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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1782

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Jill Barber: Fool's Goldby George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/6/2014)

There has been something of a renaissance of what I like to call chanteuse style vocalists, women who borrow from jazz and romantic torch singers of the past in their style. That got a boost back in 2002 with Norah Jones' first album, and there have also been notable recordings by kd lang, Madeleine Peyroux, Judith Owen, and numerous others. They vary in their approach. Some apply their creative energy to adapting the songs of others, while some are singer-songwriters in their own right. Some take a more contemporary direction while others are decidedly retro their sound.

This week we have an enjoyable new record by a Canadian chanteuse who is a also a clever singer-songwriter, and on her new CD definitely takes a retro approach to the arrangements. Jill Barber's new CD is called Fool's Gold.

Jill Barber has lived on both sides of Canada, growing up in Nova Scotia now living in British Columbia, but this new CD was done in Toronto, It's her sixth album.

Known for her distinctive voice, Ms. Barber has recorded songs by others, but this CD is entirely original material, much of it with clever but romantic lyrics, sometimes evoking Tin Pan Alley composers. The arrangements are definitely out of the 1950s and early Sixties, borrowing from Patsy Cline, Ray Charles and Motown in the pronounced backbeat on several songs, and the string section that conjures that era. In her publicity bio for the album, Ms. Barber talks about her nostalgia for that period citing Ray Charles, Etta James and Carole King, though being in her early 30s, that was long before she was born.

She continues her musical collaboration with arrangers Les Cooper and Drew Jurecka. Cooper is also the guitarist, and Jurecka plays violin, clarinet and sax. They come up with a pleasing sound that evokes the era in question but is largely free of cliches. And though the stylistic ingredients are all familiar, Ms. Barber and her band put them together in distinctive ways that can bring smiles, with the combination of the clever lyrics and the music that sounds as if it came out of a slightly mixed up time-warp. Interestingly, Ms. Barber said that a fair amount of the album was done long-distance. At the time, she was a new mother, living Vancouver on the West Coast with her husband raising the baby. She writes, "I won't try to kid you about how hard it is to be a new mother and work at the same time. Time became the new economy. For that reason much of the making of the record came down to instinct... No second guessing."

Leading off this short CD -- 31 minutes but 10 songs -- is a track called Broken for Good, with a clever lyrical line playing on all those broken heart songs. The arrangement is right out Motown. <<>>

Evoking both the musical spirit and the style of arranging of Patsy Cline records with a dash more Motown thrown in, is The Least That She Deserves. It's another nice piece of writing by Ms. Barber. <<>>

Another retro approach comes on Let's Call It Love, which to me evokes doo-wop era ballads. <<>>

A song called The Careless One was inspired by a Canadian broadcast on which she appeared that paid tribute to the 60th anniversary of the death of Hank Williams. She wrote the song with Steve Dawson, a Canadian native based in Nashville. <<>>

For me one of the most intriguing-sounding songs is a piece called To the Last. With its minor key and smoky mood, it hints to me of film noir. I think it's one of the highlights of the album. <<>>

On the other hand, Darling It Was You is a wonderfully clever song about giving one's beau the old heave-ho. <<>>

Just the opposite approach is taken on the following track Only You, an old-fashioned romantic ballad, very appealingly done. <<>>

Jill Barber's new sixth release Fool's Gold is a thoroughly enjoyable album by a talented, distinctive and astute Canadian chanteuse and songwriter. She has an interesting but very appealing vocal style, her songwriting is often lyrically wry and musically evocative of past eras from Tin Pan Alley to Motown. The arrangements and accompaniments are definitely designed to conjure a by gone period without being slavishly imitative. The way the familiar influences are put together gives the album its creativity and marks it as more than another retro record.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-plus. One can hear everything well in the mix, and the recording is not too badly compressed. But it was designed to evoke the sound of old recordings. Fortunately, they did not resort to adding audio defects as has been done a number of retro-sounding records. But Fool's Gold lacks some sonic warmth and intimacy that could have enhanced the music.

Among the current crop of chanteuse vocalists, there are those who create their own music, and those who evoke past musical eras. Jill Barber does both on her fine new CD.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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This page last updated August 17, 2014