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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1488

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Judith Owen: Happy This Way -- by George Graham

(Courgette 30017 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/13/2007)

I tend to use the word chanteuse to describe them: female vocalists who specialize in a more laid-back, elegant or romantic style than typical pop or rock. The style has been flourishing on the recording scene these days, in terms of number of album releases, if not in sales. And this week, we have another fine album in the genre. It's Judith Owen's latest release, at least her seventh, called Happy This Way.

Judith Owen was born in Wales to a musical family. Her father was a well-known opera singer, and she recalls from her childhood spending time backstage with him. Her mother died while she was in her teens, and with music around the house all the time, Ms. Owen used music to help her to cope with the loss, and plunged into songwriting. Her performances began to attract attention, and in the audience one time, was actor and satirist Harry Shearer, known for his work on Public Radio's "Le Show" as well as being a creator of the movie Spinal Tap, and being involved with commercial television's The Simpsons. They married and she moved to Southern California, and began performing and touring more extensively. In 1999, her first US-made release Emotions on a Postcard found an audience in Hollywood, with one of its songs being used in the Jack Nicholson film "As Good As It Gets." In 2002, her following release Limited Edition, also saw several tracks used in TV and film productions, and Ms. Owen herself became a character in an episode of "The Simpsons." In the meantime, Ms. Owen was collaborating with veteran British musician and songwriter Richard Thompson on his "1000 Years of Popular Music" tour.

In 2005, she released Lost and Found which we featured on this album review series, and included some very creative cover versions, the most notable was which was a very sultry version of Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water, in addition to a couple of Tin Pan Alley standards, in addition to the originals. Another very creative reworking came on her last release Here, which included a similarly sensuous version of the pop hit Eye of the Tiger.

Now currently living much of the time in New Orleans, Ms. Owen is out with Happy This Way, and those looking for another of her remarkable covers will not find one. This CD is all original songs, and most were inspired by her growing up in Great Britain, some through their lyrics, and others musically, including a tune that sound like it came out of British Invasion pop.

The recording is quite understated musically, with Ms. Owen's piano being the center of the arrangements, which range from just piano and bass to a full orchestra. She is joined by a few notable guests, as she has been on some of her previous releases, including Richard Thompson, her friend and frequent musical collaborator, Julia Fordham, and British jazz singer Ian Shaw. The co-producer and mix engineer was John Fishbach who did similar duties on Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life thirty years ago. But once again, the musical center is Ms. Owen's sensuous voice, somewhere between a jazz singer and a folky singer-songwriter. Like some of the famous English women folk artists like the Maddy Prior , June Tabor or the late Sandy Denny, Ms. Owen's delivery has cool quality, and her music achieves its memorablity from the subtlety of the performance.

The British-Isles aspect of the CD is highlighted on its opening track, Conway Bay, which is an interesting cross between some Celtic influence and a jazzy torch song. It is one of several pieces on which she is joined by a string orchestra. <<>>

Painting By Numbers has musical echoes of British Invasion pop, with a ultimately positive lyrics, after some ruminations. <<>> Making an instrumental guest appearance is Richard Thompson, the master of tortured-sounding guitar. <<>>

Ms. Owen pays tribute to the now legendary English singer-songwriter Nick Drake on a pretty waltz called Nicholas Drake. Richard Thompson again appears this time on backing vocals. <<>>

Though Ms. Owen is often thought of as a jazz singer, there is not a lot of material on this CD that could be considered mainstream jazz. One that comes fairly close is Cool Life, which features a guest appearance by British jazz singer Ian Shaw. The lyrics seem at least partly tongue-in-cheek. <<>>

On the other hand, the track called Carry hints at more of a mainstream pop song, though here done in a scaled back setting. Julia Fordham makes a guest appearance on the backing vocals. <<>>

Ms. Owen pays tribute to her opera singer father on the appropriately named song My Father's Voice. The autobiographical piece is done simply but with a lot of dignity. <<>>

Ms. Owen creates an ode to Nick Drake by name on one song, and musically on some others. Love Has 2 Faces is very much in the musical style of Drake, though Ms. Owen's lyrics are a bit more direct than Drake's. It's a highlight of the album. <<>>

Happy This Way ends with something out of character with the rest of the CD a remix version of the song Enough from her 2005 release Lost and Found. The remix was done by someone named Quantic and has an appearance by Cassandra Wilson. It's an interesting digression, though I don't know how much it contributes to the whole album. <<>>

Judith Owen's new CD Happy This Way is another excellent recording by this Welsh-born chanteuse. This time, the CD consists of all original pieces, which tend to be quite succinct, with only one of the twelve tracks exceeding four minutes. As usual, her wonderfully timeless voice forms the center of the recording, emphasized even more by the very understated musical accompaniment. Even when a whole orchestra appears, the treatment is quite subtle. The direction of the album was specifically designed to recall her British background, and includes some autobiographical songs. At that, it succeeds well, though a lot of the material could have come from either side of the Atlantic. And geographically, the recording of the CD is very much spread out, with parts recorded in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle and London.

Sonically, the CD earns a grade "A" from us, for nicely capturing Ms. Owen's vocals and piano, and maintaining in the recording the subtle, intimate quality of the music. Volume compression is also held in check with the loud and soft passages allowed to remain that way.

Although some of the fans of Ms. Owen's previous releases might be a bit disappointed that there are none of the amazing cover versions she has done before, but that is more than compensated for by the dozen well-written and memorably-performed original compositions.

There is now a rather wide choice of recordings available in this kind of musical style, from k.d lang to Susan Werner to Cassandra Wilson to, of course, Norah Jones. Happy This Way is a reminder that Judith Owen is one of the best of the current generation.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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