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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1353

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Eddi Reader: Sings the Songs of Robert Burns
by George Graham

(Compass 4368 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/28/2004)

There seems to be something of a trend in the past year or so of artists who normally work as singer-songwriters recording traditional music. In 2003, there were outstanding albums by John Mellencamp, Natalie Merchant and Jorma Kaukonen all doing mostly very old music, either traditional or by composers whose work has become more or less considered traditional. This week, he have another one in the latter category, in this case, from across the Atlantic. It's from Eddi Reader, and her CD is descriptively titled Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns.

Sadenia Reader grew up in Scotland, and later learned that she the town in which she lived for a while, had been the home of the Scottish national poet for some time.

Ms. Reader had a hardscrabble childhood in a rough area on the outskirts of Glasgow, and was busking on the street at a fairly early age. She looked upon music as an escape from her neighborhood environment. By the early 1980s, she went on the road, singing with circuses and performance artists before moving to London, where her vocal talents were soon in demand. She spent a while doing backing ovals with the punk band Gang of Four, then did the same for the Eurhythmics, before joining a band called Fairground Attraction, in which she was lead vocalist. The band had a Number One song in Britain, and their CD First of a Million Kisses was released in the US on a major label and attracted critical praise. The band, however was rather short-lived, as Ms. Reader left for family reasons.

Since the mid-1990s she has been releasing a series of solo recordings that run from melodic pop to mostly acoustic, with the material being predominantly original. Now she is out with a nicely handled collection of the 18th Century songs of Robert Burns in a distinctive setting that combines a folky, Celtic sound with a small orchestra. The music on the CD was originally a performance project done in connection with members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and debuted in January 2003 in Glasgow as part of a Celtic festival.

Ms. Reader collaborated with some of the musicians with whom she has worked in the past, including guitarist Ian Carr, percussionist Roy Dodds who was in Fairground Attraction with Ms. Reader, along with Boo Hewerdine, who played a prominent part in Ms. Reader's superb 2000 CD Simple Soul. Hewerdine also produced this CD. Appearing as well are some musicians who have been working with another fine UK artist who has been doing traditional music, Kate Rusby. They include multi-instrumentalist John McCusker and bassist Ewan Vernal. Keyboard man Phil Cunningham and guitarist Colin Reed round out the regular small group, with the strings arranged and conducted by Kevin McCrae. Also, Ms. Rusby puts in a guest appearance on backing vocals on one track.

Though Robert Burns has long been Scotland's best-known and best-loved poet, much of his output was in the form of songs, with Auld Lang Syne, My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose, and Coming Through the Rye being pieces that everybody knows. Ms. Reader performs some of the Burns classics, along with a few lesser-known pieces, and also includes one contemporary song that is very much in the style. She admits to taking liberties with the songs, sometimes coming up with new tunes, and sometimes weaving the Burns songs in with other songs or melodies. The participants set out avoid making the performances very formal, despite the presence of the orchestra. John McCusker wrote in the CD booklet that they wanted to "make them sound more like Tom Waits than anything formal." The result is a very enjoyable album that is occasionally surprising in the influences that mix -- Celtic with orchestral, contemporary folk and new acoustic with occasional hints of the melodic pop that was Ms. Reader's stock-in-trade with Fairground Attraction. The arrangements can alter the direction of the songs, but still treat them with respect.

The CD begins with Jamie Come Try Me, which as Ms. Reader points out, is Burns writing from a woman's perspective. The sound is reminiscent of Ms. Reader's recent work, with her soaring, but inviting vocals. She writes that that the melody is mostly one she came up by herself while reading the words. She says she wove in fragments of the original tune. She also says that she took liberty with the order of the lyrical lines. The orchestral arrangements are used subtly but very effectively. <<>>

One of Burns' best known songs is My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose, and Ms. Reader and company give the familiar classic a more formal reading, with the orchestral arrangements and the acoustic guitars fitting together very nicely. <<>>

Another track that melds the original Robert Burns song with a more contemporary treatment is the medley of the Burns song Willie Stewart with the contemporary reel called Molly Rankin by the Cape Breton, Canada folk group the Rankins. It's a thoroughly joyous song in both lyrics and musical performance. <<>>

In rather a different mood is Charlie Is My Darling, one of the more bawdy songs of Burns. Ms. Reader and the band give the song a performance that sound like a cross between English Music Hall and a kind of Celtic cabaret. <<>>

Ae Fond Kiss is Robert Burns at his romantic, melancholy best. The song of lovers parting is very nicely performed by the gathered players, with a pleasing mix between the plaintive string arrangements and an intimate Celtic sound. <<>>

Another of Burns' better known songs is John Anderson My Jo, which features the full orchestral arrangement. The short piece is a gem, with Ms. Reader in top form. <<>>

Yet another facet is shown on the song Brose and Butter. "Brose" is a mixture of oatmeal and hot water. The piece is given a Celtic treatment with an oddly ominous sound. <<>>

The album ends with Burns' best-known song Auld Lang Syne. But Ms. Reader sings a different melody from what New Years' celebrants usually sing. This is apparently a more traditional melody, which gives the song a bittersweet quality, in keeping the lyrics. Ms. Reader starts out a cappella, a chance to hear her wonderful voice unaccompanied, before the orchestra makes it appearance. <<>>

Eddi Reader does not really come from a Celtic or English folk musical background. Indeed, her first brush with fame was with a punk band and with the electronic pop of the Eurhythmics, and she does not really have the dusky alto vocal style that has become the standard among women in English folk like, June Tabor, Maddy Prior, Linda Thompson or the late Sandy Denny. Instead, she applies her soaring pop-inflected soprano, which seems perpetually to be wearing a smile, to some songs that are more than 200 years old. So her new recording of the songs of Robert Burns represents a considerable musical journey she has covered. But she rises to the occasion, and because of her different musical resumé, she is able to bring new perspectives, and sometimes even new melodies to the songs. Thus it is not really a traditional album either, but a joyous hybrid of Celtic, pop and orchestral that is thoroughly appealing.

Our grade for sound quality is not much better than a "B." According to the notes, the CD was recorded largely live, and the photos show Ms. Reader with a handheld mic, and thus the vocal clarity is not what it could have been. Worse still, is the over-compressed sound that undermines the acoustic instrumentation and the dynamics of the arrangements.

We might have the beginnings of a real folk music revival on our hands, with increasing numbers of artists recording traditional songs. Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns is one of the most interesting and downright enjoyable of the lot.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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