Sunday, 28 July 2019

Rosalie Cunningham - Rosalie Cunningham, album review

Music Circus Ringmaster

Just released, Rosalie Cunningham’s eponymous album is a delightful showcase of her distinctive and fulsome talent as multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and songwriter. The psychedelia of her significant time as leader of superb band Purson [albums and live reviewed here] is still wonderfully evident, but there is a coherence of the music circus to this fine set of tracks, and by this I mean a theatre of gypsy folk to psyche pop elements merging in the big tent circle of this performance.

In many reviews I often cite precursor touchstones and then either hasten to confirm the intended compliment or apologise for what are probably familiar [perhaps ad nauseam] references to musical echoes. Unabashed now, I simply reflect on hearing forebears like Clear Light and early Doors, then Affinity as well as one cosmic waft of Hawkwind opening a track, and also a favourite influence mentioned by Cunningham herself in the album’s inner sleeve, the Beatles, and by implication, George Martin.

All these inspirations coalesce in Cunningham’s assured interpretive flair, a musical focus she has honed with instinct and determination throughout her musical career and celebrated in this solo album. 

Rather than work chronologically through individual songs, I will highlight the collective pulses of this record from happily engaged notes I made on a first listen, starting always with the voice, Cunningham’s fulsome and resonant vocal and the occasional great swathes of warbling perfection and the harmonies quite beautifully expanded and overlapped. There are 60s/70s fuzz buzzes and space-rock backdrops. There is a portentous, punchy start. There are continuous examples of solo excellence in clever guitar leads, a pounding bass, and layered organ swirls.

Instrumentation and genre merge playfully and evocatively, from lounge piano to wah-wah to marching beats to orchestral keyboards/mellotron to the operatic, and on closing tour-de-force A Yarn from the Wheel, spoken narrative and rousing screams.

I am so genuinely pleased to have a vinyl copy added now to my Purson collection. I look forward to those of the future from this musical ringmaster.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Iain Bellamy at the Blue Vanguard Jazz Club, Gipsy Hill Hotel, 11th July, 2019

Blues, Baby-Blue and Blue Vanguard

Although I did notice last May when at a gig here, having recently seen TV’s The Hotel Inspector where Alex Polizzi [a tad patronisingly] visits and advises hotels – including in her current series The Gipsy Hill – the baby-blue lounge was all the more evident for having been featured as an alteration on that programme.

It does seem a shame Alex didn’t visit and record a Blue Vanguard Jazz evening [I’ll assume it wasn’t within the filming timeframe] because this would have shown how one of the well-worn features of the venue is hugely popular, as was the recent with guest saxophonist Iain Bellamy. Indeed, the room where the gigs with house-band the Blue Vanguard Trio are played is still very much an imprint of an era, and that isn’t a recent one.

But the music was, as ever, wonderful in the here and now. Having reviewed a fair number of performances [see more here], I have probably said it all, especially about the outstanding qualities of the BVT, but also about my lapses in remembering the names of songs played – I used to take a pen and pad to make notes but that seemed a little pretentious, as well as cumbersome – so I don’t have any to share. Of course I don’t always know the songs that are played, unless I’m told, but then I don’t remember…

What I do remember is how special Iain Bellamy is as a player. I’d seen him once before [read here] and on this night he excelled again: a rather special guest to this listener, which is saying something considering the high quality of all who play at this venue on these jazz nights. I again warmed particularly to his breathy playing, but there were also the rolling runs and the range. There were two blues, one rather funky, as well as a ‘classical’ piece [or part of] where in particular the piano accompaniment of Craig Milverton was vibrant.

Al Swainger had one glorious extended bass solo, and Coach York made the integral dynamism of drumming the treat it always is.   

I did buy at the gig and have been listening to Bellamy’s 2001 album Organic and GM Food. This is an innovative and experimental work [avant garde?], with some humour, and I am enjoying very much, hoping to review at a later date.

Two Faces Music 27

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Joan as Police Woman - Exeter Phoenix, 1st July, 2019


It was wonderful to see and hear Joan Wasser – Joan as Police Woman – perform a solo, intimate gig at the Exeter Phoenix on the 1st July.

I became a fan like so many others in 2006 with the release of her debut album Real Life. It is a collection swelled by beautiful songs and singing, unquestionably pretty in their sweet melodies and the resonance of Wasser’s vocal. In her performance at the Phoenix [excusing the inclination to make namechecks, but always as compliment/reference point] I ‘recognised’ for the first time she had the same kind of vocal presence as Laura Nyro – this made more of a link when playing the piano rather than guitar, for obvious reasons. It is in the depth of her voice that carries even in its softest moments.

Early on in her performance Wasser shared a brief anecdote about her good friend Elliott Smith playing at a rock gig and only offering ‘delicate’ songs – and this became another touchstone for the night as she played her own tender ones, though these had other depths in the honesty of their lyrics.

