tracks are delivered with such poise that at the end of 16 songs the standing ovation is heartfelt and well deserved.

Returning for an encore of mostly covers, we are treated to an ‘ad hoc’ version of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ inspired by it being played before Colvin came onstage. A reworking of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ could be embarrassing for someone of Colvin’s maturity, but she manages to breathe new life into a song played to death. And ‘Killing The Blues’, a standard in her live set for many years now, totally floored this reviewer.

For all her Grammys and critical acclaim, it is near criminal that Colvin is not better known and better respected by the public. Anyone who can, without pretence and so confidently, hold such a masterclass in performance deserves to be much much more highly regarded.

Peter Hayward


The Concretes
Hey Trouble •
Licking Fingers

As most people will probably remember, Swedish collective The Concretes caused quite a stir a few years back with their self-titled debut and its almost-instant pop classics such as ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. Fewer will remember the follow up In Colour that failed somewhat to live up to expectations, and even fewer still will be aware that they’re still going, despite losing Victoria Bergsman’s majestic lead vocals to a brief affair with Peter, Bjorn & John and, ultimately, her solo career as Taken By Trees. For those faithful hangers on who’ve been wondering what the band might sound like without her, the wait is over. And the answer is, sadly, really not great. Though it starts off pleasantly enough, it soon becomes clear that Ms Bergsman made a well-timed departure from a once-great musical force now reduced to making dishwater music. What once sparkled now grates – the retro production values, the slightly twee edge and the faux-naïve lyrics; Hey Trouble appears to faithfully adhere to the formula of their debut, but recapturing the chemistry eludes the band completely.

At times the album, or rather the mixing and arrangements of the album, veer towards Belle & Sebastian at their more electronic (‘Keep Yours’), and at other times The Supremes (a major, long-held influence). Certain moments are sufficiently well arranged and lavishly orchestrated, but it’s all bogged down by its chugging monotony. One line in ‘A Whale’s Heart’ (a song whose title is vastly more interesting than the song ever dares become) declares “it’s straight-to-DVD hell”. If this album were a film, this line would be the most apt in the script.

Alarm bells should really have rung upon hearing lead single ‘Oh Boy’, a limp attempt at reintroducing the Swedes into the limelight. Part of the problem is that many bands have jumped on the retro bandwagon since The Concretes first emerged – such as fellow Scandinavians Shout Out Louds, the aforementioned Peter, Bjorn & John, and even The Radio Dept – all of whom have become much more interesting and relevant than them. Hey Trouble is unrelentingly boring from start to finish; not a single track comes anywhere near to rivalling the pure joy of their earlier work, or even matching the energy of their successors. Lisa Milberg, who had the unenviable task of replacing Bergsman on vocals, flounders miserably, rendering any beauty in the songs impossible to hold on to. She lacks any real variety in delivery, and on the whole sounds entirely nonplussed, barely aware of the lyrics she is singing almost robotically.

In theory, the songs are fine, but they are just that: fine. They just about scrape by, but lack any real defining qualities or values that display why this album was made, or even why the band are still together aside from a contractual obligation. The ideas on this record have all been done before, often to death, by countless other bands. As harsh as it may seem, The Concretes have delivered an essentially pointless record. Hey Trouble sounds strangely empty despite the layers and layers of careful instrumentation, and, more’s the pity, achingly insincere.

Rod Thomas


Laura Cortese
Blow Out The Candle •••

Laura Cortese: fiddler, singer, dancer, songwriter, polymath, sometime purveyor of dog-house bass for old-timey outfit Uncle Earl…there’s no denying that the woman’s got talent. Her latest release, a mini-album sequel to 2006’s full-length Even The Lost Creek, finds her in pared-back, live and acoustic mode. Recorded straight from the mixing desk at a number of shows across the US and Canada, every one of the seven songs here demonstrates Cortese’s energy and skill.

Drawing heavily on material from Even The Lost Creek, with just one pick (‘I Must Away Love’) from her solo debut Hush and a cover. But the bare-bones nature of the recording – a simple mix of fiddle, guitar and percussion – leaves Cortese plenty of room to breathe. The rock ‘n’ reel style of ‘Mulqueens’ amply shows why her fiddle playing has been so lauded on the Stateside Celtic circuit, while the other excerpts from her previous release are nicely stripped down retreads of the studio material.

This is particularly effective on the raunchy traditional number ‘Jack Orion’ where brooding sensuality rubs shoulders with snare and brushes and spookily cello-like riffing on an octave fiddle. Of course it doesn’t end happily. Traditional ballads rarely do. The real surprise here is a tender cover of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Breakaway’ (co-written by fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne), as far away from American Idol sk8r punk as you can possibly imagine. But the transformation of the song to fit Cortese’s country-folk style is seamless and the perfect foil to her lyrical fiddle playing.

