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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1766

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Judith Owen: Ebb and Flow
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/9/2014)

What I call the chanteuse style of vocalists have been enjoying a steady, though perhaps somewhat low-profile presence on the music scene these days. The success of Norah Jones served as a catalyst for the increased visibility fair a number of women singers who draw on jazzy, romantic or cabaret influence, but who usually create their own music and style.

This week, we have the latest release by one of the bright lights on the scene, Judith Owen, whose new eighth CD is called Ebb and Flow.

Judith Owen has a background that sets her apart from many. For one thing, she is Welsh, growing up in a musical family, with a father who was a prominent opera singer who frequently took little Judith to his performances waiting for him literally in the wings of the stage. Her mother's suicide while Ms. Owen was in her teens helped to set her on a path as a singer-songwriter, using songs to deal with her loss.

She moved in the early 1990s to Southern California and married comedian and actor Harry Shearer of "Spinal Tap" fame. While they maintain their separate careers, Ms. Owen and Shearer have been doing a series called Judith Owen and Harry Shearer's Holiday Singalong, and Shearer has played bass on some of his wife's recordings. While Ms. Owen tends to regard herself as a singer-songwriter, her recordings have also been known for their highly imaginative covers of rock tunes such as Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water. Ms. Owen has also worked with fellow UK native Richard Thompson doing backing vocals and playing a prominent part in Thompson's "1000 Years of Popular Music" performances.

Ms. Owen' new CD Ebb and Flow puts her more in the classic California singer-songwriter mode. In fact her backing band consists of drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel who among them were on iconic recordings such as Carole King's Tapestry, Jackson Browne's Running on Empty, James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, and Joni Mitchell's Blue.

While there are two interesting covers on this CD, after she had skipped doing the covers on her last album, the bulk of Ebb and Flow is new original music and much of it lyrically draws on her own biography. There are quite a few what could be called sad songs, but most of them try to bring an element of hope to the subject at hand. Stylistically, it's perhaps a bit less jazzy than some of her previous work, but with the backing musicians of such illustrious backgrounds, taking advantage of what they have to offer was a natural. Ms. Owen plays piano, as usual, and it is often at the center of the arrangements, with one track consisting of just piano and vocal.

The CD opens with a remake of one of the songs on her 2005 album Lost and Found. Train Out of Hollywood, is one of those songs about someone having a hard time and needing a little consolation. Stylistically, it's an interesting combination of California light rock with the very British-sounding Ms. Owen. <<>>

I Would Give Anything is one of the most poignant songs on the album. It was written in honor of her father who died not long ago, and who was her biggest musical inspiration. <<>>

The first of the two fun covers on the album is In the Summertime which was a novelty hit for the band Mungo Jerry in 1970. Ms. Owen says that her goal was to imagine that song as if performed by Joni Mitchell. It helps that her backing band members played on Ms. Mitchell's seminal early 1970s albums. <<>>

The other cover is James Taylor's Hey Mister That's Me Up on the Jukebox. Ms. Owen gives the song a somewhat more somber treatment, which highlights its sad lyrics. <<>>

From Ms. Owen's personal history comes the song I've Never Been to Texas, which was inspired by a falling in love with a guy from Texas at a young age before she had ever left the UK. <<>>

A song that might could be considered prime material for the chanteuse styled vocalist is called About Love done as a kind of jazz waltz. It's a highlight of the album, which fits Ms. Owen's style perfectly. <<>>

A rather different viewpoint comes out on a song called Under Your Door with an inspiring bit of consolation for a friend who is having a hard time. <<>>

Another song of personal loss is You're Not Here Anymore, which was inspired by Ms. Owen being reminded about her mother taking her own life when Ms. Owen was a teenager. <<>>

The CD ends with another song on which Ms. Owen's chanteuse persona comes to the fore. Some Arrows Go In Deep is performed in a kind of romantic, Latin or tango style, making it another highlight of this album. <<>>

Judith Owen's new eighth CD Ebb and Flow is an all-around fine record that puts the Welsh chanteuse in the tasteful company of some of the iconic musicians who played on 1970s classic West Coast singer-songwriter records by people like Jackson Browne, Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. She rises to the occasion with a nice collection of thoughtful original songs sung in her own distinctive style. And there are two more of the clever cover versions that Ms. Owen has been known for.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A." The sound is clean and intimate, and the dynamic range, the titular ebb and flow of the music's volume, is decent, much better than typical pop albums these days.

There are quite a few 21st Century chanteuses on the music scene to choose from. Judith Owen brings her own distinctive Welsh/California amalgam to make a record that will have real staying power.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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