She played a superb selection across the range of her many and varied albums [and they aren’t all in the ‘pretty/delicate’ category that I particularly like – see a couple of my other reviews here], and the following are favourites I remember especially from the night - song and album:

To Be Lonely – To Survive
Forever and a Year – The Deep Field
We Don’t Own It – Real Life
Real Life – Real Life
Tell Me – Damned Devotion
The Ride – Real Life

It was great to hear her version of Kiss live, and to join in the singalong, and extra special to hear the extra special The Ride as the first of her two encore songs. A genuine privilege to see her and at such a venue, as well as an enduring memory.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Two Faces Music 26

Sarah Jane Morris - Sweet Little Mystery [The Songs Of John Martyn], album review

John Would Love This Too

It would be impossible trying, and wrong as well, to divorce the indelible songcraft of John Martyn from the quality of performance in those who cover any of his songs. And there is solid evidence of how covers of Martyn’s glorious songs over the years resonate from their inherent excellence and memorable sound: an obvious example would be the 2011 compilation Johnny Boy Would Love This….A Tribute to John Martyn; and if you go on YouTube there is an abundance of recorded/live versions of his songs by a wide range of artists and interpretations that have at their core attraction the Martyn melodies before we get to the cover nuances.

Sarah Jane Morris and Tony Rémy surely earn an endearing and enduring place in that lineage of covering John Martyn with their distinctive album Sweet Little Mystery. I say ‘distinctive’ in that very context of Martyn’s central place – always – in versions as outlined above: Rémy’s precise yet varied guitar work and Morris’ deep, powerful vocal establish themselves throughout the portrayals of a range of Martyn’s songs, from his early sweetness to later jazz sass.

Opener Fairytale Lullaby presents these in its perfect, simple essence – acoustic guitar and voice unified on the melodic line. This is followed by an orchestral Couldn’t Love You More where an expansive sweep of sound rides this beautiful expression of love. I can imagine those uncertain at the orchestrating, down to the 60s horn swathes a la Herb Albert and female pop chorus, but it works.

The big test for me is third Head and Heart, my favourite all-time Martyn song. Again Rémy begins with guitar picking out the melodic line until Morris joins on to it with a force that carries conviction and empathy. It breaks to a percussive and bass-led instrumental that again works, especially when Morris rejoins at this increased pace, the slight funk taking the song to a new place that asserts the promise in its lyric/title: love me with your head / love me with your heart, again and again, Rémy riding this out in a controlled, tight solo.

Call Me is Morris sultry and soulful, Rémy soloing with acoustic precision. Over the Hill – what a sublime selection – is again funked-up [so to speak], certainly an upbeat take on what is a ‘folk’ classic in Martyn’s early work, this version introducing a gospel-esque tangent, the female chorus rousing in its climbs. Superb.

Then it’s Solid Air, so fan expectations will be high, whether that is the hyper-stalwart anticipating failure; others perhaps demanding a fidelity that misunderstands the purpose of interpretation, or, like me, just waiting for more of this perfect homage. Morris is in fulsome vocal here, emotive and inflected slightly in that way Martyn began to vocalise instrumentally, and deeply mimetic on You’ve been getting too deep. Rémy’s guitar is yet again precise and controlled, the bass line throbbing the drive onwards. The song ends on a long adamant repeat You’ve been walking your line / you’d better walk in your line that Morris growls menacingly/passionately at the final.

One World is again funked-up jazz-cool. And it’s always the song shining, but without question this interpretive take also glows. The title track is adorned with some organ, and Morris yet again occupies the centre with such a soulful singing. By this stage you become aware of just how much light has been shed on these songs, this essentially about the darkness of being alone and yearning for a past long gone. And the illumination isn’t incongruous, surprisingly perhaps, having been the default throughout.

Did I suggest light, and upbeatness! Well, May You Never gets a Free-esque [Andy Fraser] cover, and I love it, this Martyn anthem strutting its bar room fights and behind your back dirty talking. Penultimate Carmine is a fine rocking take, Morris making musical mischief in the title’s name and lyric, turning turning the screw into a playground chant that rolls out to a scorching guitar.

Closer I Don’t Wanna Know is the song I first heard from these two a while back. I remember being excited and complimentary then about the homage so clearly heartfelt as well as independent and creative. Here horns again burst out the love, and a chorus sings the soul of the song’s mantra. Rémy on another scorching solo never apes Martyn’s playing on the whole collection and that has been such a good call, Morris reminding in more vocal squeals the muscular impact she brings to bear on so many of these originally acoustic and sombre songs.

If a John Martyn fan I think you owe it to yourself and his memory to get this excellent, vibrant and honest tribute. And of course get it if you like great songs brilliantly performed. I ordered my copy here

Other of my John Martyn reviews, including Johnny Boy... here