Being picky, the technical quality of the recording isn’t as smooth as some ‘live’ offerings, but what we lose in smoothness and overdubs is more than repaid in energy, honesty, authenticity and connection between player, listener and music. Which would you rather have?

Trevor Raggatt


Melora Creager
Perplexions ••½
Filthy Bonnet

The old maxim about never starting a band with a woman because she’ll want to go solo has never been tested more than when applied to Melora Creager. Of course, the mythical band of this epithet wasn’t Rasputina, nor was its lead singer the notoriously eclectic Creager who, as the founding member, is the nucleus around which the organised chaos of Rasputina’s ever-shifting line-up revolves. The difficulty of the solo album already becomes apparent: can we extricate Creager from Rasputina when she is arguably the band’s driving force?

There is no doubt that Creager has delivered an accomplished album, replete with the quavering vocals we have come to love. In many ways, Perplexions represents a ‘back to basics’ approach for the singer, showcasing her voice, the cello and piano in arrangements that seem less complex than her collaborations with Rasputina. There are exceptions in ‘Sky Is Falling’ and ‘Krakatowa’, but these rather noisy affairs are dwarfed by simple voice and cello pairings like the mournful ‘American Girl’. Opening track ‘Girl Lunar Explorer’ has a gorgeous string-plucking jazz quality to it that Creager would do well exploring further in other solo projects. The all too short ‘Itinerant Airship’, meanwhile, features layered vocals over mellifluous cyclical cello.

Perplexions is only seven tracks long so seems like a rather embryonic solo effort. An inevitable problem of the album is that many elements, most notably the signature use of cello, hark back to Rasputina and do little to assert Creager’s individual identity as a musician. However, the cello is such an intrinsic part of her repertoire that it may be impossible to fully separate the two entities. For the moment, however, Creager’s work with Rasputina should be more than enough to satisfy her eager fans while she finds her musical bearings.

Siobhan Rooney


Jill Cunniff
City Beach •••
Militia Group

Although a lot of musicians can boast an authentic claim to the ‘cool’ moniker, they don’t come much hipper than Jill Cunniff. Born and raised in NYC, at just 13 years old she had her birthday party at the legendary CBGBs; at 14 she taught herself to play the guitar; and at 15 found herself playing in garage underground punk bands alongside future members of the Beastie Boys. When Cunniff joined forces with fellow New Yorkers Kate Schellenbach, Gabby Glaiser and Vivian Trimble, Luscious Jackson were formed and promptly signed to Grand Royale. After five full-length albums and notable indie success, the band amicably called it quits in 2000. So, it’s fair to say that Jill Cunniff has paid her dues, musically and credibly speaking.

Since 2000, Cunniff has worked on some pop projects and worked with Emmylou Harris, continued writing her own material and even found time to learn the art of production, sampling and mixing. The result is her debut solo album City Beach, dedicated to New York’s Coney Island, a faded, atmospheric city beach famous for its lively past. In an attempt to bring the beach to the city dweller, this album is full of hot Brazilian beats, and deliberately laid back breezy tunes. Indeed, on the track ‘Warm Sound’, the listener is urged to start the century again, at a slower pace. The whole album is something of a contradiction, combining genuinely lazy sounds with an urgent and constant message of the need to slow down.

In the same way that a beach rarely belongs in a city, this insistence feels a little out of place here, perhaps consciously so. With a vocal style very similar to Nelly Furtado, the exotic hip hop beats and samba are perfectly accompanied, evoking a real world music feel that touches on several styles, including jazz, soul, Latin, electronica, pop, trip hop, funk and so on. Although essences of Luscious Jackson are evident – mostly in the sampling and beats – this has far less edge and, well, less NYC hipness, compensated for with ambiance. City Beach is a summertime album for sure and the mood is bright.

Of the 12 tracks, Cunniff wrote seven single handed and co-wrote the other five, and while the intended mood is definitely caught, the songs themselves aren’t strong. Themes of lost love come second place to the regular insistence of taking it easy, and the lyrics are simplistic and a little clichéd. It doesn’t help that the true standout number ‘Lazy Girls’, with its danceable upbeat rhythm, is situated right at the beginning.

Perhaps arriving a little too late to capture the chillout or ambient audience, the appeal of City Beach may suffer from not fitting into any particular nook. A little too soft for the indie audience and too mature for the spiritual types, the album may well contain too many disparate elements to pin it down sufficiently. Whether bringing the beach to the urbanite or the hustle and bustle to the coastal dweller, City Beach evokes a time and place unknown to either, where nothing is rushed and the atmosphere is relaxed and blissfully simple.

Stephanie Heney