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(Compass 4449 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/28/2007)
There are not too many artists who have had careers in both pop and traditional music. The relentless tendency to categorize all artists by style and often by target demographics, can make it difficult for an artist in one sphere to have much of an impact or indeed credibility in another. This week, we have such an artist, and she has made an album that represents both aspects. She is Eddi Reader, and her new recording, her sixth solo album, is called Peacetime.
Sadenia "Eddi" Reader is from Scotland, growing up in a rough area near Glasgow. Her background was rock & roll, steeped on Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and used making music as a defense against her surroundings. She dropped out of school and by the early 1980s was traveling around Europe performing with a circus. After moving to London, she began to have considerable success as a backing vocalist, and toured with Annie Lennox of the Eurhythmics. Then she became a member of the band Fairground Attraction, which had a big hit in the UK with the CD The First of a Million Kisses in the late 1980s. The band did not last very long, and she left for family reasons. Since then, Ms. Reader has been releasing a series of solo albums, first upbeat pop, and gradually moving toward more folk-oriented recordings, starting with Simple Soul in 2001, which was primarily a series of demo sessions with some folk and Celtic musicians gathered together.
By 2004, she took on a potentially risky project, doing an album of the songs of the Scottish national poet Robert Burns. It turned out to be her most commercially successful recording and established her as a significant figure in traditional music.
Now she is out with Peacetime, and on it she attempts to balance the two sides of her musical personality, the pop artist doing contemporary music, and the traditional Scottish and Celtic performer. She succeeds ably, with the emphasis on the traditional in sound. She includes more Robert Burns, as well as some original songs she co-wrote with members of her band. And there is also a hybrid, with a Robert Burns chorus attached to original verses, all performed in her instantly attractive soprano voice, that is not only thoroughly pleasing, but always seems to have a bit of a smile on.
She is joined by several of the musicians with whom she has been working over the past several albums, including Ewan Vernal on bass, and Roy Dodds on drums, whose association with Ms. Reader goes back to the days of Fairground Attraction. Also appearing is Boo Hewardine, a fine English songwriter and member of a band called the Bible, as well as guitarist Ian Carr, and fiddler John McCusker, who are regulars with another acclaimed contemporary British folkie Kate Rusby. The sound of Peacetime remains mostly acoustic, and occasionally orchestral, with the addition of a string section and some brass at times.
While there are a number of contemporary compositions on the CD, the subject matter is usually decidedly traditional, with variations on love, hope and separation.
Leading off is a piece that nicely illustrates the contemporary-traditional hybrid nature of the CD, Baron's Air and Sadenia's Air. The first part is a traditional Scottish piece, though Ms. Reader says she altered the lyrics some. <<>> The latter part is an original instrumental written by John McCusker, with a decidedly traditional sound. <<>>
The contemporary side is represented by the following track Muddy Water, by Boo Hewardine. Still, there are the distinctive touches like the pennywhistle and the brass instruments. <<>>
Back on the traditional mode is Mary and the Soldier, another old Scottish song that Ms. Reader said also turns up in Ireland. Her notes says that she did the Irish version, based on a 1976 recording by Andy Irvine and Paul Brady. The lyrics are a very old-fashioned affirmation of undying love through separation. <<>>
An odd choice for inclusion is a track called Prisons, by the alternative rock band the Trash Can Sinatras. Though Ms. Reader's version is pleasant, it does seem musically out of character with the rest of the CD. <<>>
Another bit of a surprise is The Shepherd's Song. It's a melody that Ms. Reader said has intrigued her since childhood when she heard a soprano singing it on TV. She said the original lyrics were in French, and then did not like how they translated, so she enlisted guitarist John Douglas to complete a revised set of words. For the song, she is joined by a brass choir providing most of the accompaniment. <<>>
One the Robert Burns songs on the CD is Ye Banks and Braes O' Bonnie Doon. Ms. Reader and company give the song a decidedly upbeat treatment, and the result is one of Peacetime's highlights. <<>>
Leezie Lindsay is also based on Robert Burns, written in 1795, though in this case, Ms. Reader said that apparently there is a tune and chorus, but no verses. So she and Hewerdine supplied new verses, very much in the style of Burns. The result another fine track. <<>>
With a definitely contemporary context is the song Safe as Houses, which Ms. Reader says was inspired by a terrorist attack in London, after which there was the concern, upon hearing the news, about people she knew who were in the area at the time. <<>>
Eddi Reader's new CD Peacetime successfully combines some of the pop aspects of Ms. Reader's career with her increasing fascination with traditional Scottish and Celtic music. Her always pleasing vocals give life to both aspects on the CD, with some tracks combining traditional bits with original parts in a way that makes it hard to tell them apart. And sometimes the juxtapositions are a bit surprising. As on her last few albums, the backing musicians are outstanding, as is the production by John McCusker, who does similar duties with his wife Kate Rusby. The addition of classical style strings and brass instruments is also an interesting touch and well-handled.
Our grade for sound quality is "A." Ms. Reader's vocals are nicely captured, and the subtleties of the acoustic instrumentation are not lost in the recording. The dynamic range is also better than average for a contemporary CD.
I suppose there are still those who like to keep a line of separation between traditional and contemporary music. But Eddi Reader again shows that with enough skill, the two can be mixed with excellent results. It's another impressive recording from one of the UK's most consistently tasteful artists.
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